It seems skilled musicians can can sight-read even advanced pieces.

What's left for musicians if they can sight-read advanced pieces? It seems to me there must be something left to do - otherwise they'd have reached perfection, and there'd be nothing to distinguish between musicians (e.g. who is a better hire for our orchestra) since they're all perfect anyway.

I'm looking for some way musicians can continue to improve if they can already sight-read, or some way to say musician A is better than musician B even if both A and B can sight-read.

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    Virtually everything that separates an adequate musician from a good/great one is not written in the score. Commented May 27, 2020 at 6:31
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    I tell my band: (points at music stand) "the notes come from there" (points at heart) "and the music comes from there". Commented May 27, 2020 at 8:13
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    This is like asking what do you have to learn about public speaking if you can read fluently.
    – Barmar
    Commented May 27, 2020 at 14:21
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    @NeilMeyer can you write what the difference is in words? I watched a few minutes of both videos and pretty much can't tell what it is.
    – Allure
    Commented May 27, 2020 at 15:00
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    Could you leave aside music and consider words for a moment? Everyone can read but does that make everyone an actor? All actors can read but how does that make anyone a good actor? Famously many, if not most, actors can't do comedy… for the school-room reason that most people trying to work together can't get the timing right. Laugh sideways at military recruits learning to march! How does any of that not apply to music? Commented May 27, 2020 at 21:31

11 Answers 11


Being able to read but not understand what you are reading is not necessarily "skilled". It is A skill and an important one. Consider the analogy of a literate person who can stand at a podium and recite a lecture of nuclear physics. I know what I'm about to write will get some negative feedback, it's an attempt at an analogy and not a perfect one but... A person does not have to understand what they are reading to be able to read it out loud and convince others that they do understand it.

Now, reading in music is a bit different than reading English or Spanish, etc. One can write about many subjects in a given language but standard music notation (SMN) is merely a set of instructions for creating a set of frequencies in time. It can be thought of more like a programing language, like C++ or FORTRAN. And we are the "interpreters" or "compilers". While it is true especially in classical music circles that being a good sight reader is a necessary job skill that doesn't mean that even historically such skills existed or were in common demand when we created and made music as part of our every day lives. Someone has to make the instructions for others to read and that person doesn't create music merely by reading music, that would lead to an infinite regress. The composer, any of us for that matter, can create music then write the instructions for what they want others to do in SMN. So there must be more to music than literacy.

I think it's probably safe to say that you can write most basic ideas in SMN but that doesn't mean you can convey an explanation of them in SMN. Also, keep in mind that sight reading as you are asking about is part of the "Western Musical Tradition" and other cultures may not have sight reading at all, or may use different methods to display instructions to musicians. So to even suggest that sight reading is the last word on musical training is intrinsically ethnocentric.

Here is a short list of things worth learning about music that, IMO cannot necessarily be picked up by sight reading pieces.

  1. "Groove", or feel. There are many Latin musical styles that have rhythmic figures in their foundation that CANNOT be written in discrete SMN using the divisions of time available in that instruction set. I am sure these exist in other cultures too, Asian, African, perhaps even early European folk music. Such rhythmic ideas must be learnt by example and memorized through performance. And example is the Clave style of rhythm. If you search you WILL find Western sheet music for this but as I was taught by a Jazz percussionist from South America these are only an approximation to the real groove, that must be learnt by feel. This is not the only example and serves to illustrate that you CANNOT learn everything vie reading.

  2. Music theory. Western music theory attempts to provide a succinct, minimal set of rules that describe what patterns are most liked by the Western ear. Of course, if you read a piece and play it as written you will play, for example, an authentic cadence, and a plagal cadence, etc. You will be exposed to all the elements of music. But to the reader these are all just instructions to play these "things". Understanding music theory provides a means to see the big picture that serves as a template for the details of a piece. I was raised in the classical music tradition on violin and it was all read, read, read, and technique. Mozart, Paganini, Wieniawski, etc. As were many of my friends. But I was very luck to grow up with exposure to working Jazz musicians and got indoctrinated into the world of Improv, playing by ear, and what I would call "informal music theory" at an early age. I can say from personal experience that that is a better way to learn music. I've had friends who went all they way with a classical music career starting with private lessons from age 4 or 5 and only after 20 years realized that their favorite symphony from the classical era had 2 chords in it, I --> V repeat. Theory doesn't cover every pattern in music but it is worth the effort to learn.

