Sight Reading for Beginners-All you need to make Progress

Sight reading music is an invaluable skill that has numerous benefits when it comes to learning new music.  However, it is something that many musicians find challenging.  The earlier you start sight reading practice, the better and if you are not sure what that entails, don’t worry.  In this article, you’ll find a comprehensive guide to sight reading for beginners.

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What is sight reading?

Before I go any further, let’s take a look at what sight reading in music means.  Sight music reading is the ability to read and perform music that a player has not seen previously. 

In other words, it is music that you never practised. 

Professional musicians can look at a piece and hear it internally before they perform it. This skill makes learning new music much quicker, hence why it’s crucial to develop sight reading mastery from an early stage in your musical journey.

How to improve sight reading

In this comprehensive guide, I’ll cover sight-reading tips to help you make progress.  If you practice sight reading regularly, you will soon start to see the benefits. 

Why not come along to our Sight Read with Confidence Workshop?

Many exercises suggested in this post don’t require your instrument, so they are perfect for doing during a lunch break at work or while multitasking with chores. 

If you are short of practice time, don’t skip practising sight reading. The benefits will have a much more significant impact on your playing than other aspects of music.

Why do people find sight reading so tricky? 

Sight reading tests all of your musical skills. It’s a culmination of basically everything there is in music.

You’ve got to be able to feel the pulse, not just with a metronome, but also internally. and you’ve got to be able to keep that beat steady throughout the music.

Secondly, you’ve got to be able to subdivide the rhythms, and you’ve got to be able to absorb information quickly.

You have to be able to read the notes, work out what key the piece is in and it helps if you can recognise chord progressions, phrasing in music and cadence points.

Then we’ve got to decode the music.

You’ve got to decipher all that information going on in your head.

You need to learn to read ahead, be prepared for, what you don’t know because you are sight reading.

You’ve got to be able to hear the music internally, and on top of that, we’ve got to feel confident.

So when you put all that together, is it a wonder that we find sight reading a challenge?

I don’t think so!

The best way to improve your sight reading is to start looking at each of those individual elements. 

Tips for sight reading

Whether you are sight reading on piano or sight reading violin music, you need to develop an internal sense of pulse. 

Tip 1- Develop an internal sense of pulse

The pulse is the underlying beat of the music, which must be kept steady and consistent a bit like your heartbeat. 

In other words, the speed should be kept constant throughout the performance and not slow down at the trickier sections.

Here are a few sight reading exercises to help

Feel the Beat free sight reading exercises

Keeping the pulse steady in music requires practice and concentration.  The music in the following exercise has four beats per bar. It has a strong drum beat so you’ll be able to hear the crotchets and there’s a metronome to help you at the beginning. 

Instructions

Clap along, and then you’ll see a screen that flashes up that says keep going through the silent bars.

When the music stops, you’ve got to keep clapping and count through four bars of silence. That’s 16 claps that you’ve got to maintain at the same tempo and on the 17th clap shout “NOW”.

When you shout “NOW”, the music should play. 

Maintaining a steady pulse through silent bars is not easy. Me and my husband, who are both professional musicians, didn’t always get it right, and we had a good giggle when I was creating this post. 

If you get the opportunity to try it with friends and family, you’ll understand what I mean.  People will inevitably shout now at different times, so there’s plenty of fun to be had.

Try this exercise several times and see if you can always maintain a steady beat.  The likelihood is that you’ll get it right sometimes, but not every time.

Feel the beat -sight reading exercise number 2

Here is another exercise that you can do to improve your internal sense of pulse.

Record yourself silently counting to 10 at a speed of crotchet = 60. Don’t use a metronome to do this, but do give yourself four counts out loud to begin. That’s a speed of one count per second.  On the 11th count, snap or clap your fingers.  

Now play the recording and count silently again. 

If you maintain the same tempo, you should snap your fingers at precisely the same time as you did on the recording.

It’s not easy to count at exactly the same tempo, which is why it’s imperative to use a metronome when practising sight reading.

Feel the Beat -sight reading exercise number 3

The third exercise that I suggest is a fantastic one to do while you are driving in the car or listening to music at home.

Join in, tapping the beat with the music, then see if you can work out the metronome speed. Remember that 60 on a metronome is one beat per second, this will help you determine the tempo.

If possible check on the metronome and see if you are correct.

Rhythm sight reading exercises

Being able to play rhythms accurately with a metronome is essential if you are going to become a competent sight reader. Personally, I would say always have the metronome on, particularly, if you’re early in your musical journey.

