I am currently a very novice piano player trying to get by with Czerny's Op. 599 Practical Exercises for Beginners. As suggested, I'm playing the exercises by sight reading the notation, minimizing the amount of time I spend looking at the actual keys. I've found that the generally easiest way to do this for the mostly monophonic melodies (especially when transposing keys) is to keep track of the intervals between notes/scale degrees, forgoing any absolute identification of individual notes.

However, how am I supposed to adapt this method to full-blown chords? For example, in the following exercise, I can see that the featured chords are mostly just major and minor triads in various inversions.

I can more or less instantly put my hand in the desired shape when I see e.g. a first-inverted triad, but I don't know where to put it. When the chords are very similar in pitch or shape, I can usually manage. From bars 5 to 8 in the treble, I might read: 2nd inversion with C bass, to root position with C bass (just reshape hand), to root position with B bass (1 scale degree drop), to 2nd inversion with G bass (2 scale degree drop and reshape hand). However, this seems finnicky, artificial, and still quite hard to do in real time. It can also obscure quite obvious transformations, such as bar 1 to bar 2 being 1st degree to root position C major triads, rather than "1st inversion triad with E bass, to root position with C bass."

Experienced sightreaders, from what I hear, "just do it" without thinking. But what sort of mental activity should a beginner be undergoing when practicing this sort of thing?


Full disclosure up front: I'm just a beginner with sight reading too.

It seems to me you are basically on the right track, because you understand to focus on relative movement instead of trying to read each letter name of each chord.

I think you can dispense with mentally identifying inversion name, scale degrees, etc. if it distracts your concentration from reading the relative movement.

Personally I look for the common tones first and then step-wise movement. Along those lines I try to determine when a movement is simply an arpeggiation of a chord. Again, it seems like you are already doing this.

But this is what isn't clear yet. Are you being disciplined about your fingering? Are you thinking about/practicing good fingering especially regarding shifts of hand position?

Let's consider bars 2,3,4 in the right hand. Disregarding the true bass in the left hand those chords are: I V6/4 I6/3. Notice that the "G5" is repeated for all three chords.

Now this is what I think is an important distinction to make:

You could look at the bottom notes of the right hand chords - C5, D5, E5 - an see a nice smooth step-wise movement and then build root position, 2nd inversion, and 3rd inversion above those notes. That seems reasonable, but compare that with the following:

The G5 is shared by all three chords, but the finger that plays that repeated note changes for each chord. Instead of focusing on the C5, D5, E5, focus on G5 (finger 4) G5 (finger 3) G5 (finger 2) and then make the necessary chord shape relative to the finger playing G5.

What's the difference? Notice that the fingering for C5, D5, E5 is 1, 1, 1. Normally that small scale bit would be fingered 1, 2, 3. In this sense 1, 1, 1 is bit contrary to simple fundamental fingering. However, the repeated notes G5, G5, G5 changes the finger for each note. That finger change is a fundamental fingering. My personal feeling is that it is better to focus on that fundamental fingering.

If that kind of thinking is applied to other bars, we can see that in bars 1 and 2 it isn't a drop of a third E5 to C5 with the chord built above, but a repetition of E5+G5 and E5+G5 utilizing a fingering change.

At this point we can now ask an important question regarding our technique: are we comfortable playing repeated notes with finger changing? If not, start practicing that with single notes and double notes.

A similar point could be made regarding playing scales in thirds in one hand and bars 5-9. Notice the top two notes descend by thirds for the whole four bars. If playing scales in thirds is a technique you know, you could apply it to executing that passage.

If there is any validity to what I just described, then sight reading skill will be supported by good, disciplined fingering. Playing repeated notes with changing fingers, scales in thirds, "silent" finger changes on a key, etc. need to be practiced. When good fingering becomes automatic, sight reading movements should start to become automatic more easily.

  • Thanks; you've given me a lot to look into if I continue to have problems!
    – Feryll
    Nov 6 '18 at 3:54
  • "It seems to me you are basically on the right track, because you understand to focus on relative movement instead of trying to read each letter name of each chord." I think you underestimate enormously the capacity of good sight readers to actually read the notes themselves at speed, even in chords.
    – Tim H
    Nov 6 '18 at 12:10
  • @Tim, I didn't say good sight readers can't or don't read the note letters, but that the main focus is on relative movement and fingering. Nov 6 '18 at 14:11
  • @MichaelCurtis, I know :-), and what I try to say is that for good sight readers it's a lot more about a direct connection between the dot on the paper and the key on the piano than about going 'two notes higher, one note lower'.
    – Tim H
    Nov 6 '18 at 14:34
  • @Tim, I recently tried reading Satie's 1st Saraband, the movements look so simple, but the spellings are a nightmare! Nov 6 '18 at 17:17

It appears that you are focusing too much on the theory aspect of the chords, rather than executing it.