  3. Improv. For me this is the pinnacle of a musician's education. When you can improv you really understand music and have developed good skills on your instrument as well as a good ear. Ironically you do not need to know how to read to be a good musician and reading alone does not necessarily translate to an understanding of the patterns in that music or a good ear (though you would hope that the constant exposure would rub off).

  4. Other musical traditions. Like I said SMN is a Western Invention. If you think you've reached the pinnacle of Western music with that skill trying Indian Ragas, Carnatic music, Middle-Eastern music (real mid-east, not a Westernized version), African. Venture out of the classical sphere. Even if there are pieces "written" in SMN that claim to be "Indian" or "African", I can assure you they are not. They are perhaps the work of a Westerner influenced by another culture. What I'm saying is immerse yourself in that other culture and learn their methods.

  5. Compose. If you have read your way through a large selection of pieces on your instrument then start composing. Write your own pieces, and exercises. My first guitar teacher encouraged this as soon as he taught me my first diatonic sequence. "Make up your own". That will both challenge your skills and help develop your own musical language.

  6. Learn a new instrument. If you really feel like you've reached the highest level on one instrument, and have great sight reading skill, pick up another. Something in a completely different family.

I think music literacy is very important and require my students to learn SMN and get good at it. But that is just one skill and to be honest probably not the most important skill. It is critical for working in an orchestra and probably for that reason it is emphasized more in classical training.

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    Your "A person does not have to understand what they are reading to be able to read it out loud and convince others that they do understand it" remark reminds me of an anecdote from my brother: he'd memorize the syllables and tones of the Chinese speech he'd have to say, then say his speech at Chinese school recital without really knowing what his speech meant.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented May 27, 2020 at 15:46
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    Regarding “other musical traditions” – I'd remark that at least Persian musicians do nowadays use something that looks at first sight like SMN. At second sight it has some oddities like time signatures changing every three bars and half-♭ signs in the key signature, and the third thing you notice is that when you play those parts analogous to how you'd interpret a Western score (even with quarter-tone microtonality), it sounds absolutely nothing like an Iranian playing the piece. Commented May 27, 2020 at 20:32
  • Not sure what came first but it sounds a little like Persian music was fit into a Western template.
    – user50691
    Commented May 27, 2020 at 20:51

Being able to sight-read even very difficult pieces is certainly a great skill to have. But there's a lot more to any piece of music than just the dots. There's interpretation - which may consist of the player's way of bringing it to life, rather than merely playing the right notes at the right time - dynamics, mainly - or being guided by a conductor, who may have different interpretations.

There's playing with others. For some, particularly solo performers, it's not easy to be a team player, literally! Listening skills are paramount, and if a player is used to playing by themselves, playing with others is as important as getting the notes right.

O.k. so you can read anything. Can you carry on if the sheet music falls off the stand? Can you decide to play the last 24 bars in a different way? Can you look at the music and play it in a different key? Can you take a simple one line tune and harmonise it in several different ways? Can you Listen to a piece and play it back, even simply?

There are plenty of other skills that need honing even by a muso who is excellent at sight-reading. That's a great skill to possess, and in certain circumstances it's exactly what's needed, but in others, it won't help at all.

Imagine a jam session, everyone knows the basic tune, and the key they'll play in. 1,2,-1,2,3,4... "But I can't play - there's no music telling me what to do!" Good sight-readers, generally, struggle in situations such as these. Time to learn a new musical skill?

