How to practise reading sheet music

23.12.2021 Ben Maloney Sheet music

This article is designed to help you to structure your sheet music practice. It’s intended for players who are relatively new to this territory, and are trying to develop some fluency in interpreting notes on the page.

If sheet music is something you’ve never tackled before, you might want to take a look at this guide to reading piano music. It’ll walk you through the basics of staff notation, even if the keyboard’s not your instrument.

On the other hand, if you’re already familiar with those fundamentals and are looking to streamline your ability to read sheet music, you’ll probably find this guide to reading sheet music faster more helpful. 

Think you’re somewhere in between? Then you’re in the right place. Below you’ll find a few practical tips that will help you to translate your elementary understanding of music notation into a working ability to read and practice it effectively.
 

Five steps to improving your music-reading skills
 

  1. Use the right materials
  2. Start making annotations
  3. Find methods that work for you
  4. Stay focused
  5. Persevere

1. Use the right materials


Getting equipped with the right kit is crucial. But there’s a whole lot more to it than just picking suitable music to practice, even if that is quite a good place to start.

Whether you’re a singer or a tubist, you’ll need to source content that’s going to help you get to grips with reading notes on the page and turning it into actual music. Music that’s too hard won’t help you to nurture those skills.

From easy-piece playbooks to educational texts, there’s tonnes of material out there specifically designed for players in your position. The renowned Colourstrings series is a good example, educational publications geared towards string-players, which you can explore in this playlistPaul Harris’ sight-reading guides are similarly renowned and aimed at a range of instruments, such as piano, flute and violin. They're compiled in this playlist.

By working through music of an appropriate standard, or exercises that enable you to hone particular skills and aspects of performance, you’ll optimise your practice and advance more quickly. It’s really worth taking the time to find the right content.

Studies - or etudes - are great in this context. These are pieces composed with an eye to developing particular technical skills. They’re always great to play, whether they’re the main event in your practice, or a preamble before it. Below you can see an extract of a piano study written by Carl Czerny, a master of the form. 

It’s great to keep other things within reach, too. Struggling with tempo? A metronome can work wonders. Fingering charts, diagrams, and music theory soundbites can transform your practising as well. For instance, writing down mnemonics like cows eat grass (C major) and every good boy (E minor) will serve to cement triads in your mind.

Often you can best serve your needs by creating these aids yourself, but you can also find tonnes of stuff like this on the Internet. You might find this music theory cheat sheet a useful reference for things like clefs, scales, key signatures and accidentals.

It might not be strictly musical, but a journal is a no less valuable piece of kit when it comes to getting the best out of your practice. By recording what you’ve learned and when, it’s far easier to get a sense of your progress, and to direct and structure it with an eye to the road ahead. 

Seeing how far you’ve come can also be hugely encouraging, and it can help to create a sense of routine - more on that below. Of course, you’ll need a pencil if you’re going to keep a journal, which might have to go down as the finest piece of equipment.

2. Start making annotations


Annotating should be considered one of the most treasured things in your toolkit. For those times when you can’t knock a bad habit in practice, or when those black and white symbols just look too puzzling, adding your own notes to the page can save the day.  

All too often this is discouraged by educators, and it can instinctively seem wrong to start writing on a sheet of beautifully printed music. Even so, this is definitely something that will help you get your head around particular musical challenges and exploit each practice session to the full. 

If you’re still in doubt, know that it’s even common for professional performers to annotate their scores and parts. It’s a key part of being a practicing musician. 

So, go ahead and add any markings that give you an advantage, or help you to perform better - breath marks, bowing patterns, fingering sequences, and so on. Keep forgetting to pay attention to dynamics? Circle each marking and suddenly they’ll be impossible to ignore. Problem solved.

This might seem obvious, but it’s frequently overlooked when it comes to music education: learning an instrument is about helping you become the musician that you want to be. To make that happen, you should find what works for you, whatever it is, and seize on it. There’s no wrong answer in this. 

So if that means scribbling all over your music, adding stickers, labels and so on, then do it. It’s a means to an end - before long, a lot of these things will become second nature, and you’ll find your sheet music beginning to look tidier and tidier.

3. Find methods that work for you


The principle of finding what works for you applies to more than just annotations. There’s a variety of systems out there that can boost your ability to engage with different aspects of reading sheet music.

If you find that something just isn’t working for you during practice, try seeking out alternative ways of interacting with your music - flexibility is crucial. Even if something seems counterintuitive, or slows things right down, if it helps you learn, then do it - that’s all that really matters.

If, say, you’re having trouble matching the noteheads to the pitch they represent, try writing out the names of each and every above the stave. You could even draw little illustrations, or devise a kind of shorthand for yourself. 

