How To Improve Your Sight-Reading Skills

Author: Jeff Rosbrugh  //  Category: Jeff's Musings

Being a lifelong musician, I have had countless opportunities to read a piece of music for the first time, many of those with people watching and listening…and sometimes with the Record button on. I always thought that such a skill was part of being a musician, but as time went on I’ve discovered that I have an ability to do it better than a lot of very talented players I’ve worked with.

As with any ability, some of it is a natural talent and the rest is a learned skill. I know that I have some natural musical gifts, or I wouldn’t have pursued the career I have. But I believe most of my skills have been earned by years of study and application, meaning anyone with a little talent and a lot of ambition tempered with patience can achieve them too. So I hope that by sharing a few of my methods, you can hone your ability to look at music you’ve never seen before and play it like it’s been part of your repertoire for years.

DISCLAIMER: Most of what I’m saying relates to the piano, since it is my main instrument. Some principles will work on any instrument, whether playing solo melodies or backing up another performer. But my bread and butter skill is as an accompanist. I’m also taking the approach of reading a condensed chart, or lead sheet, as opposed to a fully realized accompaniment. Again, there is a great deal of overlap, but I’m focusing on the world of jazz and pop for now.

1. Know your theory. I’m not saying you have to go to Juilliard and earn a Master’s in music performance to be a great sight-reader…I’ve done neither. But a few years of instruction, whether in private lessons or university, will go a long way to improve your musical skills. Even a rudimentary knowledge of scales, modes, chords, and harmonic structure will help make sense of all the numbers, letters, and little black dots. Music is a language, and printed music is simply a road map to tell a performer how to speak.

2. Study the piano.  There is a reason why music majors around the country must pass a piano proficiency exam to earn their degree: it is the most foundational instrument in all of Western music. It doesn’t matter if you’re a singer, guitarist, drummer, or trumpeter. A basic understanding of the piano is crucial to any well-rounded music education. Two reasons for this are because you can see all the notes available to you, and you can play several notes together. It’s easier to visualize intervals like half steps, whole steps, and octaves on a keyboard than any other platform. It’s also much easier to understand chords and harmony on a keyboard. For example, a C major chord will have the same hand position on the piano no matter what octave it’s in, but a guitarist must memorize several hand positions to play the same C chord in different octaves. A sax player may know every note in a scale, but unfortunately they can only play one note at a time, so which scale or chord they’re playing is not immediately apparent.

3. Look for patterns. The more music you are exposed to, the more patterns you will recognize. Here is an area where theory will help. I couldn’t tell you how many thousands of songs use a I-IV-V progression, or a 12-bar blues pattern, or I-vi-ii-V. (If you don’t know theory, don’t worry about the Roman numerals–they are simply used as part of a way to understand the relationship of notes in a scale to each other. But that’s for another time.) It won’t take long playing tunes before you start to see how common certain chord progressions are. Players in jam sessions often need call only “Blues in E” or “Rhythm changes in B-flat” and they are off and running, with no other instructions.

4. Expect the unexpected. The beauty of music, of course, is that not every song follows such a predictable pattern. There are no rules which say that after playing a Dm7, your next chord must be G7. However, the reason why these patterns are so common is because they make sense to our ears. Look ahead in the music and anticipate what is coming next. If you’re on that Dm7 and you feel like it’s leading to the G7, if your intuition is right, you won’t be fumbling for the next chord. But if the harmony goes somewhere else, by looking ahead, you’ve given yourself (we hope) enough time to allow yourself to catch it.

5. Use all your senses. Music is an auditory art. Reading is a visual skill. Playing an instrument is a tactile experience. An effective sight-reader uses all three together. Seeing what note or chord comes next, the player can hear it before it occurs and knows what fingering or hand position to use. On the piano, chords feel a certain way; one term for this is called “grip.” In other words, a minor chord has a different grip from a major chord. A dominant seventh has a different grip from a major ninth. Experienced guitarists know hundreds of grips for different chords, inversions, and octaves. They often don’t think about where their hand is going–it’s muscle memory taking over. A pianist doesn’t have as many grips to contend with but the idea of muscle memory is the same. I know how far to stretch my fingers to reach an octave without being near a keyboard. Likewise, I can place my hand in position to play a major 7th, a minor 9th, a diminished 7th, a 13th, etc. without looking at my hand. When I see a chord coming up, my hand is already creating the grip for it.

6. Jump in the water to swim. I’ve had to learn not to fear the unknown when it comes to music. Often the best way to learn anything new is just to do it. Yes, I mess up that way and play a weird chord here and there, but it doesn’t take that long before I see the familiar patterns, feel those grips I already know, and by the time the song is done, I’ve pretty much got it. A great quote I learned years ago is “You can only read a piece of music for the first time, once.” If it’s a jam session, a “new” tune is played several times, so after the first or second reading, it’s not new anymore, and by the end of the song it’s yours.