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The Golden Rules of Sight Reading

Would you like to be able to sight read music as easily and as well as you can read these words at sight? If you answered: "Yes!" then you came to the right place!

The 2 basic rules are simply these:

1) Always count

2) Never stop

However, if you want to be a real professional at sight reading then we can go even deeper! One of the reasons I chose teaching and performing music as a profession is because the depth and height of it is endless. In other words, you can learn just enough to play "Happy Birthday" and some favorite tunes, or you can keep learning more complicated and creative music by the famous composers and even write your own music!

1) The first step of sight reading is finding your time signature and knowing how to count each measure:

​There is a time signature at the beginning of every piece of music, so look at the top number and count that many beats per measure, and look at the bottom number and that tells you what kind of note gets the beat.

2/4 time signature means there are 2 beats in each measure and a quarter note gets one beat.

3/4 time signature means there are 3 beats in each measure and a quarter note gets one beat.

4/4 time signature means there are 4 beats in each measure and a quarter note gets one beat.

6/8 time signature means there are 6 beats in each measure and an eighth note gets one beat.

It does get more involved however because 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8 are compound time signatures. This means each beat is divided by three into equal groups of dotted notes, such as 6/8, which contains two dotted quarter note beats, or 9/4, which contains three dotted half note beats.

Irregular time signatures, such as 5/4 or 7/8, cannot be subdivided into equal beat groups but you would count for 5/4 the 5 beats in each measure and a quarter note gets one beat, and you would count for 7/8 the 7 beats per measure and the eighth note gets the beat.​


2) The second step of sight reading is finding your key signature, decide what key you are in by thinking of the scale which has that key signature and look at the first measure which establishes your key and the last measure of the piece. This should tell you if you are in the major key which has that key signature, or in its relative minor key which you can find by either stepping down 3 half-steps from tonic, or by finding the 6th degree of the major scale.

Then scan your piece briefly to find the notes which are affected by the key signature. That means to find the notes which will be raised if sharped and lowered if flatted.

3) The third step of sight reading is to notice patterns that recur such as scale patterns with stepwise motion up or down and/or arpeggio patterns which are broken chords played as individual notes. Also, notice recurring rhythmic patterns. This makes it easier to follow the music at sight.

4) The fourth step of sight reading is to check your fingering by figuring out your hand position for each hand. You can do this by finding your highest and lowest note for each hand and positioning your hands accordingly. Also notice where there will be a change of hand positions and anticipate the fingering changes as well.

5) The fifth step of sight reading is to scan the piece of music for any markings that indicate the character of the piece. For example, if the piece is in a major key and has a tempo of Allegretto with a term written like "Giocoso" and dynamics of mezzo forte to forte with staccatos and accents, the character will probably be happy, lively and humorous!

​Then again, if the piece is in a minor key and the tempo is Largo which means slow, and the indication is "Doloroso" then it will probably be a sad piece with a somber mood.

6) The sixth step of sight reading is to count one measure aloud, nice and steady, then one measure in your head silently, then begin. So, count at least two measures before you begin to sight read the piece.

I will make a Vlog on this subject so I can demonstrate each point for you to understand more thoroughly. Stay tuned for more!

My next Blog will be: "When performing a piece you are sight reading."

Happy practicing!

Much love,

Diane L. Miller, NCTM (Nationally Certified Teacher of Music)

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