The landmark method also relates to note identification. Particularly useful for pianists grappling with a grand staff, the method involves using fixed, ‘landmark’ pitches as anchors, and quickly gleaning the placement of other notes relative to those pitches. Many intermediate players find that it helps them to recognise intervals quicker and with more accuracy, improving their sight-reading skills in the process. This video offers a clear introduction, using a grand staff and a keyboard.

If keeping in time is something you struggle with, there are a range of counting systems out there that can help you master rhythm. The Eastman system is a popular one, and this video explains it in an accessible way. 

Should you be trying to memorise music more efficiently, there are some tricks to try for that as well, such as working your way backwards through a piece. This article on how to memorise music goes into a bit more detail on this method and a few others too.

This approach can extend beyond the sheet music as well, to instrumental technique itself. Don’t be afraid to put your own spin on the way you perform - trumpeters aren’t supposed to puff out their cheeks, but that’s how the great Dizzy Gillespie played. 

Perhaps the best testament to taking alternative approaches to education is the success of the Kodály method. Named after its founder, the composer Zoltán Kodály, it entails an entire music tuition system, in which the elements of music are explored in radical new ways. 

Pitch, for instance, is taught in the Kodály system through a unique combination of traditional solfège and hand gestures - very different to how things are normally communicated to music students You can find out more about the method in this video.

Music’s been around a long time. The deep connections that it has to history and tradition make it special, but it can also make it stuffy and rigid. Conventional methods of teaching and learning just don’t work for some, and in these situations it’s important to recognise that it’s the system that falls short, and not the individual.

4. Stay focused


Like many things in life, success comes down in no small part to mentality. If you want to get the most of your practice and develop your playing at a fast rate, focus, concentration and a positive mental attitude is as important as anything else. Mind over matter.

Now, it’s easier said than done to make all that happen. But there are still a few small things that you can easily do to set you on course.

First, establish a quiet space with no distractions, that’s dedicated to playing. By coming back to this space time and again for your sessions, your mind will begin to associate it with the practising mindset. You’ll find that you can more readily switch to that mode of thinking and stay there. 

This is the initial step on the journey to establishing a routine. Put regular time aside to practice here, even if it’s just for short periods. Come back systematically to this physical and mental place and you’ll find yourself in a position to really profit from your efforts. 

You’ll be prepared and in the zone. You’ll absorb more, learn faster, and your progress will soar. You’ll be capitalising on every minute that you’ve put in. 

This is where journals come into their own. They support that process, helping you to direct your efforts and contextualise what you’ve learned. Set yourself a goal for the session - what do you want to accomplish next? Visualise the goal, and yourself achieving it. All that remains is to make it so.

Switch off your phone, eliminate anything that could catch your attention. Give yourself a set amount of time to practice, get a timer going and commit to playing until it pings. You’ll be giving yourself the best opportunity to put everything discussed above into practice - for the optimum return.

Concentrate, but don’t overthink. Putting too much pressure on being at your absolute best at all times can be detrimental. Just designate a period of time in which music becomes the centre of your world. That alone goes a very long way.

5. Persevere


This is a simple one, but it might just be the most important. It can seem a long journey to reading music fluently and playing instruments proficiently, but you should never let that deter you from pressing on.

Often it might seem as if no progress is being made, but at some point, inevitably, you will have a breakthrough. It might not be the breakthrough that makes you a virtuoso all of a sudden, but it’ll be a breakthrough nonetheless. Afterwards you’ll stop, take stock, and notice that you’re doing this a little better, or finding that a little easier.

It’s also critical to pay attention to the task at hand. Not only will that help you to achieve what you’re trying to tackle in the moment, it also acknowledges that development usually occurs by little steps. Look too far ahead and your greatest objectives might seem unattainable, and that can be a sobering feeling.

Work out a schedule and allot regular time for practice, even if it’s just just fifteen minutes, several days a week. Get equipped and focused, practise hard and practise smart, and you’re guaranteed to bring your goals within reach. 

Pull together everything we’ve covered here and start a new chapter in the story. 

Practise sheet music with the greatest digital library


nkoda can’t create a practice space for you, or cheer you on as you play. But it can be your hub for all things sheet music, supplying you with an entire library’s worth of musical resources. From your iPad, iPhone, Android, Mac or PC, nkoda will support you as you pursue those goals.

As well as pieces, playbooks and practice guides for a diversity of instruments and genres, the app also offers a personal account space in which you can arrange your digital materials and to which you can upload unlimited PDFs. You can also save absolutely everything offline, keeping the app right there with you, wherever you go.

And if you’re still a little uneasy about writing on your sheet music, then you can use the cutting-edge digital annotation tools nkoda has developed. Draw, highlight, select from a range of preset symbols, and erase it all with a click. 

nkoda isn’t interested in pushing you towards being any kind of musician other than the one you aspire to be. 

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