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

  • 4
    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
    Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 21:29
  • 2
    @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
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 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
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 16:03
  • 2
    @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
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 16:39
  • 1
    You'll see from the answers, that proficiency comes with practice and time. You cannot, as a beginner, use @alephzero's "just knowing" concept, for example. As a beginner you may start using shapes, or letters or whatever. It doesn't matter that much.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 16:42

8 Answers 8


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
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 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.

  • 1
    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
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 14:24
  • @alephzero Can you elaborate? Not sure what you mean.
    – johnny
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 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
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 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.


Teaching myself to sight read for piano, progress really speeded up when I abolished all notions of abcdefg. Why interpose another step in training the brain to associate dot position with finger action? In my opinion all that can come along later. I'm a 'visual' learner, as no doubt others are too.

  • 2
    It's not so much that it need come along later, I think, as that letter names are useful in different situations. If you and I are looking at a piece of music together and we want to talk about how loud to play a particular note, we might want to call it 'the high B in bar 12' rather than have to point the note out. (I am not the downvoter BTW!) Commented May 6, 2020 at 11:53
  • I disagree completely with this but it's hard to know what to focus on when you are self taught. The fact is that the brain is not linear and your id processes are not set up in a daisy chain. See my answer for an alt. perspective on this. Also, I did NOT down vote anything either.
    – user50691
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 12:57

Actually identifying the letter name can be a good exercise for improving sight reading skills. I have seen this in several work books on the subject. However, to be a good sight reader you need to develop an internal automatic response to seeing the notes and relating that to a correct body movement that generates the desired sound from the instrument. There are multiple connections that get built up in the brain when one reads. I agree with all the responses that suggest that identifying the letter name is a step that one doesn't necessarily need or have time for but if one is trying to get past a deficit in reading it can be helpful. This depends on how the person learned music early in the process and what connections are in good shape. We learn several things when we pick up an instrument.

  1. There is learning music, independently of an instrument, learning the patterns of western music, the major scale, intervals, etc.

  2. Learning to identify what you hear and replicate it with your voice or other means.

  3. Learning to master a particular instrument which involves a lot of muscle memory.

  4. Learning to read by some means. To get instructions on what to play and when. This can be SMN, TAB, or some other set of instructions in a script.

I suspect a lot of young people who've started out self teaching on an instrument may have a good idea what letter names correspond to the keys, frets and strings, of their instrument but perhaps have not yet developed a good ear. In this case calling out the letter names will invoke a physical response in the hands. Perhaps this is not ideal but it works. The flow is something like this.

See notes on a page --> Identify letter name --> trigger muscle response to play note.

The opposite is likely true for some. If you have a good ear, or a well developed ear, then I think an ideal situation is to be able to hear the music in your head as you read it. Then the same muscle response is activated internally from your inner ear.

See notes on a page --> hear the phrase in your head --> trigger muscle response to play phrase.

There are a couple other factors to consider before making a definitive conclusion on this.

  1. The brain is a complex system that we don't fully understand. It has been demonstrated that a single thought can "appear" in a FMRI in multiple places. So the idea that there are too many things happening and that slows down the response might be completely false! In fact it has been suggested that the more neural pathways that one can build for a certain action or response the faster and more stable that response will be. The brain likely parallel processes multiple patterns and turns them into an output response. That being said, identifying the letter AND the sound AND the shape may make for a better input to the decision gate that says "Move hand here and press these things". The signals do not sit in queue waiting to be processed (or at least that is what seems to be coming out of our understanding of consciousness based on FMRI).

  2. To be a good sight reader you need to read ahead. You kind of have to be in two minds, two places at once. At least that is how I was taught by my violin and guitar teacher. I cannot say that this is the standard today but they got me to look at the notes several measures ahead while I was processing and playing the notes in a given measure. I think in a situation like this it helps to have multiple ways to process data. When I read I am able to hear the music in my head. This took time and practice. Many people cannot but that doesn't mean they are not good musicians or should give up. But that being said, as I read I am hearing what I need to play at the moment and buffering data that I will need in a few moments. That buffered data is (based on my experience) identified by something other than aural (e.g. a letter stream).

  3. Letters and tones are not the only instructions provided in sheet music. Even if you could convince yourself that it's better to think less or identify fewer items the letters are the least of your worry. On an instrument like the guitar there are several ways to play the exact same thing. Well written arrangements will have position markers, fingerings, etc. That is instrument specific. On top of that are dynamic marks, accents, etc. Your brain needs to see and process all this to generate a model of the sound that should be produced. As someone suggested in another answer we know that the letters C, A, and T spell cat and we know what that word represents. Yet we don't consciously spell it out every time we see it. While I agree that this is probably true, we did spell it out (and sound it out) when we were learning to read and that may be an integral part of the process of being so good at reading that it becomes automatic. Finally, not all arrangements are that good and the musician needs to not only process the notes but decide from among several options which way to play it.

  4. Putting more of a burden on your mind may be required too. As a guitarist I recall being trained to not only hear the notes I see, and identify them by letter, but to close my eyes and visualize geometrically how the phrase will be executed by my fingers. Over the years this has developed a physical response in my hands and arms to note streams I see. This is real hand eye coordination. I cannot say for certain that my brain is responding to the visual or the aural. It is probably responding to both and that is what makes it work well. You cannot dissect something this complex into a sequence of actions. One way to view this is as follows.

See note --> Hear note --> Identify note by name --> Identify geometry of the chord or phrase on your instrument --> determine correct muscle movement --> execute movement --> hear real sound --> match to expectation.

Clearly, if you think this is what is happening you will be inclined to reduce the number of things in this chain because you think each takes a millisecond or so. And they all add up. But what is really likely happening is this.

See note --> {Hear note in head, Id name, Id shape etc, Det Muscle movement} --> Move body --> hear real note --> match to expectation.

Everything in the brackets is triggered at once. And furthermore, I suspect that the greater the number of things in the brackets the better the reaction time is because so much of your brain is in agreement about what to do. Mastering an instrument and music does NOT involve finding the one thing that does not require training or practice. Mastery comes from integrating all the different ways of seeing the same thing and that speeds up the response, rather than slowing it, by building confidence in the output.

All my teachers used speaking the letter names out loud as a means to "sight read" and even though I did say I agree that one does not have time to do this, that assumes that the tasks are daisy chained together. As part of the learning process reading music like a newspaper or book does reinforce neural pathways that help in the overall process. They will have to get integrated into the brain for the effect to be observed but that usually doesn't take too long.


Your problem does have some merit; in the 1930s, Cornelis Pot developed an alternative music notation system in an attempt to solve it. The system is called Klavarskribo, from the Esperanto words for 'keyboard' and 'writing'. The lines and spacings directly correspond to black and white keys on your (piano) keyboard in the same order:

enter image description here

It's used in the Netherlands by many self-taught musicians; its main problem is that it isn't widely adopted (which is natural; it doesn't really offer an advantage for non-keyboard instruments) so there's not many sheet music available in this format.

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