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As a 12 year old I had piano lessons for several months until the teacher retired due to ill health and I never kept going with lessons (which I've regretted ever since). On the plus side I've always remembered how to read music.

Fast forward nearly 40 years and I'd like to learn piano again. I bought a keyboard many years ago which spends most of its time gathering dust, but every couple of years I get it out with a view to learning again, spend a couple of months on it, but always hit a plateau.

I'm able to play basic pieces such as nursery rhymes and children's/beginner's pieces with simple rhythms, and I have no difficulty with the first 3 sight reading books in the "Accelerated Piano Adventures for older beginners" series, whose exercises again consist of fairly simple rhythms and note combinations.

However as soon as I tackle something a little more complex then it seems to stump me, for example the "Really Easy Piano" book series. Here, any semblance of sight reading goes out of the window and I seem to spend all my time stopping on each beat to figure out the notes. It's painfully slow and I can spend hours doing this with a single piece, with little overall progress. Sometimes I might eventually manage to play part of a piece, but that's only because I've spent so long going over it again and again that I've learnt that section off by heart and am playing from memory.

It's a very frustrating experience, so what can I do to improve my sight reading? Should I consider taking lessons, or am I at the stage where I just need to practice, practice, practice and work my way through more and more books (sight reading or otherwise)?!

As requested below, here's an example page from the aforementioned sight reading book 3: Night of the Tarantella

And here's another from one of the "Really Easy Piano" books: Thank You for the Music

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    Hi Andrew. Welcome to the site. Please accept a couple of suggestions from an interested reader: 1) if possible, post a few measure of a piece you find comfortable to read and one you find difficult; 2) recommendations for books are off-topic here, so consider recasting your question in terms of better understanding what differentiates Piece A from Piece B in sight-reading terms.
    – Aaron
    Nov 15, 2021 at 19:08
  • @aaron thanks for the quick reply. Done and done. Nov 15, 2021 at 19:58
  • I just converted the image links to inline images (which should appear once the moderators approve). When working through these, do you do each hand separately all the way through, or try to do both from the start?
    – Theodore
    Nov 15, 2021 at 20:48
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    I can't believe this isn't a duplicate of several earlier questions. E.g. some from the 'related' pile opposite.
    – Tim
    Nov 16, 2021 at 12:09
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    Does this answer your question? How can I improve my piano sight reading?
    – Tim H
    Nov 17, 2021 at 9:18

5 Answers 5

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The two pieces given as examples make significantly different demands on the reader. This post will be devoted to addressing those differences. For improving sight reading in the more broad sense, my own "philosophy" is outlined in Acquiring advanced level sight reading. Although the question may not seem directly relevant, my answer will also apply at the basic level being worked through.


"as soon as I tackle something a little more complex"

First of all, rest assured that the arrangement of "Thank You for the Music" is not "a little more complex" than that of "Night of the Tarantella" — it's a lot more complex. Some comparisons:

  • "Night" is written such that once your hands are in place, neither has to move; "Thank You" requires both hands to move around the keyboard.
  • Because "Night" keeps your hands in one place, fingering — which finger to use on which key — is not a concern; "Thank You" requires several different fingering techniques, not all of which are at a beginning level.
  • "Night" has no sharps or flats in the key signature or as accidentals (written next to the notes); "Thank You" has both.
  • In "Night", the left hand always strikes a chord on a strong beat and at the same time that the right hand also strikes a key — that is, the left hand is rhythmically tied to the right hand; in "Thank You" the hands are significantly independent of each other rhythmically.
  • "Night" incorporates several identifiable patterns of pitch and rhythm; "Thank You" does not.
  • If you're counting "in 6", every note and chord in "Night" occurs "on the beat"; "Thank You" is heavily syncopated.
  • "Thank You" requires that one hand simultaneously hold a note while moving others (see the last line, first two measures, right hand).
  • Another factor that may or may not be at play here: "Night" was written for the book it's in, so probably unfamiliar beforehand; "Thank You" is a recognizable tune, but the piano arrangement may sound different enough to create confusion or uncertainty.

How to practice toward "Thank You for the Music"

Here I refer to the post linked earlier. Below are the steps recommended in that post, applied to the specific matter at hand.

  1. Read lots and lots and lots of simple music, By continuing to read "dead simple" music (the easier the better, IMO), the various problems of "Thank You" can be encountered individually, in simpler contexts, so they can be conquered one at a time and better learned before moving on.

