How to read music faster and improve sight reading

23.12.2021 Ben Maloney Sheet music

There are a number of reasons why you might want to be more efficient at reading sheet music. You could be taking on a lot of analysis, or just trying to read a work’s score while you listen to its recording. 

It’s likely that you’ve ended up here because you’re looking to develop your sight-reading ability. It’s a valuable skill that many musicians need to perfect, but it isn’t necessarily that clear or obvious how you get better at it. 

This article takes a look at the craft of reading sheet music quickly and effectively, which is the foundation of good sight reading. Soon you’ll be able to read through a whole opera in the blink of an eye.
 

Reading sheet music


Sheet music basically presents information - written, notated music that indicates what should be played by performers. Interpreting these instructions is a skill that has to be learned and can be streamlined. 

Whatever the reason you have for wanting to improve your capacity to process sheet music, if you follow the cheat sheet below you’ll glean what sheet music is saying far more efficiently.

This guide assumes that you’ve learned how to read music. If you’re really new to this, you’re best off reading this guide to reading piano sheet music. Although that article focuses on piano music, it still covers all the basics of music notation in an accessible way. 
 

What is sight reading in music?


Moving on to sight-reading, the term refers specifically to reading and playing a piece of music at first sight. This means it takes playing into account, so the process involves first interpreting sheet music, before converting it immediately into performance.

If you haven’t sight-read before, that might sound a lot, but it’s not all bad. Like most things, it just takes a bit of practice. It’s a really important skill that needs to be utilised often by practicing musicians in all sorts of situations. Orchestral and chamber players need to master it, as do jazz-band musicians and choral accompanists.

Sight-reading even forms part of many music-performance examinations. Examinees are tested on their ability to perform a piece of music well that they saw for the first time just moments before.

In order to master sight-reading, you’ll need to be adept at reading sheet music. So we’re going to help you read sheet music more quickly and effectively, before offering tips on how to make that the foundation of good sight-reading.  
 

How to read sheet music faster


This is the thing to focus on first. Not only is it a skill in itself, it also forms the first step to becoming proficient in sight-reading. We’ve outlined five steps to take that’ll help improve your ability to read sheet music, fast. 
 

Step 1: Memorise clefs and keys 


It sounds obvious - clefs and key signatures are some of the first things that you learn when reading sheet music. But if you were to put learned musicians on the spot, you’d be surprised at how many take a few moments to figure out which keys have six flats, or where an F appears in the alto clef. 

It’s worth taking the time to really commit clefs and key signatures to memory. And not just treble clef and bass clef, but alto too - there are loads of mnemonics out there that make it really easy. Once you do, you’ll be able to look at a note and immediately recognise the pitch it indicates.
 

Step 2: Make use of landmarks


A great way to take in a note’s position and the pitch it indicates, is to practice the ‘landmark system’. It involves detecting notes and reading chord figures by quickly perceiving their position relative to certain fixed pitches, like middle C.

This basically means that instead of individually processing the position of every single notehead, you can more quickly scan the stave and figure out the notes based on spacing and intervals. Fix some landmark pitches to the stave, memorise where they are, and let them guide you more quickly to the notes positioned around them. Below you can see the standard landmark pitches used in piano sheet music. 

Step 3: Get rhythm


Rhythmic phrases and groupings tend to recur in music, especially in popular songs and older classical works. If you play or read enough material, eventually you’ll become more or less familiar with the full scope of rhythmic possibilities. 

Take your time with it - tap or play with care and account for all the nuances that rhythm can have. Try out a range of time signatures. When you’ve absorbed it all, you’ll be able to read and understand rhythmic articulation instantly. This is a big step toward being able to process sheet music fluently. 
 

Step 4: Take on more staves


From a piano’s grand staff to a full orchestral score, most music is written across more than one stave. The sooner you get used to reading music spread out in this way, the sooner you’ll realise that you’re able to comprehend it all at a glance.  

