After I know the letters for the note designations and the pitches, when I am reading them, I implement the music this way:

  • I see the note on the staff.
  • I know that is a G. I think "G" when I read it.
  • I hit G on the piano.

That seems unintuitive to me and very slow. I have read more than one of the sight-reading questions on this site, but I did not see guidance on how to think when sight-reading.

Should it be that I see the note, hit the key, and I already know its letter (A, B, C, etc.)?

Should it be that I see the note and I know the key to press. I'm not sure if naming the actual letter of the note is something I should be doing. I know them. I just don't think it helps to think about them when sight-reading. (Granted, this takes lots of practice.)

Is it like typing? I don't think of the letter and then hit the keyboard. I may have a long, long time ago. I do not remember.

Edit: Should I even say the note to myself? I wanted to practice writing them, but I find myself saying, G, G, G, A, A, A (and so on) each time I write the note on the staff while practicing. I'm not sure that's right.

Edit: Here is an example from emusictheory.com, http://www.emusictheory.com/practice/html5/note-names-drill-treble.html:

enter image description here

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    I think this is going to be entirely opinion based. Some people will translate via letters. Others will see the shape. Yet others will know how it should feel. Importantly - what someone else does may not be best for you, so what is it you are trying to do? Generally, practice will make you better and faster at playing, and whichever way your brain works will improve. – Doktor Mayhem Nov 8 '17 at 21:29
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    @DrMayhem That may be true to some extent; however, learning the wrong way, even if it's easier at first, can have huge consequences. I learned to type 60 WPM on a computer while looking, and that accident made it nearly impossible to learn to touch type, even though the motions were exactly the same. – jpaugh Nov 9 '17 at 15:43
  • jpaugh - none of them are the wrong way, though - that is what I am trying to get at. You can see form the answers already that people approach this in different ways that may all be right. – Doktor Mayhem Nov 9 '17 at 16:03
  • @DrMayhem Just play the piano, not complex pieces, but I would like to be able to pick up a hymnal and just "start playing" with some sort of ability to keep tempo instead of picking out notes. – johnny Nov 9 '17 at 16:13
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    @DrMayhem My point is that I don't want to loose the ability to have an advanced proficiency by studying the wrong technique as a beginner. If I have to practice hard, anyway, may as well shoot for the best techniques. – jpaugh Nov 9 '17 at 16:39

There is difference between "knowing" something an "consciously thinking about" something.

If I am reading English, I "know" that the letters in the word "cat" are C, A, and T. But I don't consciously "think about" that when I'm reading.

Reading music is no different.

If you are sight-reading music with chords for each hand, you certainly don't have time to think about 6 or 8 notes just to play one pair of chords.

A better way is the same method that good athletes play their sport - "see ball, hit ball". Aim to get to the stage where you just "see note on staff, play note, move on to the next note." Of course there will always be a few passages where the notation might be too complicated for that - for example a bar full of double sharps and/or double flats!


TL;DR Rather than reading the notes, try to associate the shape of how the note/chord looks like on the staff with what you need to play.

Longer answer: This differs across people, but usually when reading text one does not think about individual letters, but rather words, whole phrases or (short) sentences. People recognize words or phrases as shapes. For example, you can often read something from afar even if you can't make out individual letters, just because the shape of that word is right and matches your expectations (say, a name of a town on a road sign). It has some funny consequences, e.g., it is poissolbe to raed a txet with miexd ltteers.

I do similar things when reading music: I read chords by pure shape and only fallback to actually looking at them when there are some complex accidental changes. This is not only limited to chords – it also works for common structures like scales, passages characteristic to some composer, etc. Often it is enough to read only first four sixteenth notes of a phrase and the rest is just transposed chromatically or diatonically – if the shape is right and the piece is "standard", probably you can skip the details.

Cautionary tale: Because I was skipping the details too much I had once a really embarrasing moment. While I was playing a classical piece in E♭ major I saw some accidentals that didn't make sense. It turned out the piece was actually in E major. I was so confused that my playing fell completly apart.

  • 3♭s looked like 4♯s?!? I'm not surprised it fell apart - transposing a half step is hard. – user121330 Nov 9 '17 at 18:32

No, you don't think of the letters when sight-reading. By the time you've developed a level of skill that could be called 'sight-reading'you have to be past that stage! If you're thinking letter names you aren't sight-reading. Just like if you're spelling out 'C...A...T' you're not reading the story, just picking out the words.

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    People learning to read staff notation often seem to get stuck at the stage of "picking out notes and then learning the piece by muscle memory." There's nothing wrong with a hobby like building a model of the Empire State Building entirely from matchsticks either, but neither that or the music-reading method has much practical use. – user19146 Nov 9 '17 at 14:24
  • @alephzero Can you elaborate? Not sure what you mean. – johnny Nov 9 '17 at 16:11
  • @johnny: alephzero is emphasizing that reading to pick out notes and then memorizing the piece is not sight reading. One of my children appeared to learn to read quite early, but it quickly became clear that she had simply memorized the story really well. Similar. – Yorik Nov 9 '17 at 16:30

As has been often said, the only way to learn how to sight read is to sight read. While the "very slow" process you describe might work for you in extremely basic music, it won't for much more than that.

If you consider parallels to reading language, it should become clear. If you're busy sounding out letters and parsing them into words in your head while you read, you're going to have difficulty getting past "See Jane run" or (for a much better bit of literature) "Hop on Pop."

If you are reading at the level of, say, this answer, what you are thinking about is what I'm attempting to tell you. "How to think in sight reading" is much the same. You are thinking in terms of musical ideas, and your hands are automatically realizing those ideas as you play.

Since you mention typing, a fairly close parallel to sight reading would be transcribing a recording of a speech. A reverse parallel, you might say: you're taking sound and using your fingers to create a written copy, while in sight reading you're taking a written copy and using your fingers to create sound. But in either case, the process that involves your fingers needs to be automatic. And, just as you have found in typing, it only gets that way by doing it.


When sightreading at speed, there will be no time for an intermediate letter representation I think.

I think that when I am counting off ledger lines beyond the number I regularly manage, I tend to use note names in the process.

But actual "sight reading": that seems just as incompatible to me as thinking about individual letters when reading off a text.

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