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Beyond the basics of sight reading that everyone talks about, what are some of the skills you need to learn to sight read advanced and complex pieces?

What are the nuances and techniques that not a lot of people know, but only people of a higher level of understanding know?

I'm nowhere advanced but I think there's just more than reading ahead. I feel like you can find anchor points or something, or you can take something complex and simplify it in your brain and chunking it for easy reference, but I do not know the details of it and how to acquire the skill.

I want to learn something not just for the talented — like people who have perfect pitch and can do things that normal people cannot, or people with insane memory like photographic memory. I just want to know something that can be practice and learned.

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  • What are these "basics" that you claim everyone talks about? It's just like reading a book, you need to read a lot and every day.
    – user50691
    May 13 at 10:35
  • For example everyone just says chunking and gives an example of an easy c major Alberti bass for 4 measures, of course that's easy. But how about more advanced pieces where the left hand jumps quickly and complex chords are being played? I was taught to find anchor points where my middle fingers would jump to and how my fingers prepare for what's to play in that position. I'm sure there are many more things that I haven't even thought about.
    – Sky Star
    May 13 at 13:35
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Sight reading is, at core, the process of associating written notation with physical gestures.1 Advanced sight reading relies on quickly recognizing patterns (scales, chords/arpeggios, repeated figures) and associating them with the manner of execution on one's instrument.

There are a variety of ways to develop this:

  1. Read lots and lots and lots of simple music. A) In every piece, we encounter different patterns as well as the same patterns over and over. By encountering and re-encountering these patterns in different contexts, they become ingrained in us such that when seen in a more complex context, they are recognizable and don't get lost in the mix of all the other parts of the music. B) By playing easy music, we can cover more ground (encounter more patterns) faster and more efficiently. C) By playing easy music, we can take in all of the musical instructions (dynamics, articulations, musical form, etc.), not just the notes.

  2. Practice scales, chords, arpeggios, and common chord progressions. This, too, will help recognize common musical elements when seen in a piece and prepare us to execute them efficiently.

  3. Practice rhythm. One important way to see patterns and groups of notes is to recognize common rhythms. This can be practiced separately, allowing for learning much more complex rhythms that one could if also trying to play the notes at the same time. There are many books of rhythm exercises as well as apps and websites.

  4. Study music theory. For me personally, this proved essential. Once I could look at a piece and see the harmony and the structure, my reading took a significant jump.


1 The exception is singing, where sight reading is more about the development of relative pitch. Whereas most instruments require movement in space and interaction with an external object, the physical aspect of singing is entirely internal to our bodies.

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    There may be some 'externality' to singing - as we do need to be able to hear what we sing, meaning the sound comes out and back in through ears, allowing the sound to be adjusted if needed. True, there is an internal sound connection through bones, but ears work more effectively.
    – Tim
    May 13 at 7:28
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    I would like to add something to point #3: do not neglect rhythm. When I started, I was very focused on reading notes fast and I learned that without focusing on respecting rhythm very much. This issue stayed with me for decades. Don't make the same mistake.
    – Thomas
    Jun 21 at 18:36
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As Aaron says, sight reading is "the process of associating written notation with physical gestures".

What that tells us is that the "physical gestures" come first, the sight reading second. So, the first step to advanced sight reading is advanced playing ability. In the classical world, international soloists generally perform without sheet music, from memory alone. Sight reading is an adjunct. Playing the instrument comes first.

At a lower level, candidates for the ABRSM sight reading tests, where the candidate is given a piece of sheet music and asked to perform it, are advised to use some of the minute or so of preparation time to "clap the rhythm" as playing each note for the right amount of time is almost as important as playing the right note. Playing the right notes is usually the easiest part.

The other two key components are 1) playing louder and softer as marked in the sheet music and 2) speeding up and slowing down as required.

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  • Remember, you can sight-read a piece only once in your lifetime; after that first time you are practicing it. One ability you'll develop is looking just ahead as you're playing. When you finish a piece, go back and analyze the measures that gave you difficulty. Make exercises out of these. If you identify a technique that is hard, look for an etude that features it.
    – DjinTonic
    Jul 28 at 1:52

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