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I need help with reading piano pieces with key signatures that have sharps or flats (other than C Major or A Minor). I learnt to sight read music using intervals (but do have a very good grasp on recognising note letter names at random as well, I use this when the intervals are too large). However, when I am going through a piece of music reading 2nds, 3rds, 4ths etc., I always miss playing the sharp or flat that should be played in that key (I play the natural instead).

I am tired of websites asking me to memorise the order of flats/ sharps and key signatures - I have done this already and am quite comfortable with it. I even practice scales and play them comfortably. The problem starts when I read music using intervals and miss playing accidentals of the key I am in.

I want to understand how does one develop a mental technique for this? I thought of the following:

1) Remember the lines and spaces while sight reading that need to be sharp or flat in a key : for e.g., for G Major, remember that the 4th line bass, 1st space treble and 5th line treble needs to be sharp. But this technique becomes very very very cumbersome even for two sharp/ two flat key signatures. Moreover, it interrupts sight reading by intervals a lot (you are constantly worried about the letter names).

OR

2) Get familiar with the keys of the scale of the key signature in question on the piano, so that your hands "automatically" go to the black key when there is one. However, while sight reading, this would mean you still need to be "mentally aware" of where your fingers are on the piano and so you know that the moment you come near an F, you need to play F# instead. But doesn't this mean you are still focussing on the letter names while sight reading and not intervals?

I am unable to help the problem with either of the two approaches above. Any other suggestions? How did you guys do it and make playing accidentals in key signatures second nature as pianists say?! Please help !

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    How do you keep sight reading in intervals the moment the number of notes being played at once increases? – Dekkadeci Feb 21 '18 at 16:04
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You seem to have the idea that good sight reading focuses foremost on intervals and much less on note names. This isn't true. You have to get used to using them both at the same time. This makes you aware when you arrive at a note that should be sharped or flatted. Especially when you can combine it with a good knowledge of scales and key signatures.

This means that you have to be able to name all notes (faster than) at tempo.

At first this doesn't seem possible in tempo, but when practising slowly at first, it becomes second nature. You should get to a point where you always know which notes (by name) are under your fingers.

It is true that using intervals is an important tool that often gets neglected by beginners, and even can feel like 'cheating' because it helps so much. But you seem to have got the idea that other tools shouldn't be used.

And to be honest, I think for really good sight readers interval reading is one of the less used tools. They come to a point where there is an almost direct map between the note on paper and the physical key on the keyboard which they can reach almost entirely by feel. This map gets changed when playing with other key signatures.

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I'm not a music teacher and I'm not the greatest sight reader, but I'm going to take a whack at this - probably not adding much to what's already been said:

The problem starts when I read music using intervals and miss playing accidentals of the key I am in.

There seems to be a fundamental error in this sentence: If you are not playing the notes of your scale correctly according to the key signature (not called accidentals when they are part of the key signature), you are not really using intervals - just an approximation of them: You know that from a line to a space, or vice versa, is a 2nd, from a line to a line or a space to a space is a 3rd, etc. But that's only part of the interval - the size or quantity. An interval also has a quality: Major, Minor, Diminished, Augmented or Perfect, but you're not reading that at all - which is exactly your problem: If you see E->F, without knowing the key is Eb and the E is flatted, you are seeing a Minor 2nd. Only when you know the key signature can you read the interval correctly: A Major 2nd.

The upshot from this is that your 'intervals' approach to reading is incorrect - it's not giving you the correct result because you are not reading all the music that's written. It might seem faster to you, but what good is that when you're not reading the music correctly - only reading half of the music? It's like taking a shortcut that leads you to the wrong destination.

IMO that is your problem in a nutshell. Hopefully, what I'll say now will help you fix it:


I knew quite a bit of theory before I learned how to sight-read properly to play from a sheet. I took some guitar lessons (a long time ago) and learned how to read from a sheet and play. The instructor taught me using note recognition only - no intervals, no mnemonics, no counting lines and spaces - he forced me to recognize the notes using a few landmarks on the staff. I drilled for a few months with that system - we used mostly flash cards that showed only one note at a time and a key signature - no intervals. After a few months I was an almost decent reader of bass and treble clefs.

After the first few lessons, because I knew some theory, I realized that learning to recognize and read 'intervals' would be a great shortcut, and I was lazy - didn't want to do all those drills.

I mentioned my idea to my instructor. He was a pro who was constantly working as a free-lancer, always running off to a gig - because he was a great reader. His response: No - you need to read the notes - just read the notes - read the notes in front of you, just like you read English off a page.

I didn't think too much about why, I just did what he told me to do, and I haven't thought about it much since then. But this question helps me understand his method:

If you're trying to identify 'intervals' on a sheet, you're occupied with analyzing the patterns on the page, not the notes themselves. But if you're not focusing on a note, how can you determine if it's sharp, flat or natural? That only happens if you are compelled to name the note: C is a different name that C#. E is a different name than Eb, etc.

I am tired of websites asking me to memorise the order of flats/ sharps and key signatures - I have done this already and am quite comfortable with it. I even practice scales and play them comfortably. The problem starts when I read music using intervals and miss playing accidentals of the key I am in.