  2. Practice scales, chords, arpeggios, and common chord progressions. To make the leap from "Night" to "Thank You", this part you could arguably skip; it's of only indirect relevance. However, practicing and memorizing the D major and B minor scales, both of which contain F# and C#, can assist in keeping track of the key signature.

  3. Practice rhythm. This one is essential for "Thank You". There are whole books dedicated to rhythm exercises, and many method books also include them. My personal favorite is The Rhythm Book by Richard Hoffman (Belmont University Faculty Page).1 It can be ordered from the author and might also be found at sites or stores that sell used books. It's also beneficial to, say, clap the right hand and then the left hand (or vice versa) of a piece before trying to play it.

  4. Study music theory. Like scales/chords, this is less directly relevant here, but can offer some insight into why the various accidentals are there, which in turn can help ease the reading.

  5. Extra bonus suggestion. I really, really, really like the book Introduction to Classics to Moderns, compiled by Denes Agay (Amazon). The pieces are graded — meaning, they progress from easier to harder — and they move from roughly the level of "Night" to something closer to (but short of) "Thank You".


1 Not to be confused with Rory Stuart's book by the same name. I know nothing about that book.

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  • Thank you, you were spot on with your first list of bullet points, many of which I couldn't articulate when trying to describe my problem. Also some good advice for me to take on too, and look forward to trying some of those books. Nov 16, 2021 at 7:24
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I think you may find that investing in piano lessons would be the best way to relearn what you learnt as a child and to then go on to learn more complex skills. It is, however, entirely possible that you can learn by yourself, as with the internet and YouTube it is more accessible than ever to learn the piano. Despite this, having lessons would be beneficial because 1) you are getting hands on (hopefully not lessons over zoom) instruction that will allow you to learn more easily than by yourself, and 2) you will be expected to practice more regularly to prepare for each coming lesson. The latter reason is perhaps the most beneficial in your case given that you said you tend to plateau after a few months. Also remember that there is of course much more to the piano than being able to read notes and being able to play: having lessons will allow you to develop (or relearn) proper technique that can be hard to develop by yourself. Lessons will also prevent you from developing bad habits during your practice.

For your issue with sightreading: this will correct itself with extensive practice of basic musical "building blocks" such as scales, arpeggios, chords, etc. These should be learned from a music book (such a book would definitely be in the hands of a piano teacher). Once you gain familiarity with these, you will find sight reading to be much easier.

Overall, I think you should get lessons. They are a great way to keep you on track in your (re) learning of the piano and have many benefits that are absent when you try to teach yourself. From a combination of lessons (I think once per week is good, but of course this is dependent on your schedule) and dedicated practice (at least 30 minutes per day; does not have to all be in one go) you will find your piano skills to develop very quickly, and in no time you will be playing the pieces you now struggle with with ease. I wish you the best of luck going forward, and hope that you stick with it.

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The only thing I can tell you with certainty is that you should indeed take lessons. Aside from your current problem (that you may well be able to solve by asking strangers on the internet given enough time and effort), playing the piano (or any other instrument) is a complex skill that involves, chiefly, hearing, motorics, something related to language skills and various kinds of memory. Most of this can not be learned from a book. You could learn to read notes and maybe some rudimentary technique this way, but making music is a skill only transmitted orally (and visually, when it comes to technique) and no book can beat personalised advice from an expert. Taking lessons with a good and engaging teacher guarantees incomparably better results.

However, reading your question some things come to mind of various degrees of importance, helpfulness and applicability.

First of all: practicing is a complicated skill in itself too. (Again, a teacher is in a much better position to provide you with specific help with this.) The way you describe your practicing, I would guess you spend a long continuous time essentially reading the notes and when you have figured out a note, playing it and moving on to the next, until you have made it through the piece. (Of course, this is speculation.) This way, you will have forgotten the start of the piece long before you have a chance to return to it, and you have to start from zero each time – voilà, a plateau. Instead, a much better way would be to practice a much smaller unit (in the order of magnitude of half a bar) until you can play it comfortably (that includes much more than just notes - rhythm, dynamics, comfortable motorics, articulation…), then linking these units together when you have a few of them. You can practice a few units in parallel, but no more than you have time for in a single day (otherwise the forgetting will get you again). Practicing should be done in chunks of no longer than 20 minutes (I guarantee you that two blocks of 20 minutes will give better results than 1 of 40 or even 60). Practicing every day also helps prevent the forgetting. I am describing an idealised practice plan and I am aware real life, motivation and discipline do not work this way - this is just to provide you at least some information on how to practice, take from it what you want.

