I am 25 years old, and I started learning piano about 6 months ago. I really want to play the piano well, but it takes me so long to be able to play any piece of music. In the meantime, I'm using a pencil to write the note letter next to the note I want to play. What things can I do to improve my sight-reading?

  • 3
    Did you play another instrument before ? You seem to feel the letters as more real or more musical or more linked to the piano keys than the score.
    – ogerard
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 6:41
  • I played the guitar for a year with chords mainly, and sometimes with TABs
    – iddober
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 7:05
  • Now that you have started learning piano and using 5-lines staves and notes as a new language for music, have you tried to use your new knowledge for guitar as well, starting with very simple tunes that you already know ? (and as all answerers have already said: it may sound difficult at first, even impossible, to do it at sight for you without adding note letters, but you should not "prep" your scores with letters, just accept to be very slow, uneven and stumbling at first if you want to succeed).
    – ogerard
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 7:42

16 Answers 16


The first thing you need to do is: Stop writing the letter names!!!

This applies to piano or any other instrument. If you keep doing this when you practice, you won't be practicing your sight reading, only your technique. In other words, this is training you to play an A when you read the letter "A", instead of the musical notation for it.

If you can identify the notes, and it just takes you longer than you would like or than what is practical, try exercises in which you read notes out loud as fast as you can (not singing, so it doesn't have to be in tune, as that's a whole different animal). The point here is to train yourself to stop hesitating on identifying the note you see in the printed music, or to do so as little as possible. Remember that to be able to do this, your eyes need to be reading at least a little bit further than the note you are playing/singing.

I know it is hard, because I was there too, but the sooner you stop writing the note names and force yourself to identify it on the spot, the sooner your fingers will start getting used to reaching somewhere in specific as soon as you read a note. It might be a slow process at the start, but if you hang in there, it will be worth it!

  • 1
    great answer:), how long did it took you to lean to sight read at a satisfying level?
    – iddober
    Commented Apr 27, 2011 at 12:27
  • 2
    It depends on what a "satisfying" level is. Sight reading is not just about identifying pitches (A, B, C...). It is also about rhythm and other composer specifications about volume, speed, etc. In the ideal case you would take lessons just for that. It took me about a month because I started forcing myself to sightread as soon as I started learning to play and the pieces had a very simple rhrythm using only a few notes. As you progress with your technique the music notation will become more complex and your sightreading will have to adjust to that, so your progress will be constant.
    – Lilitu88
    Commented Apr 27, 2011 at 12:49
  • 1
    "Satisfying level" - I'm a decent sight reader in that I can play out of the hymnal with absolutely no trouble. Reading down to 16th notes patterns at 100btm is not difficult. It's still not good enough for me.
    – Michael
    Commented Apr 27, 2011 at 14:43
  • 2
    That's what I mean. "Satisfying" level depends on the person. For most people it is enough to be able to read enough to play music that is up to their level and maybe a little beyond. That should certainly be the minimum.
    – Lilitu88
    Commented Apr 27, 2011 at 17:12
  • 2
    @idober: By practice you should make a direct connection between a note on the staves and a key in your mental image of the keyboard without passing through the intermediate step of a letter if you don't want to.
    – ogerard
    Commented May 1, 2011 at 18:42

Pick a piece you have played, erase all those pencil marks, and play it without looking at your hands, concentrating on the music in front of you. As slowly and as badly as necessary. This, in my experience, helps build the feedback loop from notes to fingers to ears.


Throw yourself into the deep end of the pool: volunteer to help beginning instrumentalists practice by playing the piano accompaniments. You'll play a lot of them and you'll have no time to practice them, but they are usually easy to read. You'll also learn the important skill of keeping the music going no matter what happens, and of faking the music (don't laugh -- everyone has to fake it once in a while).

For anyone who is already a pretty good sight-reader and wants to get better, join the Amateur Chamber Music Players and go to a chamber music "play-in". Everyone is sight-reading, so you're not the only one. This REALLY improves your skills, much better than sight-reading alone at home. (When you sight-read alone, the temptation to go back and play the measure right is just too great.)