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    @JohnBelzaguy - absolutely! Being a brilliant sight-reader is useful only in some situations! It's a bit like, we can all read words, but we can't all bring those words to life.
    – Tim
    Commented May 27, 2020 at 6:38
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    ...plus understand and absorb what we are are reading. Commented May 27, 2020 at 6:39
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    As a Rock Band Expert level drummer with the cymbal expansion and around 500 hours of practice time, I can attest that learning to read even really hard drum stuff (like The Who - Won't Get Fooled Again) didn't prepare me for playing with other people and knowing when to do fills. I understand music structure very well, but having the notes taken away from me made a huge difference.
    – Almo
    Commented May 27, 2020 at 17:51
  • Tone, intonation, technique, improvisation, like you said - there's so much to learn! Commented May 28, 2020 at 2:24
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    @Vilx- - 'Tis thus with a myriad of aspects of life - in fact, life itself! But why would that equate to imperfect? We would all have to be clones 'twere that the case. For example: when you are asked a question, is there ever only one way you would answer it, with exactly the same words, in exactly the same tone and tempo, or might you have and use the propensity to vary that answer, even subtly? That's what we do with those dots!
    – Tim
    Commented May 28, 2020 at 16:16

From my perspective: I am an experienced amateur orchestral player, can generally sight-read and play my part (I play the Bassoon).

Now and then, I get to play sitting next to professional players: every note becomes Music (I would play notes). This is partly due to knowledge of the type of music as same notes will be played differently depending on genre, say Barock as compared to Romantic.

I train at home playing orchestral solos and solo pieces. To be frank, even if the notes come out correctly it is far, far from what I hear the real pros playing. Interpretation comes far after sight-reading.

A bit of thinking: compary "type-writing" performances on the piano to great masters playing the same notes. Mastering the technicals of an instrument does not make music.

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    Right. Though for what it's worth, both in classical music and rock I've heard many a heartfelt and gripping (if perhaps rough-around-the-edges) solo from amateur players, and many sterile and “perfect”, utterly boring performances from professionals. Or horribly overbearing vibrato in classical singers, or emotionless tapping down a drum pattern, or whatever. —Which is not to say professionals are necessarily worse at “every note becomes Music”, some are great at this, but not as a general rule. Where they are consistently better is with the technical aspects, such as accurate sight-reading. Commented May 27, 2020 at 20:23
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    Absolutely. We are a semi-pro big band, and when one of us is missing we get a paid substitute. Now we are pretty good, but these guys are musicians. It is humbling to sit next to one and watch him play our tricky pieces straight from the sheet, then stand up up and improvise like a pro (which he is). They are not all equally good... but some make me want to go home and hang up my horn, because I could practice another 20 years and never be that good.
    – RedSonja
    Commented May 28, 2020 at 4:54
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    @RedSonja - likewise - whenever we had deps in, there was no real difference in the bigband as to when the regulars were there. But the deps just sit in and read - and listen! Kudos to them!
    – Tim
    Commented May 28, 2020 at 14:33
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    There was a gig where I couldn't make it, and we couldn't drop the gig, so we got a professional friend to come and sit in for me. I gave him one run through of the set list, and he had every song note for note, barring the solos. I felt so humbled, but he made me feel a bit better by pointing out to me that he just played what we had created, and that made him feel humble. (He may have just been making me feel better... :-)
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Commented May 29, 2020 at 10:08

The sight-reading endzone differs based on each instrument needs. But, let’s take a general view on sight-reading at the piano as base. Piano reading skills are usually part of graduate entrance exams for courses in composition, conducting, some instruments, musicology, theory... so, that’s a common need in higher music education across the world.

The final goal for sight reading at the piano, for me, is partiturspiel (score playing an orchestra score at piano on sight-reading) a 20th century orchestra piece, like Stravinsky or Lutoslawski. Someday, I hope can reach this.

But besides sight-reading, as your original question, how measure a musician ability?

Interpretation of the same pieces, scales on different articulations, group playing (or blending within a group) tests, as orchestras usually do to select new players. There’s always something to improve on an interpretation, always a way to make justice to a section or a whole work. Perfection at playing is not achieved, unless for brief moments in a lifetime - but we try to reach this anyway.

If, hypothetically, you’re in doubt about 2 perfect musicians for a gig or permanent place, take into consideration non musical soft skills, as communication, social or emotional intelligence skills.

Hope this helps.

