One of the most beneficial skills you can develop as a musician is fluency in sight reading—the skill of playing music you’ve never seen before.
You may already have your own reasons for wanting to improve your sight reading. Here are some benefits I have found with my students that you’ll enjoy as well…
More joy from playing music
Musicians who sight read well get more enjoyment out of their instrument and tend to stick with their playing longer. They also find that learning new music is far less stressful.
When you must wait for a teacher to help you with all the new notes, it is like being a little child who must wait for a parent to read them a story. Even once you know your letters, reading does not become fluent until you can assimilate larger pieces of information at once, so you can see the word and say “cat” without first sounding out each letter “c-a-t.” This is true in music too. Everything is easier once you don’t have to stop and painstakingly identify each individual note.
A lot of fluency also comes when you learn to read intervallically—seeing interval patterns—in your music. This gets you from your current note to the next note accurately without having to stop and consciously figure out if it is a C or an E. These visual cues are learned with practice over time.
Tip: When you start on your sight reading journey be sure to choose a level that feels somewhat easy, while still providing a little bit of a challenge. It is a major mistake to choose sight reading material that is too hard. Sight reading should take place 2-3 levels below your current playing level. Don’t give up if you don’t notice instant improvement. Sometimes you can only see the difference when you look back over a period of months.
Better ears = greater accuracy
Another skill great sight readers possess is being able to hear the music in their head before they even play a note.
Even if they can’t sing the exact pitches out loud, they can feel the rhythm and get the general direction of the melodic notes and harmony just by looking at the music. This improves overall accuracy tremendously because you anticipate the pitch and rhythm before you play, and will catch errors quickly.
This is a skill that keyboard and wind instrument players must work to develop since it does not occur naturally like it does with many string or brass players, who have to anticipate the correct pitch in their head before they can play the note in tune. Practicing sight singing a few minutes every day will really improve your skills in this area.
Stronger foundation in rhythm
Improving your sight reading fluency will improve your ability to quickly interpret rhythmic patterns.
Rhythm is the foundation upon which the melody is built. If the rhythm is correct, you can miss a few notes here and there and still have a very musical performance. If the rhythm is off, playing perfect pitches will never sound musical. I recommend that you tap the rhythm of a new piece first, before you attempt to play it. The rhythm also guides your dynamics as it leads you to the natural phrasing.
Learn music more quickly
When you improve your sight reading ability you learn your music faster and more accurately, and this will make everything more enjoyable and exciting. When learning a new piece of music takes forever, the excitement wears off before you ever get the job done.
When you must wait for a teacher to help you with all the new notes, it is like being a little child who must wait for a parent to read them a story . . . Everything is easier once you don’t have to stop and painstakingly identify each individual note.
Learning more quickly will give you a sense of accomplishment, since you may learn seven new songs in the same time it took to learn just one previously. When learning is fun you will play your instrument more, and of course the more you play the better you will get, and the better you get the more you will play. You get the picture!
Pianists who sight read well have the opportunity to be of service to other musicians by accompanying soloists and choirs. They can also play individual parts for rehearsal purposes. Some of the best sight readers I have ever met are pianists who accompany choirs. There is always a job opening for someone with these skills.
In the distant past, before notation was developed, music had to be learned by ear or by imitation. But in our modern world, where screens and printed materials abound, music literacy is a vital skill.
Band and orchestra members, choir members, soloists, professional musicians, and recreational music makers will all benefit greatly from improving their sight reading fluency. Start practicing sight reading today to expand your musical opportunities and get more enjoyment out of playing music.