Music & Entertainment

Music 101: What Is Sight Reading? Learn How to Get Better at Sight Reading in 3 Steps

Written by MasterClass

Jun 20, 2019 • 4 min read

Believe it or not, some of the most famous recordings in history were performed by people who were seeing the music for the first time. In the mid-twentieth century, professional studio ensembles like The Wrecking Crew and The Funk Brothers would lay down tracks for Top 40 hits despite barely being acquainted with the songs they were performing. In Hollywood film studios, professional orchestras often track movie score cues in a single take. How is this possible? Because these musicians are masters of sight reading.

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What Is Sight Reading in Music?

Sight reading is the ability to play a piece of music that you’ve never played before simply by reading it off of a page of written music.

In many ways, this skill is no different than an actor’s ability to convincingly perform a section of dialogue by reading it straight off the page. We all know that a great actor can take words on a page and instantly bring them to life by using skills she’s developed throughout her career. So, too, can a politician take words composed by a professional speechwriter and read them for the first time as though they represent his most deeply held conviction.

A professional musician should have similar abilities on her instrument. Perhaps she won’t give her very best performance when reading music cold right off a page, but she should be able to give a convincing performance—if for no other reason to allow herself, her fellow players, and the composer to hear what this music sounds like in actual practice.

All players, when learning a new piece of music, employ sight reading in one way or another—even if their sight-read performance might not be worthy of public consumption.

What Is the Purpose of Sight Reading?

Sight reading is useful to composers who need to hear how their music sounds when performed by its intended ensemble. Many of today’s composers “mock up” their music using MIDI technology and software instruments. These can sound quite realistic, but nothing can equal the sound of live instrumentation. Therefore, a composer relies on players being able to efficiently sight read a score and give a true sense of how it sounds.

Sight reading also helps projects stay on budget. Most professional studio musicians belong to a union, and their unions (fairly) demand high hourly wages for their members. This means that most composers and producers cannot afford to have union musicians in the studio for days on end, recording take after take. In order for the project to be affordable, studio musicians must be able to deliver usable takes on their first, second, or third attempt. This isn’t possible unless the musicians are excellent sight readers.

What Is Sight Singing?

Sight singing is a technique taught in many music schools (such as The Juilliard School, the Colburn School, The Peabody Institute, or Berklee College of Music) wherein instrumentalists sing through a musical score before performing it on their instrument.

You don’t need to have perfect pitch to sight sing a score. However, professional musicians should include ear training in their studies, and with proper ear training, one can usually sing the approximate pitches you are reading on the page. But sight singing isn’t just about pitch. It is also a way to track:

  • Note duration
  • Tempo
  • Meter
  • Rhythmic intricacies
  • Dynamics (volume)
  • Sudden changes in any of the above

By singing through a score without holding your instrument, you can isolate all of these elements without also having to worry about what your left hand or right hand should be doing, or where you should be breathing or repositioning your fingers. That can (and must) be part of your musical preparation, but consider saving those considerations for later. By engaging in sight singing, you force yourself to do this.

Improve Your Sight Reading in 3 Steps

There are three essential tips for any musician seeking to improve their sight-reading.

  1. Put in the time, and don’t cut corners. As with anything else in music, you have to practice to get good at it. First, learn to read well. That means knowing the names of the notes, key signatures, flats and sharps, time signatures, and rhythms.
  2. Don’t launch right into playing. Study the score before you perform it. When you sight read, there are things you should examine in the music before you begin to play. Look for changes in tempo, key, or meter, and mark them with a pencil. If there are any densely packed measures, use your pencil to mark downbeats (perhaps quarter-notes or at least half-notes) so that you stay on the beat when playing them. If there is any uncertainty about which string to play a note on, or what finger you should use to reach a certain note, write that on your score as a reminder.
  3. Challenge yourself by sight reading alongside others. The best way to practice sight reading is to play chamber music with friends and colleagues and/ or to play in an orchestra, where there are ample opportunities to read new music. You can practice alone by reading music you aren’t familiar with, but playing with other people makes you more accountable—the orchestra is not going to stop every time you get a little confused.

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