There are lots of different metronomes available, so find one with a sound that you enjoy.

An image of different types of metronomes for rhythmic sight reading.

We strengthen our neural pathways through repetitive practice. So when you turn the metronome off, the likelihood is that you’re not playing in time.

If you tried the Feel the Beat exercises above, you probably discovered that you weren’t always able to maintain a steady beat.

Tip Number 2- Count each beat individually

When sight reading rhythms it’s easier to treat each beat as an individual unit. Forget about trying to count to four in each bar and count one for each crotchet (quarter note) as opposed to counting 1 2 3 4 in each bar.

An image of beginner sight reading tests showing how to count beats as individual units.

When you are a beginner, sight reading is difficult as there’s an awful lot to think about and process. You’ve got the notes to read, the fingers to co-ordinate, you’ve got to maintain a steady pulse etc.

It’s, therefore, easier to count each note as a single unit makes sight reading rhythm that bit more manageable.

A crotchet (quarter note) is one regardless of which beat it is in the bar.  It doesn’t matter if it’s on the second beat or the fourth, it still takes the value of one. So count everything individually.

As you improve, you can work towards counting to four beats per bar or whatever the time signature requires.

You can learn more about compound time signatures in this post.

Rhythm exercises

Use the following sight reading examples as outlined below.

Practice saying the counts while clapping the exercise to a metronome. 

Set the metronome to crotchet equals 80. If that’s too fast and you need to slow it down, try 60.

When you can do 80 increase that number, and maybe try 120. If you find it difficult, do one bar at a time, and slow that metronome down. 

Once you can clap the rhythms confidently, try playing them using one note on your instrument.

You can choose any pitch, it doesn’t matter. Don’t read music, just look at the rhythm, and make sure you’ve got the metronome on.

There’s another reason to have the metronome on as well. When you’re sight reading, you have to multitask. You’ve got to read music; move your fingers, count the rhythms and read ahead.

By using the metronome you are gradually building up the skills and helping your brain decode everything, one step at a time.

It’s a good idea to record yourself and check that you are playing the rhythm accurately on one note.

If you want to make it a bit more challenging, you could try playing a scale using these rhythms.  For example, if you were practising violin sight reading, you could play D major as shown below.

To develop this further as a piano sight reading exercise or if you are sight reading on guitar, you could use one of the rhythms and play a chord on each beat. 

Easy sight reading with rests

Many students find rests tricky as nobody likes silence. But Mozart said,

Music is in the silence and not in the notes we play

Mozart

And it’s very true without space in music it loses some of its unique qualities.

When you see a rest, keep things simple and just say rest to the metronome click. If its a minim rest say rest, rest. 

When you are clapping through examples with rests open the hands out to identify a movement with the rest. 

Once you can clap the rhythm and feel confident that you understand the rests, try playing the rhythm on one note as I explained above.

Sub-dividing beats in music sight reading

As this is a post on sight reading for beginners, I am only going to cover quavers. Still, you can use the same methods for other subdivisions later.

Many people like to use one and two, to count quavers; however, I find words to be far more effective. 

When subdividing a beat into two equal parts, use the word coffee. 

The C of the word coffee goes with the click of the metronome, so start by pronouncing the syllables cof and fee clearly to a metronome set at crotchet = 50.

Make sure you are subdividing evenly and when you feel confident, start clapping the quavers. 

Record yourself clapping quavers to a metronome to check that they are even. 

If you are finding it difficult to gauge the speed of the quavers, double the metronome to 100 and clap on each click.  (This will give the speed of each individual quaver).

Practice until you feel more confident with the tempo and then try again clapping quavers at crotchet =50 on the metronome.

Sight Reading Notes

To sightread well, you have to be able to read the pitches in music like you can read words on a page.

Tip number 3 – Read notes like you read words

That means quickly. Our eyes act like a camera, and if we have learnt the vocabulary, we can read words even if they appear distorted like below.

If English is your first language, you probably had no difficulties in reading the words in the video.  It didn’t matter that they were moving or that they appeared very quickly. 

You need to get as familiar with reading notes as you are with letters.

On instruments such as the harp or piano, sight reading is more challenging as there are two lines of music to read.  Most people are confident with the treble clef notes; however, they need to improve their bass clef sight reading.

See if you can read the following notes before the letter appears.

How can you improve your note reading?

There is no quick way to improve sight reading music notes; you’ve got to practice repetitively.  Here are a few suggestions to help.

