v. 1, no. 2/May 1, 1998


Teaching Sight-Reading at the Piano: Methodology and Significance

by Dianne Hardy

Research on Sight-Reading

A majority of experimental research into the area of sight-reading has dealt with studies of a visual nature, an area that is observable in a way that the kinesthetic and aural are not. Young (1971) found that successful sight-readers have more progressive and regressive fixations on the music than unsuccessful sight-readers. Students need to read patterns and phrases rather than perceive notes individually and it is important to teach students to think notes in groups, as well as see them. One's ability to play with speed depends upon organizing thinking in such a way that it will flow rapidly and unhampered. The eye should move forward to notice details in advance of the playing. Bozone (1981) and Giles (1983) established that better readers grasped patterns of as many as six notes in a fixation. Haug (1991) noticed that the quick eye fixations of accomplished sight-readers allowed more complex scanning of music. Successful readers fixate all areas of chords simultaneously (Young, 1971) and group patterns or melodies into fewer chunks than poor readers; therefore, they are able to retain more in their short-term memory, which reduces the memory load. They also use higher musical structures when grouping than less successful readers (Halpern and Bower, 1982).

Further evidence that knowledge of musical structure affects sight-reading ability was presented by Sloboda (1982) and Wolf (1976) who found that good sight-readers tended to overlook musical errors if they did not meet the criteria that the pianist set up about how the music should sound. Wolf presented an actual case history, documented by Goldowsky, involving a misprint in Brahm's Capriccio, Opus 76, No. 2. After being overlooked by pattern readers who had corrected the note mentally, the mistake was discovered by a poor reader who read note-by-note.

Sloboda (1976) cited in Stebelton, in a similar study using music that had been altered, found that changes in the middle of phrases were the least detected, while alterations that began and ended phrases were detected best. He also investigated pattern recognition with musicians and non-musicians and found that musicians retained more information than non-musicians. Stebelton (1987) said that this finding supported the theory that overall contour or global information precedes detailed information in perceptual processing at brief exposure.

These findings indicate that the study of music theory should be carefully and systematically incorporated into piano study, particularly as it applies to the specific music being studied, either as repertoire or reading material. A good sight-reader continuously draws upon past experience in recognizing musical symbols and as long as the symbols are familiar, they may be read without hesitation because they are grounded in the student's memory. Readers must be acquainted with the meaning behind the symbols also. Each group of notes is read in positional relationship to the surrounding notes within the harmonic structure of the composition, so an awareness of repeated note patterns, phrases, chords, rhythmic groupings, themes - in short, the organic structure of the music - is essential to good reading.

Other visual studies have found the following: the reading span varies with the type of reading material used, as does the organization of the eye movements (Buegel, 1981) cited in Stebelton. The duration of the visual fixation increases as the musical selection gets more complex (Van Nuys and Weaver, 1943). Increased memory span depends upon improvement in understanding the pitch patterns or melodic segments of a piece, while increasing the rate of reading depends on improvement in one's ability to group rhythmic figures. Visual perception is affected by the spatial relationship of notes and the fewer times a student looks down at the keyboard while reading, the better the sight-reading will be (Fuszek, 1977).

Eaton (1978), cited in Hardy, examined the role of the tactile sense in sight-reading, identifying the sense as being the ability to locate notes on the instrument without looking at the hands. His sight-reading test measured note reading, psychomotor, and memorization skills and indicates that keyboard psychomotor skill is the most important factor in sight-reading achievement with note reading being second and years of experience third in importance. The tactile sense develops through the acquisition of keyboard technique. The famous teacher, Joseph Lhevinne (1972) advocated technical training for developing tactile feeling of the keyboard. He said that practicing scales greatly facilitates sight-reading because the hand leans instinctively to the most logical fingering. Hilley (1977) suggests that locating notes in relation to the black keys and feeling for intervals develops the visualization of the topography of the keyboard, which in turn, improves tactile facility. Along the same line, Novak (1968), cited in Hardy, recommends teaching students to see notation, grasp it in the air and then play it on the keyboard. Additional means of developing the feel for the keyboard are transposing and playing with the eyes closed (Dumn, 1984).

Many studies have been conducted concerning the reading of rhythm. Elliott (1982) categorized many types of sight-reading errors and found 70 percent to be rhythm errors. Rhythm durations can be grouped into patterns and several models have been proposed to explain how rhythmical patterns are perceived. A proposal by Lonquet-Higgins (1978), cited in Hardy, using rhythmic structures by the barlines and the beams connecting eighth and sixteenth notes, show that the most important factors in determining the metrical hypotheses are the lengths of notes and where they occur in relation to the beat.

Sloboda (1976) found a tendency for readers to relax momentarily at the phrase boundaries, thereby interrupting the rhythmic pulse. Lowder (1983) documented that pitch errors are usually accompanied by rhythmic errors, especially at the bar line while Hughes and Watkins, (1986) in using a tape-recorded soloist for subjects were able to raise rhythm accuracy scores of sight-readers. Boyle (1968) improved rhythmic reading skills in students by utilizing bodily movement. Teachers need to help students achieve a sense of forward motion toward rhythmic points, such as the strong beats at the bar line and the crest of the phrase. While the eye is taking in details of what is coming, there is the necessity to remember what has just been observed; so sight-reading is, in this sense playing from memory. Strict rhythm must be observed and students need to be told to keep the basic beat at all costs because pausing or correcting note errors is not acceptable. Instead good reading involves a rapid and sure grasp of the meaning and sweep of the phrase, rather than a painful note-by-note accuracy. Ahrens and Atkinson (1966) quoted Sir Ernest MacMillan as saying: "Good sight-reading is nine-tenths rhythm and one-tenth notes". Teachers can have students sight-read with the aid of a metronome, as it will force the student acquire skill in keeping the basic pulse.

Several researchers investigated the importance of a well-developed ear as an aid to sight-reading. Auditory imagery is present in the music reading process and it increases efficiency in sight-reading. Aural imagery is a technique of translating notes into sound as one reads ahead in the music and students can be taught to do aural imaging as they pre-study a piece before attempting to sight-read it. Luce (1958), cited in Hardy,discovered a significant relationship between sight-reading and ear-playing with students while Bozone (1986) and Cutietta (1979) found sight-singing to help the sight-reading process. MacKnight (1975) showed tonal pattern instruction in teaching initial note reading, to be superior to note identification teaching techniques when developing both sight-reading skills and auditory-visual discriminatory skills. She suggests an intervallic or directional reading approach because of the stress on note relationships, one to another.

Many authors point out the advantages of directional or intervallic reading over note identification reading citing the carry-over into the development of sight-reading skill (Chronister, 1990; Dumn, 1984). They argue that music reading is not music spelling and that intervallic reading develops aural imagery in the relationship of the sounds. Richards (1967) maintains that students taught by note naming usually have a more mechanical note-for-note sound in their performance, while pianists taught by intervals possess a greater sense of musical flow in playing meaningful groups of notes.


� 1998 University of South Carolina School of Music