I have found myself doing both but not sure which is the right way. Sometimes I see a note then I can see the next note is a 4th above it so I play it but I actually don't know what note I just played if that makes sense. I only know it was a 4th up from the last note. Is this wrong?

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    in a lot of cases, I recognize shapes I've seen before and I read the lowest not to see where it starts
    – Thomas
    Jun 16, 2020 at 13:59
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    If you're playing the right music, I don't see how it's wrong. There's a degree to which this question is like asking people if they read the letters when they read text.
    – Tristan
    Jun 16, 2020 at 16:32
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    Would be helpful to clarify what instrument you're asking about, and whether you're talking about melodic intervals are harmonic. For piano, I find myself thinking in terms of notes for horizontal reading (melody), but intervals for vertical (harmony/chords) Jun 16, 2020 at 18:18
  • I used to read the intervals and try to understand the harmony vertically, but as I got better I read just the actual notes. It's far quicker.
    – user207421
    Jun 17, 2020 at 4:44
  • "the right way" is the way that works best for you.
    – phoog
    Jan 16, 2022 at 18:55

8 Answers 8


We get to a point where we do NOT look at a dot, think 'that's a D', then find it on the instrument. And it could be any instrument.

We often see how many lines or spaces (or combinations thereof) separate notes, and play accordingly.

Sometimes we even second guess where we think the tune may go, and stab at that note.

There are many tricks we use, and intervals is one of them.

EDIT: just to add that having the scale notes of the key on high alert makes life that little bit easier - partially because when accidentals occur, it's clear that those notes will be among the five we've avoided - until now!

  • Indeed. Usually when reading+playing a note I don't think "D", nor do I think "this fingering and embouchure". Instead I simply adopt the physical position required to produce it. How? Practice. Reading without playing is a different matter, and I'm usually (with wildy varying degrees of success) imagining the sound in my head based on relative spacing and intuition of the tune.
    – OrangeDog
    Jun 16, 2020 at 9:41
  • @OrangeDog and Tim: I agree. It even extends "In To The Future": Not only do I see that there's a D note coming, my "look ahead buffer" also sees (and recognizes) a couple of notes to be played in the same-or-very-shortly-thereafter time. I tend to auto adjust my fingering (I play guitar) to the most likely place this can be done without a hassle, and I'd say I'm right at least 70% of the time. For fingerings that just leave one option it mostly happens just automatically: My fingers just keep me out of the loop, and do what they know they should be doing ;) Jun 16, 2020 at 15:41
  • Agreed. One has to become trained enough, similar to "muscle memory," that you don't even consciously think "this note" or "this interval." You just go. Jun 16, 2020 at 15:45
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    In other words, the way I usually work out what some music is supposed to sound like, is to play it.
    – OrangeDog
    Jun 17, 2020 at 9:31

I don't think this is wrong at all; my sight reading is a mixture of these components, as well.

The fact is that part of sight reading is based on common patterns. This is one of the many reasons why we work on scales and arpeggios and the like: when we encounter them while sight reading, we can call upon that ingrained memory to easily perform the task.

And some of these common patterns are interval based, which allows us to sight read larger portions of music without knowing every single note that's being played. Seems perfectly fine to me!


Perhaps both are good, and there are other options. How one reads is instrument dependent. On the guitar for example we eventually learn to read chords. This can pose a problem for beginners as they feel like they need to stop at the chord and climb up it, reading each note one by one and finding it. In fact this is not a good way to read chords. One is much better off identifying the intervals and then grabbing the them with the hand. Good guitar books teach one how to identify the chord shape (what the hand needs to do to get the chord in standard tuning) with the stack of dots on the sheet music. If taught correctly, and practiced, one can learn to read chords on SMN with no problem.

Sometimes I look for geometric shapes in the music and relate them to scales arpeggios and intervalic leaps. My hand knows what to do. This also makes transposition on the fly easier. There is no need to force yourself to read by note name identification.