Some musicians are so adept at this that they can sight-read music spanning several staves and clefs all at once. Although that might seem impossible, you can develop this ability too. The landmark system really comes in handy here - mastering it will allow you to instantly glean musical information written on the widest of scales.
 

Step 5: Practice


The one thing that’s guaranteed to boost your sheet-music reading skills is practice. If you focus deeply and often on following each of these steps, in time they will become second nature, and reading sheet music will be something you do almost effortlessly.

If there is a magic secret to reading sheet music more quickly, it’s simply to spend as much time as possible looking at sheet music. Turn it into a language that you understand as naturally as these words. Reading sheet music is like anything else - the more you practise, the more you’ll adapt and the better you’ll get. 

How to improve sight reading tips


If you’re looking to get better sight-reading skills, then it’s wise to focus on learning to read sheet music more quickly. But as sight-reading is bound up with performing, you’ll want to practise your instrument in tandem with your reading.

This way you can fuse the reading process with the physical actions of playing. This combination is what’s at the heart of efficient sight-reading. Here are a few tips that will help you get better results when playing music at first sight.
 

Tip 1: Learn the scales


Scales might seem a drag when you’re starting out, but they’re far from pointless exercises. There are plenty of reasons to memorise and master the scales, and your sight-reading is one of many things that will benefit.

Learning scales encourages not only seamless playing in any key you’re confronted with, but also an intuitive understanding of relationships between notes. It’ll help you to take in the details of notation more quickly, and you’ll begin to anticipate the material. Once you reach that stage, your sight-reading will come on leaps and bounds.
 

Tip 2: Articulation and dynamics


There’s been a lot of talk about pitch and rhythm, but articulation and dynamics are also important musical parameters. Even if you misplace a few notes when playing, if you’re shaping the material properly through expression and intensity, then you can still capture the spirit of a piece of music, and that’s no less important.

So, keep an eye on things like slurs, staccato and tenuto marks, and dynamics beneath the stave - and tempo markings too. Incorporate these considerations into your process as soon as possible, and your ability to faithfully realise music will progress faster.
 

Tip 3: Trust


As we said, sight-reading is all about binding the notes on the page to actually playing your instrument. When you're a beginner, you learn how each note on the page corresponds to an action on your instrument. 

Once you reach a point of union between your eyes and your fingers or breath, have faith in your muscle memory. Stop looking at what your hands are doing and focus on the music in front of you. The best sight-readers fix their eyes to the sheet music and won’t be glancing down. The sooner you can resist the urge to look away, the better.
 

Tip 4: Study 


Whether you’re playing in an ensemble or in an examination, there’ll invariably be some amount of time between seeing the music for the very first time, and actually playing it. This window is precious and can make or break a piece of sight-reading - you have to capitalise on this time. 

Scan the sheet music from start to finish. Get a feel for the contour of the piece and prepare for any unexpected turns. Sound it out in your head, hum along if that helps. Develop a shorthand that works for you and use it to make the kind of annotations that aid your playing. Every musician is unique - figure out what’s most helpful to you.
 

Tip 5: Practice 


It’s a bit cheeky to include this once again, but it can never be stressed enough - practice is everything. Once you’ve set your landmarks, learned your scales, and developed your shorthand, just keep sight-reading. It’s something that really does get much easier with time.

Don’t wait until a rehearsal or the examination to see how far your sight-reading has come since the last time you did it. Try it in a music lesson. Get used to confronting new pieces of music and trying them out straight away. The nkoda library is full of them - start a free trial and have a seven-day blitz of sight-reading practice.
 

What next?


The great composer-pianist Franz Liszt supposedly played Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor at first sight. Until you reach that kind of level, it’s always possible to get better at sight-reading.

Bear in mind that sight-reading is something that has to be carried out in the moment. Like performance, practising at home is quite different to doing it when it really counts. So don’t feel nervous about those experiences - they’re what really helps to raise your ability. Taking on the challenges will only make you a more comfortable and better player.

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