Short story: The question is self-explanatory

Long story: I play the piano and I know how to read scores, and I always struggle a little bit to learn new pieces of my level because my reading is very bad. One day I was watching some random video on YouTube about studying piano, and the teacher, in order to provide an example, casually sight-read a short piece masterfully and I was amazed and I wanted to be able to do that!

Then, I realized that I had never actually practiced reading before, and that if I were able to sight read, I would discover a whole new world.

So I took a couple of books below my level and sight read them. It was far from good, but I felt a little improvement throughout the process, and it was fun too. Though, when I got back to a piece above my level, like Chopin's Scherzo No.1, I still read like a child.

I don't feel like this "method" was very efficient, because I feel like I would need to do this with 100 more books, and I don't have that much, and I can't repeat the ones that I have indefinitely because I would eventually memorize stuff, and it wouldn't be sight reading anymore.

This made me wonder, are there exercises or techniques to help this process? Or should I just sight read stuff until I can do it decently?

I found come correlated (and helpful) questions here, but they provide only general advice.

  • Practice makes perfect (or at least closer to perfect) – Sweet_Cherry Nov 30 '18 at 23:12

I am not a piano player but I hope I can offer some advice from my development. I too was a bad sight reader, much below my playing level. I am a guitarist. In a nutshell to get better at reading you need to read often, and read a large variety of musical scores and exercises. Reading music is like reading in any language and to get better you need to read a little every day.

There are many guitar workbooks for improving sight reading, the exercises may be different for piano but I think the basic advise would be the same.

  1. Start by reading pieces that are at your level.

  2. Read something new every day.

  3. Don't, under any circumstances, memorize your reading exercise.

  4. Do not stop and restart a sight reading exercise, just move through it the best you can with a metronome at a reasonable speed.

  5. Increase length of exercises before increasing complexity (imo this is where many books fail).

  6. Push yourself out of your comfort zone soon, try to increase complexity of exercises every week or two.

  7. Cycle through older exercises that you have not seen for a while.

In the modern guitar world William Levitt has produced many good workbooks for sight reading that are challenging in terms of key changes and position shifts.

The idea is to learn to read a score like you'd read the news paper. But you need to have reasonable expectations and a fair comparison. Most people do not really read the newspaper, they skim getting some words wrong and filling in information. As a musician you need to master your body and the instrument and the SMN format to be able to read. Reading involves converting dots on a page into sounds in your mind's ear and correct body movements in your hands. This is not an easy set of tasks. Starting simple and slowly will build confidence and start making connections between these different functions in your brain. A critical step in my opinion is to move on to longer simple pieces before complex pieces. This builds stamina and the ability to focus and pay attention for extended periods. Skipping this step and jumping from a two line tune to a full concerto or concert score would be deflating to say the least.

I do not know if such exercise books exist for piano, like Levitt for Guitar, but one word of advice I take from a reading book is "Get your hands on as much music as you can". Read something new as often as possible. You do not want to memorize reading studies as you are defeating the purpose of sight reading. With work you will get better. I sight read on gigs at this point.

Closing comment: Make the reading study a part of your regular routine. You don't stop because you got better, you get worse when you stop.


Read. Read. Read. There is really no substitute to learn to read. It's just like learning how to read as a kid. You start by learning the letters, then start to sound out words and then you slowly start to remember some words you have seen before. The more you see those words the less you have to sound them out.

So, pick pieces in different keys, different styles if you want and read. Makes sure you are not practicing the piece by playing it too often. This image is from a Berklee book and is relevant. enter image description here

  • Is that out of Levitt's book? His were Berklee. – ggcg Nov 30 '18 at 23:15
  • @ggcg yes, a modern method for guitar. Same statement is in the book that is dedicated to reading studies I believe. – b3ko Dec 1 '18 at 4:08
  • I have several of Levitt's books – ggcg Dec 1 '18 at 4:25

There are four skills which will aid in your sight reading acumen. You can't "practice" this out.

The first is technique. Your brain (hands) need to be able to execute the demands of the score without thought. If you have muscular pulls which hinder where the arm needs to be and "slopifies" your playing, you will flounder and that will derail your concentration and reading ability.

The second is rote movement. It is not the same as the aforementioned. Your brain needs to hard wire the ergonomics of the chords, scales and arpeggios that you see on the page to automatic movements of the arm (hands). If you see a chord on the page, without thought, your hand needs to just go there.

The third is a knowledge of music theory. When you look at the notes on the page, you should just automatically know what the scales, chords or arpeggios are, again, without thought.

The fourth element is having an ear. As you play, your ear should be able to tell where the notes or progressions are going and your brain will anticipate what is coming next, setting up the rote.

There is a fifth component but it will fall into place when you have the above mastered. It is seeing the whole page or, several bars in advance. Our brains can see things we don't consciously see. This next paragraph will sum it up:

"Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteers be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe."

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