If you struggle with sight reading you could be looking at too much of the detail and not enough of the bigger picture. Maybe you’ve learnt to read, like I did, memorising mnemonics like Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit or FACE, and never learnt any other way to read notes. I’ve personally found this method to be hugely inefficient.
During my mission to improve my own atrocious sight reading I found that there are 3 essential elements to reading music successfully.
It’s not just about what you SEE written on the stave, it’s also about what you FEEL (or touch) and what you HEAR as you play.
If we look close enough we can see patterns in music everywhere. Recognising these patterns when sight reading is where the secret to fluency lies. This is about learning to see the whole rather than the individual parts. If you can do this you will really improve your reading skills.
But first, we’ll need to quickly check off some fundamentals to reading music. This may seem obvious to many but it may not be to some (like me only a few years ago).
#1. Clefs Clarity
The true name and function of the clefs are often overlooked when learning to read music. But their role in sight reading is crucial and way more useful than just seeing the “right hand” and “left hand” positions on the keyboard.
The treble clef is also known as the G clef because of how the line of the clef is drawn around the note G. It pinpoints on the stave where the Treble G note is.
The bass clef is also known as the F clef because of how it wraps around the note F and encloses it with the two little dots? It pinpoints on the stave where the Bass F note is.
The Treble G and Bass F notes are landmark notes and they will help you navigate your way around the stave.
#2. Landmark Notes
Landmark notes are a few specific notes that create visually memorable patterns across the stave that help us to remember them.
I’ve mentioned already about Treble G and Bass F. Visually these two notes are located on the 2nd line from the bottom of the treble staff and the 2nd line from the top of the bass staff respectively.
Where it gets interesting is when you notice how the G’s and F’s crosses over to mirroring positions on the alternate clef.
The same mirroring patterns occur more with the notes F and G.
Treble F (bottom space of treble staff) crosses over to the Low F (1st space below the bass staff), while Bass G (top space of bass staff) crosses over to the High G (1st space above the treble staff).
The next series of landmark notes is the note C.
C is like a spotlight that sheds light on our position on the stave in such a clear and beautifully symmetrical way.
Drawing a line through middle C, can you recognise how the C’s on the staves are a mirror image of each other?
Now that we can see these patterns the next step is to drill them into our minds. It’s so much easier to remember only three letters and their positions on the stave then every single letter individually.
From here you can read other notes through the interval relationships.
You’re not reliant on remembering each note name as you go, or by reciting the alphabet up and down the lines and spaces on the stave.
#3. The Wonderous Interval
Would you describe intervals as exciting? I would. Their uses in the musical landscape are many and varied. In particular, I’ve found them to be a hugely beneficial tool for improving your sight reading.
I’ve talked previously about my journey as a bad sight reader, and how I owe my recovery to unlocking the power of intervals in my sight reading. So you know I’m a big fan. If you’re already an intervals enthusiast then you know what I’m talking about, but if you’re not just yet, let me tell you what I’ve learnt about how to optimise your sight reading using intervals.
For this, we need to see the interval as a whole and not the notes or steps in between.
Let me explain.
All intervals within an octave have a number (1-8) and a quality (maj/min/aug/dim). For the purposes of sight reading, we focus more on the number rather than the quality.
For a quick visual method of determining an interval’s number we can use what I like to call the SAME and DIFFERENT rule.
All notes sit on either a space or a line on the stave. The two notes that make up an interval can be described as:
One note appearing on a LINE and the other on a SPACE.
Intervals that are DIFFERENT are represented by EVEN numbers 2, 4, 6, 8
Both notes appearing on TWO LINES or TWO SPACES
Intervals that are the SAME are represented by ODD numbers 1, 3, 5, 7
Now that you can see these interval shapes, drilling your recognition of them will be a crucial first step.
Active listening is an under-utilised skill for sight reading.
We’re often so focused on what we’re seeing that we completely ignore what we’re hearing.
Simply paying attention to what you’re hearing will make a big difference.
Ask yourself, does it sound right, or is it what you expected to hear? If not search for the right sound using your ears DON’T LOOK DOWN!
Being able to translate the intervals that you’re reading into what you’re hearing really is a must. If you haven’t done much in the way of aural interval training, get yourself an aural training app now and get practising.
Not training your aural skills is a BIG mistake and will hold you back, in more ways than just sight reading.
The kinesthetic connection between sight, sound and touch is the magic fairy dust that transforms reading notes on a page into an instinctive and natural form of expression. It allows us to get in flow with the music. We can detach from the analytical process and get on with the feeling.
The fastest way to get to this place is to take the focus AWAY from your hands. Put simply don’t look down, EVER if you can manage it.
It will be a train wreck at first, but trust me, the more you do this the better you’ll get at it. You’ll start to find your way by feeling the black key groups quickly, by recognising the shape and feel of intervals under your hands, and by improving your spatial awareness of distances across the keyboard.
Gradually, your fingers will learn to read music almost like reading brail. Your ears activate because you’re no longer distracted by your hands. Your sight will be transfixed on the score meaning more accuracy, more fluency, and a greater awareness of what’s coming up.
Top Tips To Start Improving Your Sight Reading
#1. Drill your landmark notes. You may wish to skip this step if you’re already a good note reader. Otherwise, to switch over to a different mode of sight reading you’ll probably need to unlearn what you have learned, especially if you’ve got some bad sight reading habits.
#2. Drill your interval numbers using the Same and Different Rule.
#3. Don’t look down!! Allow the wrong notes to come. Keep the pulse going and try to catch up even if it takes you several bars. If you’re always looking at the score you shouldn’t lose your place.
#4. Always keep your hears activated. If you recognise a wrong note, try to find the right note without looking down at your hands.
#4. Do regular intentional sight reading practice using this method. Try not to fall back into old habits. Even if it’s just 5 mins at a sitting, micro efforts will build up into significant improvement over time.