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When you are sight-reading, how far ahead in the music do you look?

Do you somehow look at the treble clef and bass clef at the same time? Or, do you even have to think about it at all? Perhaps, it's like driving. After you've done it for long enough you don't have to think about it anymore.

I also assume you can never look at your hands while sight reading. This is true?

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    In reverse order - Never look at your hands. That's not how to learn the piano. Next, look as far forward as you can "short-term-memorize" and prepare yourself. Jan 17 at 18:13
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    Note that sightreading in an ensemble will require you to take some occasional glances at the level of half-page or whole page so you're not caught totally by surprise by some big transition like changing tempo, key, etc. / But I think the short answer is that when you're getting close to the end of a line, it's good to glance at the beginning of the next line. Jan 21 at 0:38

3 Answers 3

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When you are sight-reading, how far ahead in the music do you look?

This is highly individual and depends on the complexity of the music. Taking myself as an example, when reading very basic music, I can read, say, four measures at a time. For most music I can only read one or two at a time, and for complex music, it could be as little as a few notes.

On the other hand, I've encountered highly talented sight-readers who even with complex music can read as much as two complete lines at a time.

However, with experience, the amount one looks ahead can increase.

Do you somehow look at the treble clef and bass clef at the same time?

Yes. This is essential. When learning a piece for oneself, reading hands separately is fine, but for really playing music at sight, reading both staves is necessary.

The typical advise, which I follow, is to read from bottom to top.

After you've done it for long enough you don't have to think about it anymore.

This is true, at least up to a point. The more one reads, the more one begins to recognize certain patterns and musical structures. Scales, for example, are pretty easy to recognize (first, that the notes make a scale; later, what the actual scale is). Root position triads in close position are also fairly easily recognized. Other things, like recognizing a broken chord or some other pattern of notes, comes as you go.

Sometimes, though, thought can be required. Large leaps, unfamiliar structures, multiple voices ... these can give one pause. Experienced readers learn to ignore what they can't immediately interpret so that they can keep going through the music. The ignored parts can be addressed later on.

I also assume you can never look at your hands while sight reading.

Certainly the less often the better, but when learning to read it can also be helpful — it allows a visual connection between the notes on the page and the keys on the keyboard. Also, of course, for something like a large leap, a look might be needed.

Sight readers do sometimes look at their hands, but it's typically a very quick glance, just to quickly locate the note(s) which they can then move to by muscle memory. The keyboard might also be within one's peripheral vision.

For more ...

There are lots of sight-reading-related questions here, so searching for the and tags will provide a wealth of tips. My own strategy/philosophy for improving sight reading, which is how I've found the most improvement in my own skill is at

Acquiring advanced level sight reading

Although the question related to advanced reading, the tips apply regardless of level.

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There's no straightforward answer here, it'll depend on certain factors.

When we run, we look further ahead than when we walk, and faster usually means further still.

So, primarily, it depends how fast we need to play. Sometimes at fast tempos, we'll look ahead at least to the end of the line or phrase - rather like if we read a story out loud, we need to look ahead in order to speak all the words making sense. That also gives time to work out chords and fingering.

In exams, there's usually a minute or so given before sight-reading starts. That time will be (should be!) taken looking for awkward rhythms, accidentals, unusual intervals, etc. Even playing through bits, but that then isn't the sort of quality sight-reading being discussed here. With enough time, I'll play through a scale in the key of the piece - to 'get the right hat on', so to speak. Good sight-readers will do that mentally just looking at the key signature.

At least a couple of bars may be an answer, again, depending on tempo and complexity - and capability. The further ahead we can look, the better, as that also gives us an idea of the 'geography' of the piece - where it's actually going - maybe mentally mapping the harmonic changes, so it's more than barking at print, although that skill separates the o.k. sight-readers from the really good ones.

And yes, look at both clefs simultaneously, not at hands. Looking at hands often means losing one's place in the music - somewhat counter-productive!

So the real answer is as far as possible - providing one can retain at least a couple of bars in one's memory to play now, while committing to memory the next few bars. Almost like using two different brain functions simultaneously.

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I also think, the answer depends. But since I may be an unusual sight-reader I will describe my sight reading.

My personal skill level

I would say, I am kind of good in sight reading. I sight read classical pieces (e.g. Beethoven Sonatas) nearly in tempo, romantic pieces (e.g. Chopin Balades) in half tempo when sight reading. Clearly, I omit a lot of notes and also get some wrong. My largest weakness is keeping the beat - but this has nothing to do with sight reading actually.

When you are sight-reading, how far ahead in the music do you look?

Atypical, I usually only look ahead some notes, barely more than two bars. Instead I am quite good in "guessing" the music: E.g. Intervals, bass progressions, accidentals - I often even do not read the key signature because I am lazy. If I am too slow in turning pages, then I also improvise for some bars.

Probably due this reason I cannot sight read music which I am not familiar with (e.g. Scriabin).

Do you somehow look at the treble clef and bass clef at the same time?

Always.

I also assume you can never look at your hands while sight reading.

I never look at my hands, and even force myself not to do it at jumps etc.. This is probably because I am not reading far in advance.

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    "I cannot sight read music which I am not familiar with" -- then you aren't sight-reading.
    – user39614
    Jan 17 at 19:36
  • @exnihilo I wrote "music", not "pieces".
    – tommsch
    Jan 17 at 19:38
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    What's the distinction you're making? Jan 17 at 19:43
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    @JohnKugelman I am bad in sight reading of music from traditions/composers I am not familiar with, e.g. Russian romantic music, African music, Debussy. (But, even if I would get these notes right, I doubt it would sound correct. Because - I have no idea how it should sound.)
    – tommsch
    Jan 17 at 19:48
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    @DjinTonic, "...You can sight-read a piece exactly one time during your lifetime..." that's a sight reading test. But there are plenty of times you might read from something in your music library, stuff you've played before that is not at all memorized. That's the practical application. Calling that 'practicing' the piece rather than reading it is misleading. Jan 21 at 20:57

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