  • It indeed differs on each instrument, and I think it's safe to say that organ and piano are by far the most difficult when it comes to sight-reading. Most other instruments wouldn't even dream of sight-reading an orchestral score. Commented May 27, 2020 at 10:16
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    @leftaroundabout - I expect a lot of orchestral players are more than capable of sight-reading their part of an orchestral score. Big bands I play in can usually run straight through new pieces, and make a good job of them. Often unseen, till on a gig.
    – Tim
    Commented May 27, 2020 at 11:12
  • @Tim of course professional orchestra players can sight-read a single part, certainly one written for their own instrument. They should also be able to navigate in a full score and maybe pick out the main melody from it. But stitching together a convincing accompaniment at the same time? No way. Commented May 27, 2020 at 11:19
  • Pavarotti could not read notes at all, but learnt all his music by ear. Did that detract from the enjoyment you got from seeing him live, no you were still mesmerized.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented May 27, 2020 at 14:58
  • @leftaroundabout but they should. It's an urge for good soloists and chamber players. They need this reading to, at least, know what kind of textures and harmonies they're dealing when playing. 1st violin in quartet, for example, will not always play the foreground layer - playing such way will destroy the balance and ruin the concert. When teaching/conducting child orchestra, I usually needed to play cello and winds lines at violin (my first instrument) to show kids how the line's supposed to sound. Some fine orchestra players have greater reading skills in common clefs. Commented May 27, 2020 at 19:02

You don't sight-read whole pieces. Sight-reading helps with playing pieces on-the-fly. You are not going to perform pieces you sight-read. This is just a soft-skill that helps when music is brought to you and you are expected to discuss it.

Sight-Reading at a practical level is generally two grades lower as the one you are on. usually you are given a passage to sight-read, not whole pieces.

Orchestral musicians have the score in front of them, but this hardly means they sight-read. They have to practice there parts just as much as the soloist, they just have the fallback of the score.

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    Oh yes you do. Several bands I've worked with did just that. When the band is expected to perform the latest hits, or play the Austrian national anthem for a special gig, and there's no time to rehearse, that's exactly what has to happen. Or at a wedding, and there's a special request that we just happen to have the charts for, but haven't played it for 5 years - that's what pros do! And what about deps?They won't have seen the dots before,and certainly not had the opportunity to practise, especially when there's a pad of 600 numbers, and even the bandleader doesn't know what we'll be playing.
    – Tim
    Commented May 27, 2020 at 15:13
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    Yes, many folks sight read whole pieces, and get paid to do it
    – user50691
    Commented May 27, 2020 at 19:04
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    Ouch! Been there, done that. At least you get paid for those gigs. But you know, polkas, pop themes, etc are much of a muchness, and you can play by ear if you get lost (because they didn't tell you about the repeats they deleted...). And the guy next to you will point helpfully to where you are.
    – RedSonja
    Commented May 28, 2020 at 5:04

I think that the simple answer is: lots.

However, if you want a specific target then you could consider transposition. Can you sight read a piece and play in another key e.g. a second higher or a fifth lower? There are a variety of reasons that you might want to do this. Players of transposing instruments, e.g. Bb clarinet, often learn this early on so that they can play music that was not written for their instrument. Another example would be accompanying a singer who cannot manage the written key and needs it a bit higher or lower. Many, many years ago when I was in school, the school band that I was in played in a venue where the piano was tuned a semitone too low. Although the teacher was good, he did not feel comfortable transposing everything up a semitone with no warning. So, we had to play without our usual support.

How about other clefs? Can you sight read a viola part written in the alto clef?

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    I play in a Brass Quintet. We played a concert with a church organist, who during the rehearsal took our score (five separate staves, two Bb trumpets, horn in F and trombone and tuba in concert pitch) and sight-read it, playing flawlessly. To do that required him to transpose the Bb part to concert pitch and the F horn part to concert pitch. And he did it as if it was the most natural thing in the world... Commented May 28, 2020 at 11:54

Sight-reading is a nice skill to have for the logistics of orchestra work. But it doesn't matter in your actual interpretation.

You could reasonably imagine an hypothetical world where the musician producing the best interpretations to ever be played does not have the ability to sight-read at all, because their brain is just not wired that way. That musician would just have to memorize entire pieces before playing them properly.

