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How to Improve Sight-reading at the Piano

A universal complaint among piano students relates to sight-reading. They find themselves stumbling through the first playing of a brand new piece, not knowing if an end is in sight. The faltering, (wrong note, right note in treble and bass clefs) can keep a “reader” so contained in one measure at a time, if not one note at a time, that a crash and burn feels imminent. Psychologically, the player has boxed himself into an all or nothing retrieval of “right” notes, eye- jumping from the page to his hands and back, often losing his place in the process.

By the last bar of music, the “reader” may be a sum total of jangled nerves combined with a never again attitude. (especially if featured as the life of the party, pressured to play a pop tune that everyone wants to sing around the piano) Imagine the crush of cocktails, shuffling, cigarette smoke swirling around the poor sight-reader–A guarantee of night sweats, hand trembling, and an imminent emergency appointment with a shrink. (Might that, by chance, be the piano teacher?)

To avoid crippling anxiety associated with losing one’s musical virginity with each “new” piece of music, or with any score a teacher, neighbor, friend, colleague (at a cocktail party) places on the rack, I have a few suggestions.

1) Before “reading” the very first note of music, have the presence of mind to scan the composition starting with the very first notation of Key and Meter, found to the extreme left of the beginning line.

Review the content of sharps, flats, or “Key signature.” It’s always beneficial to know the progression of Major and minor keys around the Circle of Fifths, and to have explored all scales and arpeggios in these tonalities. But even without a solid background in this complex universe, knowing the key autograph of a piece or what sharps or flats permeate it, is a good head start. It’s a form of MAPPING that begins before the very first note sounds.

Knowledge of the Time Signature goes hand in hand with Key awareness–It’s an orientation that relates to a piece’s rhythmic framing.

With these two bits of rudimentary information consciously stored, the sight-reader can move forward with less trepidation, but still needing more assists.

Oh, and while visually perusing the music, the sight-reader should review it for sections that REPEAT themselves. That’s always a relaxant before giving it a roll.

2) Approach the “new” score with an attitude that you can enjoy the “spontaneous” adventure, without ever having rehearsed a herd of notes in a laborious practice session, congested with fingering, counting, and coordinating challenges. You should “let yourself go” to the moment, without making strict self demands to be perfectly accurate. Even if you’re crowded in by party goers, the background noise will probably drown out your clunkers, and the most important ingredient of your “read” will be to move along, and keep the festivities rolling.

Okay, so you’re not at a party with “noise” cover, and you find yourself in the light of day, “reading” the piano part in a chamber ensemble, or accompanying a singer who threw a score at you without notice. Back in the hot seat?

Same advice applies in these situations. Enjoy the ride, and hedge your bets for a positive journey by adding the following to your sight-reading skills arsenal.

3) Take big gulps of music. (in slow motion, if possible) Don’t play note by note, or even measure to measure. Ingest two measures at a time, by being simultaneously in the here and now and in the future. Of necessity this means you can’t look down at your fingers and up at the music as the piece moves along. Train yourself to focus exclusively on the printed page, “feeling” your way through the score with the guidance of notes mapped out on the staff for your visual disposal. In this regard, an understanding of SKIPS and STEPS, up and down, helps. If you can translate the motion of intervals between notes on the page into your fingers, you’re ahead of the game. Internalizing their sound helps. (More about this in the paragraph on EAR TRAINING)

Repeated notes are always a blessing amidst those accursed leaps of hemi-demi-semis (really scary fast notes) Take a deep breath with these, and ride the waves, gathering as many little devils as you can, keeping a steady, underlying beat.

A side bar: EAR TRAINING is of great assistance to sight readers. Take the time apart from your impromptu reading adventure, to play MELODIC 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, etc. and listen carefully to them. For 2nds, 3rds, 6ths and 7ths, you can learn about their MAJOR and minor forms. Again, condition your ears to the content, sound and color of these intervals. These same distances can also be sampled vertically with a harmonic dimension, acclimatizing your ears to their sound, color and MAJOR/minor quality.

