How to Sight Read Piano Music Better

Updated: Jul 27

One of the most functional skills any musician can learn is to sight read music. Sight reading practice, however can be often confused with reading and learning to play a repertoire for performance.

When you work in ensembles, sight reading is required to learn music fast (sometimes on the spot). As a solo performer, you can explore more pieces effectively, and add to your portfolio for performances.

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The practice of sight reading, however, is a whole separate excercise in which anyone learning to read music, especially at the beginning levels, must consistently incorporate into their home practice routine.

Have you ever tried to read a piece of music on piano or any other instrument, only to find that you feel overwhelmed after 4 - 6 measures of reading and playing it?

Do you find that you often struggle as the reading requires more accidentals in the respective key signature of the piece?

This is where I let you in on a little "teacher's secret" for sight reading success.

Developing sight reading skills is methodically done by practicing reading of short music passages or pieces that are at least two levels below the current playing level. For example, if you are learning a Grade 3 piece, this means that your sight reading exercises will be Grade 1 music.

Why is sight reading of music below your current level of playing important?

Intervallic Reading and Pattern Recognition

Pianists have it pretty crazy as we learn how to read music on two staffs (the bass clef and treble clef). Other solo instrumentalists only read in one clef!

It is important to understand that practicing sight reading is training muscle memory and spatial awareness of the keyboard geography by learning to identify patterns that are coming ahead.

It is also training to keep a steady beat, even if the correct pitch was not played during the first pass of reading. Since we have to work both hands at the piano to sound tones, planning fingering mentally is one of the concepts we drill in sight reading excercises with melodic patterns.

In harmonic patterns, especially triads or 4-note chords, it gets more complex and learning to visually recognize the shape of chord positions (root and their inversions), is key here.

We can't be as efficient in reading every single note, so we must train the brain and muscle memory to know where to approximately go, and eventually becoming more precise and quicker in action.

Not to mention there's a billion other things to look out for such as articulation, legato or staccato touch, dynamic markings, rests, other music symbols, etc ... there's really a lot going on with reading music!

Free Sight Reading Piano Music Excercise
Mental practice of planning out fingering is very good excercise. Once you've identified your starting point, try moving your fingers accordingly to play the next two notes, without looking at the keyboard.

Analyzing patterns of movement in pitch is the first important step. Sight reading exercises are also usually done at a slower tempo. because the goal is to really take time to visually register the next pattern of tones (usually the next measure), and to keep count and play it with the right rhythm.

What is the time signature? What is my starting point? Which finger should I use? How are the notes moving in the phrase? Are they stepping pitch-wise up or down? Are there big melodic intervals, chords, octaves? Is it moving to another hand? Are there subdivided beats ahead? Are there any accidentals to be aware of in the piece?

Also, the training is such that once you start playing, you don't stop to correct. You keep the pace going!

This method ultimately transfers into learning to read music repertoire with patience and careful planning so as to not develop poor habits from the beginning.

To Stay Motivated

Often times, we want to advance fast. I totally get it. There are concert-level pieces that I would love to learn and play in a short amount of time.