So I'm trying to learn how to quickly read sheet music, and so I'd like to be able to identify chords/arpeggios quickly. I understand it will take lots of practice, but I want to be sure I'm practicing the right thing.

I've been using a method to identify intervals between notes. I count how many steps there are on the staff between the notes, that's my interval. Then, because the staff is not linear due to half-steps in diatonic scale, i adjust depending on the interval and whether or not it went over some half steps. For a 2,3 I make the interval minor if there's a half step in it, because 2,3 don't have them. For 4,5,6,7 they need one half step, but not two. After all this is factored in, I include the accidentals and key signature. Thus i have the interval and quality.

This seems completely absurd. Especially If I'm going to be looking at stacked 7 chords, I can't count all these intervals separately.

Is there a better way to think about recognizing chords? It seems like the chords even with identical shapes would change depending on where they are in the staff. And this isn't even counting inversions.

Any suggestions? I have no issue practicing 6+ hours a day, I just need to make sure I'm doing the right thing.


  • 2
    The only things that really matter are the key signature and the "shape of the notes on the page". Don't over-think all this counting semitones palaver. Eventually, you will get the stage of just looking at the staff and playing the notes. After all, you don't read English words by looking at the individual letters and classifying each letter as made of curves, straight lines, etc to figure out that this one is an "a" and that one is a "z". You just look at the page and read!
    – user19146
    Aug 21 '17 at 3:34
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    Reading 100 pages of music that is easy enough for you to play without getting distracted by the technical problems of playing the notes, will teach you to read faster than spending hours puzzling out what a single page means, one note at a time. Music for beginners doesn't often have many complicated chords - reading and playing two notes at once with one hand is enough of a challenge when you are just starting! Unfortunately, many people (especially if they are self-taught) insist on trying to run before they can even crawl - but that's not an effective way to learn.
    – user19146
    Aug 21 '17 at 3:39

The secret to reading music really is just reading music. You are likely to make fastest progress at reading chords if you select a very slow tempo and just press on, forcing your brain and fingers under pressure to translate the dots. In time you will come to recognise the patterns, and shapes of inversions, but in a way , this is intellectual activity and not the slick traffic between eye and hand that constitutes effective sight reading. Certainly you will start out thinking 'line/ space, key signature, accidentals, note values, fingering', but the improvement will come when you commit to a (very slow) tempo and just press on.


Working out intervals is not going to be very productive, as you're finding out. And I think the staff is linear, as far as diatonic notes and their names are concerned, but obviously that approach doesn't seem to be working for you.

It's a long process, because chord clusters come in many, many different shapes and sizes, and there's no quick cure. The more you play, then, the more experience you'll have of the more common chord writings on sheet music.

Eventually, you'll begin to recognise some of these shapes - a common triad shape is three consecutive lines, or spaces. Depending on key signature (therefore key), each will make up a root position triad, assuming the lowest note is root!!. Works for majors and minors too.

Another way I use with students is what I call reverse sight-reading. Play a cluster of notes (we start with just one or two), and write them on the staff - either treble or bass initially - that way, writing and reading become bonded better.

I have a completely different method for sight-reading on guitar, involving fretboard shapes, but that won't help on piano, due to the 'non-linear' set up of the black and white keys. One day, it may get published...

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