  • 1
    Great advice. Notice that a beginning piano player can do a very good replacement for a missing accompanying cello player if he is reasonably able to sight-read bass clef on the left hand. There are a lot of pieces with very regular bass, and you can do a good job just playing the lowest/longest note. It will give you confidence.
    – ogerard
    Commented May 1, 2011 at 18:39
  • 2
    Excellent advice, ogerard. Even better: fill in for a missing player at a rehearsal. Sight-read an instrumental part. Easy: flute, oboe, violin (treble clef), bass (bass clef). Harder: bassoon, cello (occasional tenor clef). Harder: viola (alto clef); being able to read alto clef is a good skill. Transposing instruments: clarinet, horn, trumpet. Commented May 4, 2011 at 19:56

I've been practicing my sightreading much the same way that I learned normal reading; I just keep doing it, as much as possible.

When I practice sight-reading, before I start playing, I look at the music, to see if I can imagine what it sounds like and to identify tricky sections of the piece. I also play through the piece at least three times: the first time, trying to keep the music in time; the second time, trying to just get all the notes and not keeping time; and the last time, trying to keep both notes and time as well as I can. After the third time, I tend to start remembering the notes, and it stops being sight-reading.

I also recommend practicing reading different genres and styles of music. Sight-reading pop music is vastly different from sight-reading hymnals. Sight-reading a piano reduction is considerably easier than reading 4-part open score.


Only Write down notes as a "homework" assignment, don't practice this way:
As was already said, do not write down the notes. The only exception might be to start out doing this on copies of the music, but never practice from this music.

Say the note names Aloud away from your instrument:
I think the best way to learn to sight read notes better is to take the music, sitdown away from your instrument, and say the note names aloud in sequence (in monotone, don't worry about pitch, unless you just naturally do this than it is okay).

So as you read the notes you would say "C D E" aloud, don't worry about accidentals (Sharps and flats), just say the note names. As you get faster at this, you could start saying them aloud in rhythm. Then go play the music on your instrument developing the note to hand coordination.

Some of the advantages of this technique is that extends well to other instruments and clefs, but more importantly it allows you to focus on the problem at hand and your practice will be less frustrating as you don't have the complication of playing your instrument at the same time.

I learned this using "Fixed Do" solfege without accidentals (Instead of C, D, E I would say "Do Re Mi") since you you can generally say these syllables faster with solfege, but this would work with letter names as well. This technique is used to learn all seven clef in traditional music training and with this technique people learn the facility to be able to transpose on the fly.


This may sound stupid but the way I improved my reading is every time I had to go to the toilet I took a random sheet of music with me and tried to speed-read all the notes without concern to the rhythms.

  • 4
    respecting the rhythm is part of sight reading.
    – Benoit
    Commented Apr 30, 2011 at 10:42
  • @Benoit, True, but it seems the question asker has the most problems with identifying notes, so he could concentrate on that, if he wants he can respect the rhythm also. In either case, I'm only suggesting a suitable location to spend some time on the matter ;)
    – Stormenet
    Commented Apr 30, 2011 at 11:34

Do flash cards!

This is much easier, and a lot more fun, if you have a good software program (and a MIDI-enabled keyboard/computer) to help you out :)


I agree with everyone else about not writing in the note names, but would like to suggest an intermediary step: write in a note only at the beginning of a line, or for large intervals.

Given that, another approach is to sight-read based on the intervals between notes, as well as on their absolute value (i.e, think 'one-step-down' or 'one-third-up', as well as 'A' or 'B', or 'C'). I've found this to be a very useful approach if you are coming from a guitar background, as you`re already used to thinking of notes in terms of the number of semi-tones (i.e. frets).

Of course, this way of sight-reading should be supplemental to learning actual absolute note names (if only for confirmation of correctness), and many of the other answers have suggested great ways to practice this.


Part of the skill of sight reading is training yourself to read the most important parts with priority... I did this by getting the regular [not big note] sheet music versions of music that I knew well. When I started out, the vocal lines and chords were about all I could get.

Learning chords helps tremendously, even for music without chord markings.

Ultimately, the key is exposure to as much music as possible and hours of practice.

One thing I've noticed in 27 years of playing piano and 20 years of leading/directing music--sight-reading and mastery/memorization skills require two distinctly different personality traits. I've met incredible young classically-trained pianists who cannot sight-read a Broadway musical score that I have no problem with, yet I never progressed beyond mastering a single movement of a Mozart sonata.