Let's take right hand in bar 5 to 7 as an example. Going from bottom to top, the second note has a distance of 4 above the note below, and the top note is 3. (They are perfect fourth and major third, but let's forget theory for now.) Going to bar 6, the bottom note stays the same, the middle note "descends" one step lower, and the top note also "descends" one step lower. For the next one (bar 7), transpose each note down one step.

Focus on the notes and the execution. I'd read it as "CFA" -> "CEG" -> "BDF", not "2nd inversion of F major" -> "root of C major" -> "root of subtonic".

Once you've identified the bottom note (C), you'll play the entire chord correctly. The choice of whether to start from the bottom or top is arbitrary, although you'd tend to start with a note you're familiar with, especially for chords with lots of extra staff lines (i.e. very high or very low for the clef).

  • 1
    I think you've just described the same thing I did, but avoided adding the specific names in post (as I did). I'm not actually thinking in my head "2nd inversion of F major," but rather "(chord shape I recognize) over (this bass note that's 2 lower than the previous chord's bass)." But I figured that would have been hard to describe. I'm not generally keeping track of any specific notes like "CFA" or "BDF" however, or even scale degrees. At any rate, it sounds like you're advocating for me to stick with the method I'm already trying, despite my current issues with it.
    – Feryll
    Nov 5 '18 at 7:13

I think what you are doing is already ok. You are reading the chord vertically.

What I would add is also looking for the horizontal lines. What you could do is only playing the top line but with the correct (!) finger of the right hand. You can also do it with the bass line and the correct finger of the left hand. Now you can play both these lines together (bass and melody) without any of the inner voices. You can also look at the bottom notes of the chord in the right hand and play those as a single line, the same with the top notes of the left hand, and so on. You can then combine the inner most voices... and so on and on.


A: All of the above and more.

Sight reading is a combination of four or five skills. It is not something you can work on in isolation.

The first component which you should get out of the way is technique. You need to have the technical facility to actually be able to play what you are reading. Your technique must be thoughtless and effortless. If you have a twist or tension which gets in the way of your playing, it will affect your reading. You want all your mental focus to go into reading and analyzing on the fly.

There is something to be said for rote or muscle memory. Part of having an ergonomic technique is for your hands to just know where to go. To know what the scales, chords and arpeggios feel like without having to think about them. If you see a chord with a 1,3,5, your hands should just go there automatically.

Having a knowledge of theory is vital. When you look at chords, scales and arpeggios in the score, you need to just know what they are so that again, you don't have to think about them. You should be able to see a pattern coming up and just know what it is. You should see a note and just know that it is a fifth without thought. Or, see that it is a G chord (I see numbers, not letters).

You need a good ear and knowing the composer would help. Chord progressions tend to be predictive. As you are reading, your ear will also hint at what is coming up and combined with everything else, sight reading will come easier.

Last, don't stop. Don't train yourself to stop and lose your train of though. If you miss something or make a mistake, keep going. You are trying to train your mind to make music and make corrections on the fly. If you have ever played a B'way conductor's score, they are all the orchestra parts condensed into the grand staff. It is impossible to play it all so you need to "just know" what to play, to pick and choose, not be a slave to the notation.

Sight reading is not one thing you can just study and it will happen. It is a convergence, confluence, amalgamation, conglomeration which is distilled in the alembic of all your training.

As a baby, you didn't just learn to walk. You first learned to turn your head, then roll over, then slither, then get on your hands and knees, then sit up, then stand, then fall, then fall, then fall, then run, then fall, then walk (walking is more advanced than running), then you intuitively learn how your hips/shoulders/knees/arms are used to minimize movement and work together for balance. The next thing you know you are taking out the trash every Wednesday.

Just study everything and the building blocks will take care of themselves. However, I can't stress enough that mastering an ergonomic technique should be your highest priority. Again, if you can't play what you are trying to read . . . Also, bad movement habits allowed to creep into your brain's muscle memory will most likely be there forever. Attempting to play something you don't have the technical mastery over will surely invite improper movement into your arms (hands). I have spent my whole life trying to eradicate the bad habits my first teacher ignorantly allowed me to hard wire into my brain. Her answer regarding my poor technique was "practice more." But, as we know, practice doesn't make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. I needed a different teacher more than I needed more practice.


Looking purely at r.h (as the whole chord with all 6 notes will be called a different inversion), calling the first one '1st inv. with E in the bass' is tautological.

Since all the triads are in close position, and you can recognise which of the three 'inversions' each is, mainly by seeing where the third part of the chord is (on consecutive lines/spaces), then by choosing either the topmost or lowest note, the other two should automatically (after a while) slot into their appropriate places. I feel that looking at the lowest note, which also names the inversion, may be better, although if you're reading block chords under a melody, the highest note is the more important to be heard.

Another way may be to go from one triad to another, noting the common note between them.In bars 1 and 2 - E and G. In bars 5 and 6, just the C, heralding a change of chord.

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