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    Guitar is a hard instrument to sight-read on. So many notes can be played in different positions. On the piano there are more notes but at least they're always in the same place! Jun 15, 2020 at 20:38
  • There is a logic to it. With the right guidance and practice it becomes pretty easy.
    – user50691
    Jun 15, 2020 at 21:02
  • It's beyond me! But I barely play the guitar. I just use it to work out if something I'm writing is possible. (I'm currently trying to decide whether the chord D F A C# E is useable. Is it? I can't keep my finger clear of that open E string!) Jun 15, 2020 at 21:35
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    @OldBrixtonian: If played with a scordatura E2 => D2: Most definitely ;). The only other option would be very awkward, or at least it would be for me. Not something I'd comfortably switch to at speed (on a classical guitar). Jun 17, 2020 at 7:49
  • @Willem van Rumpt Thank you! Sorry - I only just saw your message. That's a solution I hadn't thought of. The session was a few days ago and we had to drop those bars in later to give the guitarist time to position his fingers. Even HE didn't think of tuning the top E down! Damn! We could have done it. It would have sounded better. That top note never did ring properly. Electric guitar, by the way. And there was no question of me re-writing it in a better key, as it was all being grafted onto some orchestral thing I'd already recorded. I really appreciate your help, Willem. Jun 28, 2020 at 11:35

There is a big gap from a beginner's sight-reading to an experienced musician's sight-reading.

Sight-reading consists of reading the notes, the intervals, rhythm patterns, scale patterns, chords patterns, broken chord patterns, key signatures, tempo indications, articulations, dynamics and any other indications that might appear in the sheet music.

The beginner reads one note at a time, a skilled sight-reader reads many notes at the same time as well as the relation between the notes, and that relation is composed of intervals and all those patterns mentioned above.

A good sight reader can read a whole bar with just one glance at the bar, well dependning on how complicated the bar is of course. Some bars need a close look at details, others are simple and easy to read.

There can be differences on how you read depending on which instrument you play. I play both the violin and piano myself and the sight reading are different on those two instruments although the points I wrote above are valid for both of them. But the way you read is related to the instrument you play in that you relate the notes to the instrument. You see a note and immediatly think of that particular place on the instrument. This means that despite that playing technique is a different subject you do relate what you read to the playing technique. You are of course concerned about how to play it.

Here are some examples:

Bach Patterns From Chopin C Sharp Waltz


This is not wrong, and it may be individually better for a singer or violinist.


Identifying the notes, realizing their position in the staff, their function in the scale, their value, position and function in the chords, recognizing motifs, Melodic patterns, sequences, keys ... everything is helpful, useful, everything makes sense, also the interval to the previous note, but this latter is the less important to me, only regarding other aspects like solfege and harmony.

  • Right; on sax or clari I know where the notes are. I see a D, my fingers make a D. But when singing, after a few bars I have no idea "where I am", tone-wise. it only works out with intervals.
    – RedSonja
    Jun 16, 2020 at 4:57
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    @RedSonja - vox and Theramin both have that same problem - there's really nothing tangiable to work with. Intervals is about all we have.
    – Tim
    Jun 16, 2020 at 11:20
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    String instruments (particularly fret-less ones like the violin or cello) have the added complication that the space between intervals is not constant along the length of the string. You can tell when looking at one with frets like a guitar that the notes are much closer together near the sounding board than at the far end of the neck, and this is equally true of fret-less, you just don't have the convenient markings, so it's just something that comes with practice. Jun 16, 2020 at 15:48

On the piano:

In chordal passages I think it's the shapes of the chords I take in. Like which inversion. If the note-heads are all on the same side of the stem it's going to be a simple chord. If one of the note-heads is on a different side from the others, its position on the stem tells me it's going to be this type of chord, or this type.

In fast passages where the hands are jumping between registers and I can't afford to take my eyes off the music, I think my fingers slightly trail along the black note groups to find the right location. Sounds ridiculous when I describe it, but I think a slowed-down film would show that.

With runs of notes I think I think(!): 'Looks like a scale. Yes, with an accidental. Where does it end up?'

Then, 'Here comes another one. Looks like the same length.'

As Tim said, it often involves guessing. 'It's likely to be this'.

In easy passages I think I glance ahead at any difficult bits coming up.


My recommendation is to read as many notes as possible and practice it this way if you are beginner specifically. You can get away reading a few intervals but if one is wrong the others automatically become wrong, so avoid it as much as possible.

In short: Read the notes, read the intervals to get by only.


With experience, and when a piece lies within your comfort zone, you read the patterns. Like 'look and say' in reading a book. When an unfamiliar pattern presents itself, you may have to stop and look at it in a more analytical way.

There's another stage, particularly when playing non-classical (for want of a better term) music like a song copy or a lead sheet, where you just read the music. Easier to do than to describe! You take in what the music DOES rather than the specific notation, and you play something appropriate.

There can be a danger of doing this too much. Sometimes I have to pull myself back with 'Hey, this looks like quite a neat piano part! Perhaps I should try playing what it SAYS...'

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