How to play music, however subjective and however dependent on natural talent and inclinations, is a skill which is learned and cultivated. It is arguably much harder to master this, as even though many professional musicians can sight-read, only a few are recognized as masters of interpretation.

It's not very formal though, and maybe that's what your question was about. More formal things to really learn in an academic way include music theory, composing, leading, other instruments and other musical traditions.


You can answer your own question if you consider the following analogous situation. A film actor prepares by learning the script, and then performs in front of the camera. Anyone can do that as long as they a) can read, and b) can remember the lines until the delivery moment.

So... what is left after you learn to read?

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    'Prepares by learnng the script' - at that point where's the sight-reading?
    – Tim
    Commented May 27, 2020 at 19:34
  • @Tim cue cards and teleprompters.
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 30, 2020 at 1:42
  • Playing by heart
  • Transposing
  • Composing
  • Conducting
  • Teaching and helping others
  • Sponsoring ;)

e.g. Yehudi Menhuin



I think this deserves an anecdote. The greatest classical bassist I've ever met is the woman who plays bass in my fathers bluegrass band. But she wasn't always a particularly great bluegrass bassist.

She came into the band via her husband who's a noted (Well at least in the local scene) bluegrass mandolin player, when they met and fell in love she had never even heard bluegrass before (Despite being a Kentucky gal) , and although she apparently enjoyed watching the musicianship of her husband was not initially particularly enthused by the bass generally typical to the style (often simply a i-iv-i-iv kind of thing).

Now, this woman is an astonishing classical bassist, for many years the lead soloist bassist in the state orchestra here, this woman reads flawlessly, had a masters degree in music (but for some reason had never done any significant jazz improvisation, I guess the music degrees where done differently back then). Watching her play was mesmerising. Let me be clear, she was exactly the sort of musician you refer to here.

But when asked to join her husbands bluegrass band on bass was absolutely terrible at it, despite it being an incredibly simple genre to play, for a bassist. Myself, 10yo (this was 30 years ago!) son of banjo player, hater of anything not heavy metal(dont worry, the last 30 years have seen my tastes evolve a little lol), had a significantly better feel because at least I had grown up in the groove of the thing. She really struggled with it. Not because she couldn't memorise the songs, her brain was built for THAT task, nor because she'd get the notes wrong, but because she hadn't learn the groove of the thing yet. She didn't know yet how to relax and stop viewing musical as a giant mathematical galaxy-brain fractal, and just let the fingers do the talking.

In other words, she had a lot to learn.

Now, the epilogue to the analogy is 30 years later, still bassist of that band, she's the best bluegrass bassist I've ever seen. And still goddamn ascended master at the classical stuff . Probably can't jazz improvise worth squat, but I doubt she's attempted it in the last 30 years either.

My point is, an expertise in technical skills, and masterful sight reading isn't anything approaching the end of a musicians journey, its barely even the start. It might even take a genre as famously unrefined and simplistic as bluegrass to stump a master sight reader, because thats country where most of its legends barely had the education to write their own name, let alone a band score.

You'll never reach "the end" of music. Theres always new things to learn.


It seems skilled poetry readers can sightread even advanced poems. What's left for a recital if they can sightread advanced poems?

Why do people go into recitals who are fully capable of reading?

Coming back to your question: "It seems to me there must be something left to do." Of course there is. Music.

You would not go into a recital by someone who is reading a poem off phonetically without understanding its meaning, even though they may reproduce the words on page perfectly.

Just because sightreading is hard does not mean that it is all there is to the music.

  • Are we thinking about the same "sightread"? My understanding is if you can sightread, you can do more than read the piece, you can perform it on first sight.
    – Allure
    Commented May 27, 2020 at 14:39
  • @Allure - certainly most good sight-readers can perform it on first sight. And it will sound good. I find the one thing missing is usually the dynamics. They are quite easy to miss while everything else is going on, and it's almost impossible to feel any prospective dynamics first time through. So they have my sympathy.
    – Tim
    Commented May 27, 2020 at 15:05

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