Getting to be good at sight reading piano music as a student is one of the best ways to improve your musical aptitude. However, if you’re like many pianists, you may not be sure how to develop or improve your sight reading skills. In this list, we’ll take you through what you need to know to become a skilled and confident sight reader.
Sight Reading Piano: A Guide
No musician is born knowing how to sight read. Here are some tips to help you begin to develop your piano sight reading skills and hopefully have fun, too!
1. What Is Piano Sight Reading?
Many piano students dread sight reading. It does sound intimidating, but lots of players have misconceptions about this important skill. To successfully sight read, you do not need to play a piece absolutely perfectly. In fact, very, very few pianists (and even fewer student pianists) can actually do this.
Rather, sight reading means playing a piece through as soon as it’s set down in front of you. It doesn’t need to be completely perfect, but it does need to be a convincing, natural-sounding performance.
So what’s the point of sight reading? Even if you aren’t really a fan of live performances, you may find playing music with friends to be very rewarding. Making art with friends who sing or play other instruments gets a lot easier if you don’t need to spend a long time learning a piece.
This skill will make it possible to learn pieces of music faster than ever, too. Fast learning isn’t often that important for students, but if you want to play at higher levels, it’s indispensable.
If you want to learn a little more, check out this video introduction to sight reading.
2. Before Sight Reading: Skills You Need
As you prepare to begin sight reading, make sure that you have the necessary skills. Obviously, you will need to be able to read music proficiently. That doesn’t just mean being able to read notes on the staff; understanding time signatures and key signatures also matters.
The most crucial skill when it comes to sight reading is being able to play a new piece at a consistent tempo (and to play it mostly as written). You don’t need to make sure every note in the track is 100% correct. It’s more important to maintain rhythm and sound convincing.
Even if you’re still learning to read music or are a new piano player, you can still start sight reading. But it may be a good idea to practice sight reading the parts for each hand separately.
Don’t be embarrassed to start simply like this; the sooner you start learning sight reading, the easier it becomes to master. But once you can read music well enough to hear it in your head first, sight reading becomes a lot easier.
Of course, making sure you have the correct form while sight reading piano (or playing at all) is vital. This is especially important for students teaching themselves to play. Take a look at this helpful video and check your posture!
3. Choose A Piece To Sight Read
If you are new to sight reading music, you may not yet have put a lot of thought into how to choose your first practice pieces. When selecting a piece for sight reading, choose something easier than the level of music you usually practice. After all, playing something right when you see it is a lot more challenging than learning over time.
It can be helpful to choose something with a simple key signature. The key signature, simply put, tells you what key a piece of music is written in.
If you’re fairly new to reading music, simple key signatures are ones where most of the notes aren’t sharps or flats. The time signature indicates how notes are grouped and which beats need to be emphasized.
It’s perfectly fine to really err on the side of caution and choose very simple pieces — even those designed for children! After a couple of these, you’ll quickly be able to work with more complex pieces of music.
If you’re looking for some easy sheet music to start with, check out this video. It offers about 30 minutes of beginner piano sight reading material.
4. Sight Reading Skills: What’s Important?
Like we mentioned above, sight reading music isn’t about getting everything completely correct. It does combine a few key skills:
- Identifying chords
- Identifying notes
- Being able to read the time signature
- Being able to read the key signature
- Knowing where to place your fingers as soon as you see a note/chord
- Understanding tempo and articulation notes
- Delivering a convincing, natural-sounding performance
If you want to really make progress in sight reading, make sure you focus more on the rhythm and the overall sense of the song. Many students let a wrong note or two throw them off. As you get more familiar with sight reading, you’ll also get better at covering wrong notes.
If you’d like some extra tips and advice on how to master sight reading on the piano, check out this useful video!
5. Start Off Slowly
Don’t start off expecting a perfect performance while sight reading music, especially with the first song or two. Getting good at sight reading takes a lot of practice, and every great sight reader was in your shoes at some point!
It’s ok to play the notes more slowly than instructed when sight reading, especially in the beginning. When you’re on your first few pieces, focus on just hitting the right notes. Don’t worry about reading ahead at this point; just work on playing right note after right note.
Having some understanding of music theory can help you improve your sight reading skills. Theory can help you understand how keys work, and it also makes it easier to adjust for and cover wrong notes. If you’d like a quick intro to music theory, check out this helpful video.