  1. Make yourself some note cards and practice naming notes regularly every day.  If you haven’t got the time to make them, you can purchase some here.
An image of 2 note naming cards with middle C and D on them.
Make your own sight reading cards

You can also purchase an app to help you such as Treble Cat, Bass cat or Note Rush.

2. Find some note naming exercises and practice them regularly.  If you type note naming exercises into google, you’ll find plenty of examples.  You can also purchase books such as Note speller for piano.

3. Spell out words on manuscript paper such as the ones below. 

An image of sight reading words list. The words using only A-G in the alphabet.
sight reading words list

4. Read through the pitch names of any piece of music, don’t forget to check the key signature and include the accidentals when you read through the notes.

An image of simple sight reading with the letter names of the notes written on to show how to practice naming notes.

Orientation sight reading game

In addition to reading the notes quickly, you also have to be able to find the notes on your instrument.  Spacial awareness for guitar sight reading and piano sight reading exercises is equally as important. 

A great way to practice this is by playing the words listed in the image above. 

You can develop the activity by mixing the octaves, range and key.  You can also make it more fun by setting a timer and seeing how many words you can play in one minute.

Read ahead sight-reading practice.

Being able to read ahead is a crucial skill when it comes to improving your sight reading skills. It’s one of the hardest things to practice, and developing your memory skills is essential.

Would you like access to lots more creative ways to improve your sight-reading? If the answer is yes, then click here.

Tip number 4 – Read ahead

In the following video, you’ll see one way in which you can do this.  Look at the music and when it disappears, try recalling the notes either by singing or playing them. 

You can practice this yourself by covering up the music and remembering the pitch and rhythm.

The following sight reading example takes memorisation one step further as the music will disappear one bar at a time, forcing you to read ahead.

Press play and study the music below, the metronome will give you four beats before its time to play.  As you play bar one, read ahead to the next bar.  As you approach bar two, the music will disappear so you’ll need to recall it while reading along to bar three.

Inside the Learn Music Together Academy, I have lots more sight reading exercises like this for members to practice.  You can learn more about the membership program here.

Play with confidence

One of the best ways to gain confidence in your music sight reading practice is by developing your improvisation skills. 

Tip number 5 – Practice improvising to gain confidence

For many students, this means stepping out of their comfort zone. However, one of the hardest things about sight reading is maintaining fluency. 

Most people find it challenging not to allow mistakes to cause them to stop or compromise the rhythm. One of the best ways to get over this is to involve some level of improvisation in your sight reading training.

Many musicians shy away from improvisation as they associate it with people doing extraordinary things without music. Still, at its basic level, improvisation is just playing without music. Improvising is one of the best ways to improve fluency and play errors with confidence. In jazz, there’s a saying.

There are no wrong notes; you’re just one step away from a better one.

How to get started with improvisation

A great way to get started is to take one of the simple rhythms from earlier in this post and choose two notes on your instrument.  Use the two pitches and the rhythm to create a simple melody.

That’s improvising because you haven’t got sheet music, you’ve just got a rhythm. 

If you want to take it a step further, create your own rhythm using a couple of notes.  You can then develop this further by using the pitches within a scale. Use a metronome to ensure that you are keeping a solid pulse and get creative. 

Start with simple rhythms and remember less is more.  

How to get better at sight reading

The next stage is to learn to absorb as much information in the music before you begin playing. 

Tip number 6- Absorb information quickly

For example, take a look at the following piece of music for 30 seconds and then answer the questions below.

An image of basic sight reading

What is the time signature?

What is the key signature?

Is the first note G or D?

Clap the rhythm of the final bar?

What dynamic does the piece have?

What is the metronome mark?

Quick study tests such as the one above are fantastic exercises to do in your lunch hour or while you are waiting for the kids, or stood in line at the supermarket. 

Take pictures of your music so that you have them to hand on your phone for such occasions.

Scales practice

Learning your scales is one of the best ways to familiarise yourself with key signatures and fingering patterns. 

Tip number 7 – Practice your scales

Scale patterns form the basis of most pieces. If you can identify them when practicing sight reading, it makes playing so much easier. 

An image of scale patterns in melodic sight reading

Play slowly

Whenever you are sight-reading music, remember to set a slow tempo. 

Tip number 8 – Keep the tempo slow

Count yourself at least one bar before you begin to play. 

So often students don’t start counting until after they play, by which time, it’s too late to find a solid pulse. 

Aim to keep the rhythm accurate even if you play wrong notes, and remember once you start, don’t stop!

