In order to improve your skills as a musician, advance in your craft, and become "employable," you must be able to sight-read sheet music. Sight reading is an important part of most auditions and a much-needed part of being able to keep up with an orchestra, choir, or band. If you learned to play your instrument or sing by ear, learning to sight-read sheet music will help you become a more confident and effective musician and performer.
Part 1 of 3: Review Music Theory
Step 1. Understand the different types of notes
When reading sheet music at sight, you will see round, white, quarter, eighth and sixteenth notes. These notes are characterized by a different duration or the length of time for which they are played. The round is the longest and from there the notes become shorter. For example, a sixteenth note is 1/16 of a round note.
- While you may think that music and math have nothing in common, understanding the different types of musical notes is as simple as understanding basic fractions. For example, a quarter note is 1/4 of a round. In other words, you can play four quarter notes at the time you would play a round.
- Each note has a different symbol. The parts of the symbols are the head, which is the round part of the note; the stem, which is the line that extends from the head; and the bracket, which is the curved line that comes out of the stem, like a flag.
- A round is denoted only by a hollow head, without stem or bracket. A white woman has a hollow head and an escrow. A black woman has a colored head and a stem. An eighth note has a colored head, stem, and bracket. A sixteenth note has a colored head, a stem, and two brackets.
Step 2. Familiarize yourself with the timestamps
Timestamps appear on all scores and tell you the number and type of notes in each measure. In simple terms, timestamps tell you how fast or slow the song will play. When it comes to sight reading sheet music, this is the first thing you will notice about a piece, so it is extremely important that you fully understand timestamps. Practice different rhythm exercises to feel more comfortable working with different time stamps.
- If the timestamp is 4/4, this means that each measure contains four quarter notes. The top number refers to the number of notes and the bottom number refers to the type of note.
- A timestamp of 3/4 it means that there are three black ones, 6/8 means there are six eighth notes, 3/2 means there are three white ones, etc.
- Use a metronome to help you keep track of the tempo.
Step 3. Memorize the key signatures
Key signature is a grouping of key signatures that tell you to play a certain note a semitone higher or lower than you normally would. Basically, the key signature tells you how to play the piece the way the composer intended and is therefore a crucial component of sight reading. The key signature can be found right next to the staff, usually at the beginning of a line of musical notation.
- To read key signatures with sharps (major), look at the last sharp on the key signature and move a semitone above it. So if the last sharp is C, the clef is in D major.
- To read key signatures with flats (minor), look at the penultimate flat (read flats from left to right). If the penultimate flat is E, the song is in E flat major.
- F major (or D minor) is the exception to this rule as this particular key signature only has one flat (B flat).
Step 4. Learn about the location of each note on the staff
There are two types of clefs, the treble clef and the bass clef, and the notes look different depending on the clef you use. Learn the location of each note in both types of clefs and practice until you recognize the notes just by looking at them.
- In the treble clef, the notes on each line from top to bottom are mi, sol, si, re, and fa. Use the mnemonic resource "My sun does shine easily."
- In the treble clef, the notes in each space from top to bottom are F, A, C, and E.
- In the bass clef, the notes on each line from top to bottom are G, B, D, F, and A. Use the mnemonic resource "Sun does shine easily on the lake."
- In the bass clef, the notes in each space from top to bottom are A, C, E, and G. Use the mnemonic resource "Leftover golden honey."
Step 5. Practice your scales
Practicing scales will help both vocalists and instrumentalists become more familiar with the names of each note and where each one is located on the staff. If you are an instrumentalist, practice the scales without looking at your hands.
- If you look at your hands, you won't be able to let your eyes focus on reading the score.
- Players should also practice sight singing. This will help you work on phrasing, intonation, and musicality.
Part 2 of 3: Improve Your Sight Reading Skills
Step 1. Focus all your attention on the score in front of you
In other words, act as if every piece of music you are going to read is the most important thing in the world at the moment, clearing your mind of other distractions and daily worries. Sight reading involves many moving parts - you have to follow notes, rhythms, key changes, and thousands of other variables. It's impossible to sight-read perfectly without concentrating your entire brain on that task.
- Challenge yourself to sight-read an entire piece of music without making any mistakes.
- Every time your mind starts to wander, refocus and start over.
Step 2. Divide the score into large chunks
When you're just starting to sight-read, you may be trying to count each measure, divide each beat, and tap like crazy to the beat. Just relax! Each piece of music has hundreds of notes and trying to count and identify each one can be exhausting and impossible. Instead, break the piece into larger chunks and try to read the score this way.
- Divide each measure in two and see where the downbeats are. This is a method of interpreting music in a more relaxed and musical way.
- Now, you can watch two beats, or even a full measure, at the same time. This is much less chaotic than trying to count each and every time.
Step 3. Look for known rhythms
While each piece of music you come across is beautifully unique, there are certain repeating patterns that you will come across frequently. Buy sight reading practice materials. Children improve at reading words by reading multiple books and musicians improve at sight reading by reading multiple pieces. Try visiting websites like PianoMarvel to get access to sight reading exercises and pieces of music that you can practice with.
- Also look online for websites that offer free sheet music.
- Ask your music teacher if they have any additional scores that they would be willing to let you copy.
Step 4. Keep a practice journal
Practice often. The best sight score readers are musicians who are laid-back and confident in their abilities. Becoming a seasoned sight reader can take years, but implementing good practice habits is something you can do right now. Try to practice sight reading for at least 15 minutes every day.
- Write down in your journal what you practiced and how long you did it.
- Practice sight reading slowly. You can always pick up the beat after you feel more comfortable with the sheet music.
Step 5. Use exercises to improve
The practice exercises will not only help you recognize certain patterns and memorize note types, key signatures, and timestamps, but they will also help you become a more confident musician. Websites like TheSightReadingProject.com allow you to practice for free online. Grab a cheap sheet music book, open it to a random page, and start sight-reading something. As with any skill, the more you read, the more confident and competent you will become. As you become more comfortable with the basics, you can begin to hone your skills.
Part 3 of 3: Preparing to sight-read
Step 1. Read the entire score
When you first see the piece, take a moment to review it without your instrument. Try tapping the rhythm, reading the notes, and checking the structure to see which bars will repeat. Every time you come across a new piece of music, you have to go through a basic checklist in your head.
- Memorize the key signature, break the music into chunks as discussed above, be aware of any repeated rhythms and any tricky spots, and disconnect from the distractions of the day.
- Look for any signs that indicate a change in speed, volume, or disturbances.
- If you have permission, mark these changes on the score with a pencil.
Step 2. Play the whole piece on your head
Take a moment to plumb the piece and look for patterns within the score. See if there are places where the melodies repeat themselves. Study the piece as much as you can before even picking up your instrument.
- Find places in the score where there are scales or arpeggios.
- The more familiar you are with the sheet music, the easier it will be to sight read when you have your instrument in hand.
Step 3. Breathe and pay no attention to mistakes
Sight reading can be overwhelming, but breathing can help keep you focused and can even keep you on time. Relax your body and mind, and try to focus on the task. Keep going if you make a mistake because blocking yourself can only make the problem worse. Make a mental note to practice the part that got you in trouble, and then pay no more attention to it. There is a lot more music to play and you would be surprised how often the public doesn't notice a small mistake.
- If you are a singer or if you play a wind instrument, use a pencil to mark where you should breathe.
- Don't blame yourself if you don't read the score perfectly the first time. Sight reading is a skill that takes time to develop.