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What are the best ways to sight read music? Expected and unexpected solutions. Part 1

What are the best ways to sight read music? Expected and unexpected solutions.

Steve Newbrough


6/2/22

Here's the traditional advice on sight reading first. Read on for unexpected methods to improve this skill.

Take a moment to scan the music score before you begin playing and ask these questions: 

1) Figure out the key. Remember that it may not be in a major key!

2) Notice the time signature. Prepare to "count in" in the appropriate meter. Not everything is in 4/4 time.

3) Scan the piece for accidentals. How common are accidentals throughout the piece? Do you see sharps and flats?

4) Scan the piece for unexpected chords. For instruments that play chords, like the guitar or piano, notice if there are any stacks of notes that you don't recognize. Take a moment to calmly decipher the chord.

5) Notice the rhythms. Are they consistent throughout, ie. straight eighths, Bossa Nova, the Charleston, or some other repeating pattern. Take a moment to calmly find and decipher unexpected rhythms.

6) Observe the form of the piece. Are there repeats, codas, and  first or second endings present? 

Now here are some unusual ways to improve your sight reading. Read on below the list to learn why I'm suggesting these methods: 

1) Learn to play pop, rock, or country songs by following chord charts. That is to say, learn your basic chords!   

2) Stop worrying about where your eyes are focused on the page. Don't get tied up trying to stay one measure ahead of where you are at a given moment. 

3) At least in the beginning, focus your sight reading on playing lines of individual notes.

4) If your instrument allows, vocalize while you're playing. Speak the note names of the melody, sing, speak the rhythmic solfege, or name chords or other musical structures while playing!

5) If you can't play continuously in rhythm, find easier music to sight read.  

What is "sight reading?"

When a musician says, "let's read this," or "go ahead and sight read this piece," what they mean is that the performer should play the music written on a music score immediately and with minimal preparation. Also, this implies that the musicians are reading standard notation (or notes) rather than tablature.

Why are the traditional methods of sight reading effective?

At the top of this article I mentioned 6 typical (and necessary) pieces of advice in regard to sight reading. Anyone who considers these aspects of a piece before sight reading will do much better. I want to quickly touch on why each piece of advice is helpful 

Figure out the key.

By acknowledging the key the musician can envision the chords and scales that are likely to be used in the composition. If the piece is in G the guitarist can visualize and G Major scale and the common chords in G, namely G, C, and D. By default many of the fingers will already be established in their mind.

Count in using the correct time signature.

One should observe the time signature to figure out the feel of the piece. Each time signature creates a different set of pulses on strong or weak beats. The musician should count in using the correct time feel. For instance, if a person about to play a waltz in 3/4 time there will be trouble if they count in with "1, 2, 3, 4..." 

The performer should count in feel a pulse that matches the time signature.

Scan the piece for accidentals. 

If you've determined the key of the piece, this will automatically prepare you many of the upcoming notes. However, sharps or flats written into the piece can come as an unexpected shock if they aren't noticed soon enough. While scanning the piece, plan out the those altered notes can be played differently, either using different fingers, shifted position, or an adjusted chord shape.

Scan the piece for unexpected chords.

Search for stacks of notes that you can't recognize immediately. Work out how to play them and then see if you can name them. Giving the chord a label gives your mind a hook on which remember the new shape. Further, you'll have a better idea about how the chord functions in the song or piece. 

As an added benefit you may have a stock chord shape that you can utilize instantly!

Notice the Rhythms.

It is common for composers to use rhythmic motifs. What's a rhythmic motif? It's a rhythm introduced early in the piece used to support a coherent flow of musical development. Dance forms are frequently used to support melodic and harmonic development. For instance, take the Tango, it's repeating syncopated rhythm moves a listener to feel the pulse of the dance.

Sometimes composers utilize straight eighth, triplet, or sixteenth notes to impart the feeling of continuous flow. When this happens, try to notice where the harmonies change. Also, notice if the composer is playing with your expectations about the meter or the pulse is to be placed in the measure. J.S. Bach does a fantastic job of this in his Sonatas and Partitas. Here are two examples:

In the Presto of BWV 1001, Bach transitions from regular sequences (m.25 - 30) to beginning descending lines on irregular beats (m.32 - 35). When this is performed well, the phrase lands squarely on the down beat of m. 36. This creates an exciting affect!

 

In the Prelude from BWV 1006 Prelude, in the midst of a continuous arpeggio section Bach changes notes on the fourth sixteenth note of each beat. This is unexpected and could cause the listener to question their understanding of the pulse. However, on m.29 he instantly clarifies the downbeat. As in the example above, this creates a satisfying and fulfilling feeling for the listener.

 

Observe the form of the piece. 

Make sure that you can trace a clear line from the beginning of the piece until the end. Many times this is very simple, however, this seemingly simple task can become complicated fast when there are multiple endings and codas. 

 

Okay! Now here are some unusual ways to improve your sight reading:

 1) This first suggestion is especially for guitarists who have only ever studied classical guitar. Learn to play popular songs! 

Find pop songs you enjoy and learn to play them! How does this help sight reading? So many ways...

First of all, pop songs almost always feature some kind of recurring rhythmic motif. If you can learn to feel the rhythms rather than just understanding them intellectually, the music will actually groove. 

Second, believe it or not, many of the same chords used in pop, rock, and country have been used for centuries to compose classical music. After enough time reading a chord charts or figuring out songs by ear, the shapes of chords appear in your mind instantly. When sight reading, you'll see stacks of notes and just like words on a page you'll begin to read them instantly.

Further, musicians who played classical music were often playing the popular music of their day!  

 I'm fortunate to have students who explore guitar and music education material on their own. They seek out websites, magazines, and even social media to gather this information. This individual pursuit of information bolsters the work that we do in lessons and adds new levels of competence and enjoyment.

One student was recently exploring sight reading and on his own he came across several websites and blogs, giving suggestions about how to become a better sight reader on the guitar. 

One site said something to the effect of, "scroll your eyes across the screen ahead of where you're playing, to prepare yourself for the upcoming material."

This idea sounds great. However, it ignores a major inadequecy that plagues guitarists. The major problem for most guitarists in sight reading is not recognizing the notes as you need them.

For guitarists, we often look at notation, and we don't immediately know how to interpret it into notes that can be played on the guitar. If your eyes are scrolling ahead of where you're playing and you don't recognize the patterns in time then the music will get cut off and the sight reading will end. 

As soon as you need to stop to figure out music the sight reading portion of session has ended. This isn't all bad, because you're still figuring out how to play the notes. That said, worrying about where your eyes are tracking is totally irrelevant to the process of sight reading.

What's a better way? Instead of getting tied up about where you are looking at the music, scan the music before you begin, and try to find patterns or musical figures (scales, chords, rhythms, etc) that you don't recognize readily.

Learn these musical figures before you begin playing from the beginning of the piece.

Analogous to this is reading words aloud from a book. If you are a competent reader in your language then you're able to look at a page and read aloud from the text. You were able to do this because you already recognize and know all of the words you're about to read, even if you've never read them in that order before!

You may notice as you're reading aloud, that your eyes are several words ahead of your speech. Since you know the words you won't be surprised when you read them.  When it comes to playing guitar, the instrument itself is quite difficult. Most people would probably consider it more difficult than speaking aloud in a language in which they are fluent.

It takes time to begin to recognize notes and immediately see them on the neck of the guitar. When it comes to reading groups of notes or reading rhythms other than quarter notes, most of us need to digest this material. This process is the same as a person learning to read words sounding them out and then reading them in context. After a certain amount of practice these patterns are easily recognized and incorporated into one's sight reading vocabulary. 

 

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