Break the monster problem down to very small chunks, and surmount them regularly :))

This often helps a lot: http://www.amazon.com/Practical-Sight-Reading-Exercises-Students/dp/1551220261/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1304451295&sr=8-1. Start at Book 1, read through the series. Make sure to get exceptionally comfortable with the really simple stuff - that's what's gonna get you agility and speed.

As a speed gauge, it may take 3 - 4 months to read simple pieces on sight, and several years to do something complicated - just like any coordination skill.

Also, do figure out which hand is the weaker one for you, reading-wise, and prefer it slightly. Usually it's the left.

  • I disagree that you said it takes up to several years for something complicating. I think you can learn alot faster than that.
    – Daniel
    Commented Nov 23, 2012 at 15:52

I Think this applies to piano or any other instrument. The fisrt thing you need to do is Stop writing the letter names!!! If you keep doing this then when you practice you won't be practicing your sight reading as well as your technique.

If you can identify the notes and it just takes you longer than you would like or than what is practical, then try practicing lots of excercises in which you try to read the notes out loud (not singing, so it doesn't have to be in tune since that's a whole different animal) as fast as you can. The point here is to train yourself to Not hesitate knowing which note it is when you see the printed music or to do it as little as possible. Remember that to be able to so this your eyes need to be reading at least a little bit further than the note your are playing/singing.

I know it is hard because I was there too, but the sooner you stop writing the note names and force yourself to identify it on the stop the sooner you will start getting used to reaching somewhere in specific as soon as you read a note. It might be a slow process at the start but hang in there an it will be worh it!


I found a program called jalmus that works really well for practicing sight reading. it's available to download free on http://www.jalmus.net/ don't be scared when you see it's in french; you can change the language on the homepage

  • How does this program work? What concepts does it incorporate?
    – Luke_0
    Commented Jun 9, 2012 at 0:33

Just keep on playing piano with sheet music. Eventually, you'll get used to reading music notes. Your brain will automatically identify the notes. Try with the piano pieces you are familiar with. At least, you'll know when you are hitting the wrong notes. And don't look at your hands while playing piano (with sheet music).

  • 1
    Please do not use answers to promote your products. Disclose your affiliation with Yoke Wong and Piano Mother if you must mention your products in answers.
    – Luke_0
    Commented Jan 30, 2014 at 16:32

Another 2 cents to add to this--

  1. Practice sightreading regularly. Easy stuff first-- but pick a diversity of genres, don't just stick to sonatinas or pop songs, etc.
  2. Get into the habit of taking a few minutes BEFORE playing to check out the obvious things-- like key signature, time signature, any changes in the middle, basic piece structure and perhaps mark one or two sections that you need to watch out for. Perhaps run through some of those problem sections on the keyboard or in your mind. Sometimes I forget accidentals later in the measure, so I'll scribble those in quickly. By the way, you should not go on writing note letters next to your notes-- it'll be a severe handicap down the road when you're facing many, many more notes.
  3. Learn your chords and get good at recognizing them quickly. That way you can "guess" or "fib" along in sections that are particularly hairy. When reading for the first time, I'll drop a few notes here and there; I'm not doing this as a professional service and only a small subset of people cares/can really tell the difference.. for getting the general character of the piece, it is sufficient.

There's no quick panacea, you ideally build sightreading as you build your technical skills. Your sightreading is really limited by your technical skills, but your technical skills can flourish without necessarily being a good sightreader. Focus on mastering harder pieces and practice sightreading alongside it, and you will be on your way.


When playing, forget the letter names altogether. Associate a little black dot or circle on a given line with a particular piano key. The letters are only necessary for theory.

Practice rhythm separately. Beat out the time on the table with your hand(s) until you are certain of it.


To add to the answers above, one of the main things that you can do to improve your sight-reading is practicing all scales, arpeggios and chords on the piano. Before you begin to play a piece that you have seen for the first time, take note of the key signature (as already mentioned). Then look at the left-hand accompaniments - most of the time, you will come across repeated patterns throughout the score. Familiarising yourself with playing chords, scales and arpeggios will give you an upper-hand to sight-read better.

The other is looking ahead for the upcoming notes and tricky rhythms. Try to look at least one beat ahead, and continue to keep doing this.

My colleague wrote this article on called 12 Tips to Sight-Read Better (I'm currently working for this company), which is a detailed guide recommended for beginners in sight-reading.

Hope this helps!

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