It's because you know the key signatures, but you are not using that knowledge when you read, as stated above - you are only reading part of the music that's written. The key signatures give you the proper names for the notes in a particular key. The staff effectively changes with the key signature. If you're just reading the 'intervals' based on the pattern you see on the page, but you don't actually know what the notes on the staff represent in that key, you're going to get them wrong.

Think about it this way: By reading 'intervals' off the staff, you're actually going backwards, because the notes determine the intervals.To get the intervals right, you need the notes.


So: My answer is you need to break the habit of reading intervals first. You must learn to read the notes themselves - they determine the intervals - that's what the key signature teaches you, but your insistence on reading the intervals off the page makes you neglect the key signature. Naturally you make mistakes with your sharps and flats.

I can say from experience that after you do that for a while, since you know your scales, if you are interested in the intervals at all - depending on the genre and on your own personal need to understand the music you're playing better - they will start popping into your head immediately as you read the notes.

Consider that the musical alphabet has only 7 letters, plus the flat, sharp and natural signs, and there are only 9 notes on the staff. English has 26 letters and some languages have many more letters. So learning to recognize the musical notes isn't going to be very hard: You've already mastered a far more difficult language: English.

As far as reading itself goes: What @TimH said in his answer sounds good to me:

I think for really good sight readers interval reading is one of the less used tools. They come to a point where there is an almost direct map between the note on paper and the physical key on the keyboard which they can reach almost entirely by feel.

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    Good answer. Maybe OP should spend some time spelling out loud while playing and sight-reading, or even spelling out loud while sight-singing, to force focus on individual notes. – ex nihilo Feb 22 '18 at 4:54
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    @DavidBowling - I used flash cards with no instrument. Now there are some good android apps for that. – Stinkfoot Feb 22 '18 at 5:50
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You appear to have done (too) much sight-reading in key C!

At the moment, the intervals and note names are deeply impressed as 'white notes'. It's the common way to learn, although debatably not the most thorough.

If, for example, you had started with key G, then gone to C, you'd be fed up with your fingers still automatically going for that F# when now it should be Fnat.

As already stated, play through the scale of the new key - many times, and its modes too. I call this 'putting on my Eb hat' for example. It prepares the brain, and fingers, for the new key.

Might even play some arpeggios in that key too. If you are stuck in the intervals syndrome, which seems to work for you, go through them, but in the new key.

At the end of it all, it's usage that'll sort it all out. Practise, practise, then practise some more!

Edit: try not to think letter names too much on piano. Think more in terms of 'in G, there's usually the black key on the left of the three that's used instead of the white key next to it (F). It may help, as translating dots on music into letter names, then into which key is pressed on a piano too complex for good sight-reading, as there are more stages than needed.

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Don't over think it. Start with some easy pieces in G maj (one sharp, F#). Do the scale and get a feel for the F# being there. You will, with time, get a feel for the key and the F# will come quite naturally. Do the same with F maj (one flat, Bb). Just becoming more exposed to those keys and familiar with the key signatures. It will honestly sink in with time and effort.

Keep it simple at first and work your way up to the other keys. You don't need to dissect your music into intervals. It's good to be aware of them, but don't let yourself use them as a tool for reading music too much. It will slow you down too much. I know it's not that different from what you tried before, but you just have to stick with it. I know you will succeed.

  • Thanks for the quick response! I really think though that interval reading is the fastest way to read music, letter names surely force you to read each and every note and slow you down. Having said that, I want to understand your point on getting a "feel" of the F# - sure, I will do that, but while sight reading a piece, how do you connect that physical key on the piano to the note on the sheet music? By keeping an eye on which line/ space it is ? (i.e., is it an F?) – Prameet Patnaik Feb 21 '18 at 7:58
  • With experience, it will feel right to be an F#. Keep track of the tonics in the piece and most likely you will get leading note F#s (a semitone from the tonic). You won't need to say the letter names with time. They will become instantly recognized for what they. – Jomiddnz Feb 21 '18 at 9:14
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    @PrameetPatnaik — musicians actually do both: read the note & read the interval. I’m not sure how “reading the letter names” would slow you down over “reading the intervals”. – Dean Ransevycz Feb 21 '18 at 10:20
  • @PrameetPatnaik It may slow you down temporarily, but not for long. Consider using intervals only like typing with your index fingers only. People can do that surprisingly fast if that's how they learned/practiced. Learning the home row (note names AND intervals) will slow you down for a bit, bit it will soon make you EXPONENTIALLY faster when you get the practice in. – user42882 Mar 1 '18 at 19:41
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It's perhaps more usual for a beginner to 'spell out' the notes, then progress to recognising patterns. 'C..A..T' then recognise 'cat' as an entity. But you're vastly over-thinking this. Don't tell yourself you're reading notes or reading intervals, they aren't mutually exclusive - just read the MUSIC. Where there's a key signature, you have to notice it. What else can you say?

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Further to other answers: The OP's remark "Get familiar with the keys of the scale of the key signature in question on the piano, so that your hands "automatically" go to the black key when there is one." is good advice. A good skill to acquire when learning a piece is "muscle memory". So that after playing a note/chord, your hands automatically go to the right place in order to play the next one. Once you've got that sussed, you can afford to devote more of your thinking to speed, rubato, dynamics, articulation, phrasing etc.

But to get to that point, you should already have memorised your scales. You shouldn't have to spend time thinking "D major -- now are Cs sharp in this key? -- oh yes they are", you should know it immediately.

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