6. Read Ahead
As you maintain the rhythm of a piece you’re sight reading, make sure you are reading the music ahead, at least by a couple of bars.
If you’re aware of the notes and chords on the horizon, you’ll be better equipped to hear what the music sounds like in your head. It probably sounds like a lot to manage, but it’s not impossible — and it will help you play music more confidently and accurately, even when you aren’t sight reading.
Think of it like reading words aloud. In a situation where you’re reading aloud and want to avoid mistakes, you’re probably at least glancing at the words ahead of what you’re reading. When you’re proficient at sight reading, you just do the same with notes.
While it’s ideal to read ahead by a couple of bars, don’t be afraid to start slowly — you can even read ahead by just a couple of notes. Check out this video lesson to start learning how to read ahead as you play.
7. Play All The Way Through
When teaching yourself sight reading, one of the most important things is to play the entire piece of music from beginning to end without stopping. This useful skill will also help you continue playing if you miss a note during a performance. It also helps ensure you don’t lose the rhythm of the song.
When you’re new to sight reading, it’s tempting to go back and play through parts of the song to perfect them. Keep in mind that that’s what practice is for. While sight reading could certainly be counted as part of your practice, remember that it isn’t meant to be an in-depth study. It’s just to test your music-reading abilities.
If moving nonstop through a piece of music sounds very difficult, check out this video aimed at students new to sight reading.
8. Don’t Go Back
Each time you have a sight reading session, make sure that you’re looking at a new song. If you continue to practice the same piece of music, you lose the whole point of sight reading. After all, you’re already familiar with the notes, so if you play those same notes again, you aren’t truly sight reading the piece.
To prepare yourself for this learning journey, make sure you have a steady supply of new music. This might sound like it would be difficult, expensive, or both. But there are plenty of resources offering free or cheap new pieces.
Many music sites offer free PDFs that you can pull up on a laptop or tablet. There are even free videos like this one offering practice pieces for almost every level of player.
If you like a piece of music, you can always practice it further, but that won’t be helpful for sight reading. But learning to play a piece as written certainly has its merits, and it’s a critical part of becoming a good pianist, too.
9. Mix Things Up
It’s easy to just want to practice sight reading the music you like, especially in the beginning. Branching out will help make sure you can get good at playing rhythms or progressions that aren’t familiar to you. After all, similar genres of music often use similar chord progressions, etc.
You might also want to get back to basics with some exercises. These exercises can help train your fingers and help you improve your coordination. And of course, practicing your scales is crucial, too.
That’s because when a piece is in a certain key, the notes within it are usually part of the corresponding scale. This video shows you some helpful exercises designed by piano teachers to help students improve.
10. Try Sight Reading Assessments
If you’ve gotten fairly good at sight reading and want a challenge, you might want to test out your skills.
Some piano learning sites even incorporate official assessments for free. Many use the Standard Assessment of Sight Reading, which is discussed in this video.
The Standard Assessment of Sight Reading (SASR) is standardized, but many piano sites offer their own tests, too. These assessments use a USB-connected keyboard or an electric piano to monitor and rate your performance. Usually, an on-screen keyboard will light up a certain color with each correct note. It also lights up in a different color (usually red) if a note is missed or played incorrectly.
Assessments can be a little stressful, but the practice of testing your ability can be very helpful in figuring out where your weaknesses are. Though you can often get a sense of how good your sight reading skills are just from practicing, online assessments are especially good at making sure you’re playing the piece at the intended tempo, or at least close to it.
Want to Learn More?
It’s definitely possible to teach yourself to sight read music. But if you really want to develop your sight reading ability, good teachers can be incredibly helpful. You don’t even need to seek out an in-person teacher for guidance, either. There’s a whole world of online piano lessons out there, and they help you plan your learning around your schedule.
Many of these professionally-designed lessons include tips, exercises, and specially-curated pieces to help students improve their sight reading. Some piano-focused sites even include teacher-designed assessments designed to test your sight reading skills!
We hope that you now feel a little more confident and ready to jump into sight reading practice. Make sure you have plenty of pieces of music in different styles ready to practice with. With patience and focus, you’ll start to see huge progress in your ability as a musician.
But what do you think? Are there any important tips for sight reading piano we left out? Please let us know in the comments, and don’t forget to like and share if you found it useful. Happy reading!