Improve Your Sight Reading by Looking at Chunks of Music

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I’m Robert Estrin, and this is LivingPianos.com. Today’s subject is about how you can improve your sight reading by looking at chunks of music. When you first start out it’s really tough just being able to identify notes on the page! Eventually you get to the point where you start to make the relationship between lines and spaces and keys on the piano. So when you see line to line, you skip the space, and when you see space to space, you skip the line, which means you skip a key when you’re going from line to line or space to space. Chords usually are all on lines or all on spaces because they’re built on the interval of a third which is every other note of a scale. Or if you’re going from line to space to line to space, they’re probably going to be consecutive notes on the keyboard. Now, of course, there are black keys. That’s a whole other issue, but this is one way that you can improve your reading, by identifying distances between notes.

When you have really high or low ledger lines, way above or below the staff, sometimes it’s hard to know what the notes are.

There are some little cheats you can use. For example, when you have really high notes, if the bottom note is on a space and the top note is on a space, that’s not an octave. Because octaves are always space to line or line to space. That’s a little tip for you. If you have never really thought about this before, you can sometimes guess the right note if it looks like around an octave. But it better be line to space or space to line, or it’s not an octave. But what I’m talking about today is something quite different.

The secret of sight reading is to look at groups of notes!

At first, when you’re reading, it’s an arduous task. It took me many years to become a good sight reader. The secret is instead of looking note to note, look at groups of notes. Depending upon the piece, sometimes you’ll look at half measures at a time, taking in the entire thing as a digestible chunk you can comprehend. For example, the famous Bach Prelude for The Well-Tempered Clavier Book One in C major is a great example of this because the whole prelude is just broken chords. So if you’re playing the beginning of this piece, there’s no need to look at every note. Once you see the first chord, you can shoot your eyes to the next measure even before you’re there, because you’re already over the chord that you’re playing. This is an ideal piece to check out this technique for yourself if you’ve never done it before, because the entire piece is broken chords. And the whole measure is the same chord repeated twice, broken. You always want to be looking at the next group of notes, getting ahead of where you are. This is an incredibly valuable technique!

You’re never going to be able to read and keep time if you’re looking at each individual note.

This is one of the most important lessons for learning how to read in a fluid manner. Sometimes you have to surmise what the harmonies are and what the composer’s intentions were. There are some scores that are just so dense with notes and articulations! If you’re sight reading, you can’t always take the time to figure out every little detail. Particularly if you are accompanying other musicians.

Nobody wants you to take the time at rehearsal much less performance!

They’d rather you just flesh it out and get a sense of the music. A lot of times, you can kind of guess what the composer intended by seeing enough of the chord structure that you can play what’s written without necessarily seeing every single note. Now, that’s not an ideal situation. But if you’re reading something for the very first time, particularly if you’re playing with other musicians, sometimes that’s necessary.

Try this in your reading!

I’m very interested in how this works for you! Take a piece like Debussy’s 1st Arabesque or Bach’s Prelude in C Major to start, but you can do this with virtually any music! Some music is going to be a lot more difficult to do this technique with. That’s why a Bach fugue is really hard to sight read, because it doesn’t break itself down this way. You have too many separate lines. So this is not 100% foolproof. But in some pieces of music, it’s a godsend! So try it out for yourself and let me know how it works for you! Thanks so much for joining me, Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.

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Contact me if you are interested in private lessons. I have many resources for you! Robert@LivingPianos.com

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4 thoughts on “Improve Your Sight Reading by Looking at Chunks of Music”

  1. Well, I actually thought of all those things, and I STILL can’t read fast enough! But you confirmed what I already do. If I don’t get a note right, I simply completely lose it. I can’t just fill in with something similar. I suspect that is a skill all by itself, related to improvising, which I also cannot do. Your opening and closing piano improvisation is helping me learn; I sometimes now think about what you might play. The volume of that is louder than the volume of the video otherwise, so I have to adjust my volume to understand you without hurting my ears at beginning and end.

  2. Always been a good sight reader but it has disadvantages. Any time I find a new piece of music I tend to just dive in and start playing even if it is difficult, The result is not always pretty to begin with but after playing a few times it starts to come together. It also makes it harder for me to learn a piece since even once I know a piece well, I still like the music in front of me. Here’s an interesting observation – Many decades ago I was an accompanist for a musical society that put on Broadway style shows and since I used the full piano score during rehearsals I had a page turner. I was surprise to realize that she had to turn the page a bar or two before the next bar on the new page. The faster the music, the earlier the page had to be turned. So it begs the question, when reading and playing music, do you commit the bar(s) ahead of what you are actually playing to short term memory? By the way, she became very good at anticipating when to turn the page! One more observation. A friend once asked me how I could play all those chords and notes one after the other on a page of piano music. He didn’t think it was possible to analyze every note in every chord which I agreed with. My explanation was that it’s really pattern recognition. When I see a bunch of blobs on specific lines on the staffs, it translates directly to what my hands do on the keyboard. Would love to hear other opinions on these subjects.

    1. The reason why it takes people so long to become good at sight reading is because, as you mentioned, you have to essentially analyze patterns very quickly and understand the underlying structure well enough to flesh out the music, rather than actually seeing each individual marking.

      As for the disadvantages of being so accomplished at sight reading, you may decide to choose specific pieces to learn rather than just read through again and again. I just started a student who is a great reader and has never memorized in his life. He is doing remarkably well learning music in a new way which is so liberating – memorizing the score! Here is more on this subject in this video from years ago: https://livingpianos.com/how-to-practice-the-piano-part-1-memorizing-music/

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