The term "sight reading" is enough to send chills down any musician's back. The ability to just look at a sheet of paper and play the piece is a skill that many of us assume is reserved for the absolute elite of musicians.

The truth is, sight reading doesn’t have to be such a mountain to climb. Anyone can learn to sight read by starting simple and working up.

This article has been written for Rockschool on behalf of by Leigh Fuge.

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Let’s consider some key points that would help you learn sight reading:

1. Familiarise With Rhythmic Awareness

Are you familiar with how to read your note lengths on both staves and rhythm charts? Having the ability to spot your note lengths will make a huge difference when sight reading. Being able to read note length without thinking means you can look at the note and focus on the pitch and not the length.

Whole Note

Half Note

Quarter Note

Eighth Note

Sixteenth Note

2. Improve Key Signature, Chord and Scale Knowledge

Often, when it comes to sight reading you may be given a quick opportunity to scan the page first. This is a good time to take in the key signature of the song. This will immediately give you an insight into what scales and chords you should expect to see in the piece.

I would recommend learning your Major and Minor scales as chords, understanding intervals and relative major/minor keys. If you look at a piece and you can identify the key right away, that will give you all the information you need providing you know what scales and chords fit into that key.

Check out this other resource I wrote for Rockschool called Key Signatures: A Beginners Guide. This has all the information you need to get started with understanding key signatures.


3. Start Small and Grow

Don’t expect to be able to sight read at the highest level after just a week of learning the basics. Sight reading is a skill that takes time, practise and patience to develop to a high standard. A great way to start sight reading is to take a melody that you are familiar with and find the sheet music for it. Study the key signature of the piece and try to follow it along with the sheet music. You can use your scale knowledge to help guide you and your familiarity with how the piece should sound will help you piece together the notes.

By doing this, you are associating the notes on the stage with the pitches on your instrument. Don’t go for a piece that’s too complex right away, take it easy with a piece that you know well.

4. Study Before Starting

Before you dive into a sight-reading exercise, spend that little bit of extra time looking at it and making notes (either in your mind or by writing them on the charts) about what you’re looking at. Look for any key areas where you might run into difficulty or something that might not look like it belongs in that key family.

You should also pay attention to any dynamic changes or repeated sections. I often do a lot of live gigs that involve showing up and playing off chord charts with no prior rehearsals. I rely on my understanding of these charts to get me through the gig. In these situations, the first thing I always do is study the arrangements and look for any key points where I need to repeat something or change the overall feel or dynamic.

5. Learn to Think Ahead of Yourself

When you start to progress with sight reading, you’ll realise that you need to think ahead of your current playing position. Many accomplished sight readers will learn to take in an entire bar in one go, or even a few beats at a time. This means that you can be playing something while your brain locks into the part coming next.

This might sound quite intense, and at first, it will be. It’s essentially splitting the brain into two halves, one to play and one to read.

Like all sight reading, start slowly with this. This is something else that using a familiar melody or piece could benefit from as you will be familiar enough to play a section while allowing your mind to move ahead to study the part that is coming up next.

Are You Getting Better?

Let’s imagine you’ve now been trying to learn sight reading for a few weeks, how do we know if you’re getting better. Firstly, you will feel more comfortable with the idea. You’ll feel more at ease when you look at a piece of music and you’ll feel more confident in your ability to just dig in. You’ll also feel that you’re spending less time “working it out” and more time just playing it.

A good measure of this is to once again call up the notation for a piece of music you are familiar with but make sure it’s a piece you can’t already play from memory. Try to sight read it, if it sounds as you expect then that’s a positive indicator that your sight reading is moving in the right direction.

Don’t give up! It’s a long road but the results are worth it. You’ll get into the swing of it very quickly but don’t forget to keep working at it and keep pushing yourself.

About the Author:

This article has been written for Rockschool on behalf of by Leigh Fuge, a professional guitarist, tutor and journalist from Wales in the UK. He has been working in the music industry for over 10 years as a touring and studio musician with various artists, guitar tutor and writer for many high profile guitar publications. Read more of Leigh's pieces relating to Rockschool here...