Tip number 9 – Once you start don’t stop

Extra Tip for sight reading piano/ harp and guitar

There’s always a temptation to try and play everything in both hands. While this is not a bad thing, it is better to keep the rhythm accurate and miss the occasional note out. 

If you find it challenging to play hands together, try playing the melody line with only the first note in the other hand.  Reading ahead will help you learn how to improve piano sight reading; however, it takes time. Don’t be afraid to scale it back in the initial stages.

Learn sight reading for an examination

The first thing to check when you have a graded music examination is the requirements for the sight reading element.  All of the exam boards now list the provisions in the syllabus which you can access online.

The requirements are slightly different depending upon which exam board you are studying.  Below are a few comparisons of sight reading for piano from several syllabuses. 

Royal Conservatory Music (Canada)

Level 1 piano sight reading

An image of the Grade 1 piano sight reading parameters for the Royal Conservatory Music Canada.

Trinity College London (International)

Grade 1 piano sight reading

An image of the Grade 1 piano sight reading parameters for Trinity College London

ABRSM (International)

Grade 1 sight reading piano

An image of the Grade 1 piano sight reading parameters for ABRSM

Regardless of whether you are taking exams or not, you can use the requirements as a guide.  Music colleges and educators recommend that you can sight read a piece, two grades lower than the music that you are practising. 

Sight Reading Books

There are several excellent books that you can purchase to improve your sight reading regardless of the instrument you play.

Improve your sight reading- Paul Harris

Paul Harris is a well-known composer and music educator whose sight reading books are renowned throughout the world. 

The series covers most instruments, and the books are graded.  If you are looking for sight reading for beginners, start with the initial and grade 1 copies.

You can check the books out here on Amazon.

Eyes and Ears- James Rae

If you are looking for a clarinet sight reading book or saxophone sight reading book this series by James Rae is fantastic. 

There are four books, and each chapter covers a new rhythm with plenty of exercises.  The book has a duet part to help you gain confidence at maintaining a steady beat.

Sound at Sight

The Sound at Sight series is available for most instruments, and there are different books for each grade. It’s the Trinity sight-reading book which I can highly recommend even if you are not taking an exam with Trinity College London.

ABRSM sight reading books

The Associated Board have graded sight reading books for most instruments.  These are a good choice if you are studying for an ABRSM exam or looking for some extra sight reading material.

The sight readers compendium

For more advanced readers, this book is fantastic.  It’s available for treble clef instruments, and there’s a separate edition for violin.  There are examples in all major and minor keys as well as orchestral extracts.

Music Sight reading apps

There are numerous sight reading apps available on both Apple and Android.  By far, the best sight reading app is the SRF app (Sight Reading Factory), although this is only available as an app on Apple. 

Sight reading Factory does, however, have a website that you can subscribe too if you don’t have access to an Apple device.

The Sight Read with Confidence Workshop

This workshop is a fun packed session with lots of creative resources to help you make progress with your sight reading.

Being able to sight-read is one of the best skills a musician can have. It will

👉Give you the confidence to try new music that you don’t know.

👉 Make learning pieces more fun and when you can sight-read there’s so much more music to enjoy!

👉 Help you learn pieces quicker.

👉 Help you make faster progress towards your musical goals.

The sight read with confidence workshop is happening soon. Are you coming?

Learn Music Together Academy

Improving your sight-reading is one of the main focuses inside my Learn Music Together Academy Membership.  There are numerous exercises and videos to help you make progress alongside monthly duets. 

Inside the membership, I also teach effective practice methods and how to improve your understanding of the core foundations of music. 

Whether you have music lessons or not, the resources will benefit your music practice at home and help you make faster progress along your musical journey.

My harp tutor is hugely encouraging and open to me finding varied paths to help me on my musical journey. She suggested I might find Fiona’s sight reading course beneficial and she was right! Now I can focus on the instrument with my harp tutor and build other skills in this group. I have employed every tip you have given me and I have made rapid progress

Wendy Ware

You can find out more about the Learn Music Together Academy here.

In my Facebook Group Music Lessons and Practice: Learning & Understanding I run a five-day sight reading challenge regularly throughout the year. 

Fill in the form below if you would like to be notified when the next challenge takes place.

Hopefully, this article has given you plenty of ideas of how you can up-level your sight reading skills.  The most important thing about improving sight reading is consistency.  Like everything in music if you practice little and often you’ll soon make progress.

If you’ve found this article helpful, please do share it and leave a comment below.

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