Of course, this poses the problem of dividing the music in such smaller units. Ideally they should be musically meaningful and reasonably self-contained. As long as you don’t have a teacher to help you with this, you could try and figure this out by ear if a recording is available, but that could take a lot of time and effort and subdividing blindly by half-bars should be fine too - just keep your ears open and just deciding whether this one note across a boundary actually belongs on the other side is a great exercise for phrasing.

Secondly, you might be helped by the fact that it is possible to play in a way in between sight-reading and fully from memory. Here we can reuse above-mentioned units. If you remember all units individually (and contained in them each note) using mostly your muscle memory, you can use the sheet music as essentially a memory aid, seeing which unit comes when (recognising them visually and by basic aspects such as whether they are ascending or descending, stepwise or in jumps, have long notes or short notes, etc). Whether this could be helpful to you or even whether this is an achievable goal for you currently is impossible to tell for me through the internet.

Lastly, the second piece you posted is not at all the same difficulty as the first. The first only contains five distinct notes in each hand. (Actually the left never has a B so only four for the left hand.) That of course eases the note reading. Additionally, these two sets of five notes also happen to be adjacent, which means the hand can remain relaxedly in the same place for the whole piece (this is called “position playing”). The right hand only has one note at a time. (While the left hand has chords, they are very comfortable and straightforward because of the position playing.) There aren’t any flats or sharps at the clef either (or any accidentals for that matter).
The second piece, however, has two sharps as a key signature and regular accidentals. The right hand occasionally has two notes simultaneously (without any position playing to take away the complications that inherently brings). In fact, there is no trace left of position playing at all, whereas the normal learning trajectory eases out of position playing by first changing only one note in one hand once in the piece, then expanding to regularly in both hands, occasionally a piece which moves to a different position halfway the piece and then back again, then slowly expanding this. The two pieces are not at all of the same difficulty level. And I haven’t even mentioned the rhythmical complications of the second piece and the issue of fingering.

I hope these thoughts will be of some help to you, but none of it can substitute for lessons with a good teacher. That is the best advice anyone could give you.

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    (From my answer that I never got around to finishing: "There are a lot of reasons for having a teacher (correcting what you don't know you're doing wrong, etc.), but not the least is the job of managing motivation and assigning curricula that help you progress gradually, so you're always just slightly challenged and never jump into something that you haven't laid the groundwork for.") Nov 16, 2021 at 18:22
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All other answers provide very good pointers how to tackle learning to (sight)read. However, this part of the question made me think there probably is a more fundamental issue:

"I seem to spend all my time stopping on each beat to figure out the notes. It's painfully slow and I can spend hours doing this with a single piece, with little overall progress."

How good are you at identifying notes? How fast can you shout out the notes when you see them. I think this is more essential than you might think! You may think you can find the notes fast, but if you're still struggling and stopping, there is probably still a lot of improvement to be made.

Try to work with flashcards or similar. Or just pick up a score and try to just shout out the notes you see. You can do the same with seeing the note and instead of shouting the note name, finding it on the keyboard. Aim for accuracy first, but also try to speed it up gradually.

There's a booklet called "Super sightreading secrets" which has an interesting appoach with this. It has two pages with a lot of random notes intended to be used like this. Maybe it is possible to find it online.

On the issue of taking lessons: altough lessons are wonderful and will help you in many ways, you should make sure that if you take lessons they will train you in reading, many teachers don't focus on this, and will try to focus on technique and interpretation, by studying a relative small number of pieces.

Taking a class in sight singing (solfège) on the other hand would be great!

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Sight reading is a combination of a couple of skills. The first is having the technical facility to play what is in front of you. If you can't play a series of notes in front of you, you will stumble over the execution of them. The second is knowing music theory.

Just as you can look at a sentence and just read the words without sounding them out, you must be able to look at music and your brain will just know what the chords and scales are. You won't actually see every note. Have you seen this paragraph?

"It deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe."

You can read that because you know the alphabet, the rules of spelling and how to sound out letters. Your brain does all the decoding. Music is much the same. Nothing exists in isolation. Technique and theory will improve your reading.

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