I recommend Solfeggio study that goes hand in glove with ear training. (Use Do re mi fa sol la ti do as syllables of a scale) Being able to sight-sing (to yourself) what is on the treble staff, if not almost simultaneously in the bass, helps with internalizing the shape of the melody and other musical lines. I use a movable DO, so as keys shift or change within the music, there’s a newly defined tonal center.

In an ideal world, a sight-reader should be armed with knowledge of theory encompassing chords, intervals, etc. and their relationships, (functional harmony) If he has studied piano in-depth, going around the Circle of Fifths playing scales, arpeggios, chords, and cadences, he would have had HANDS on EXPERIENCE with tonal geographies that would further enrich his reading experience, but the vast majority of sight-readers will not have had this deep exposure to music.

4) Without the benefit of substantial ear training and theory grounding experiences, you, the humble sight-reader can still move along with grace and dignity. If your particular weakness is bass clef note recognition, focus more on the lower staff as you “read” with a simultaneous gulp of the treble clef notes above. I like to flesh out the bass as a remedial step in my general practicing, but as a sight-reader, I might do the same, if I know this will hold the piece together without sacrificing a rich bass musical dimension.

5) Observe FINGERING as best you can. If the editor did a good job, it will help your “read” along. If not, any scale patterns or open five-finger positions on the printed page should lead you in sensible directions. (Better if you have had generous exposure to playing scales and arpeggios along the way in your studies–your fingers might flow more effortlessly and in the right directions)

6) Be attentive to phrase markings. These notations should help music flow in larger groups and not as compartmentalized note-to-note progressions. Throw in observance of dynamics, and you’re on the way to a nice listening experience for yourself and those in close proximity.

7) For the more advanced player and sight-reader, be aware of “voicing,” counterpoint and harmonic rhythm. Draw on fingering from scales, arpeggios, and chordal exposures. Be attuned to parallel and contrary motion of notes and attentive to overall form: A B A (ternary), Rondo, etc. Spot melodic and harmonic sequences going up or down. Scanning the piece prior to the sight-read with attention to all these elements, should go a long way in making it a continuous, satisfying flow from beginning to end.


Make daily sight-reading experiences for yourself. It takes PRACTICE to improve your skills. If you have the time and inclination, broaden your horizons with ear training and sight-singing activities, scale playing, and theory study. A firmer bed of knowledge in these areas should assist your whole musical growth process.

Enjoy your Sight-Reading by Paul Harris (Faber edition)
(in various levels)

John Kember – Piano Sight-Reading – Volume 1

A Fresh Approach
Series: Schott
Publisher: Schott
Composer: John Kember

An approach based on self-learning and the recognition of rhythmic and melodic patterns.

RELATED: Why Play Scales?

6 thoughts on “How to Improve Sight-reading at the Piano”

  1. Knowing the chord progresssions is helping me tremendously. The basic Major Chord progression I, IV & V (V7). Repeat: This is the very basic Chord progression. You will almost always begin with a I Chord and always end with a I Chord. At the beginning of a piece you wil begin on I Chord and in the middle of the piece you will progress either to a IV or V(7) Chord. I am finally grasping the Secondary Dominant Chords and I am really increasing my sight reading.


  2. My sight-reading is not too bad as a third grader, but definitely want more improvement. Thanks for sharing this article. I still struggle playing scales (two octaves). I tend to make mistakes atleast once or twice. It would be great if there would be an article on improving scales and arpeggios. Thank you 🙂


  3. The problem of sight reading is a major problem through out the world. It seems that all solutions are telling the pianists how to look, how to thonk, how to read right etc…
    But the problem is still there because it is in the notes.

    One sugestion is this:

    The notes on this site has been changed to a small degree but now are much easier to read.

    Be happy to hear what you think..


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