What is sight-reading?
Sight-reading is the ability to take a page of music you’ve never seen before and play it in time and with the correct notes and expression. It is a valuable essential skill for all players – beginners and advanced. The better your sight reading skills, the more pieces you can tackle and the more enjoyment you will get out of playing. However sight reading can be notoriously difficult – in many cases players may even think their difficulty with sight reading means they can’t really read music, even though they have a grasp of standard music notation.
You might also see Sight-reading referred to as a prima vista (Italian meaning “at first sight”), It is the same thing. It is a test where you read and perform a piece of music or song in music notation that you have not seen before.
Is Sight Reading Different To Learning To Read Music?
Yes and No. You cannot sight-read music if you haven’t already learned to read traditional notation. So you have to learn to read music on the piano first. But it is possible to spend hours practising a piece, and learning it bit by bit, so that in the end you can play it from the sheet music. However, sight-reading is the special skill of being able to perform a piece from scratch in front of music you have never seen before. This can be a very daunting, and much dreaded part of an exam. So it is definitely a skill you need to acquire. But there are other nicer reasons why you should learn to sightread, and why being able to sight read is important.
Why is sight reading important?
- Sight reading is part of the music grade exams – improving your skills will improve your overall score or grade
- Sight reading makes playing fun – you can tackle new pieces with confidence
- Get together with other players and tackle new pieces together “on the fly”
- Children in particular get very frustrated and discouraged when they cannot read new music, even simple tunes, although they have worked hard and practised. So sight reading is a skill worth learning. (And adults get frustrated too, when they are eager to make progress)
- Opening up a book of music and tackling new pieces is rewarding, relaxing, and entertaining – we could all do with improving our sight reading skills so that we can tackle a much wider repertoire
Why is sight reading so hard to learn?
Just as everybody learns to read differently, and requires a range of sources to help, the same is true of sight reading. And it is a difficult skill: let’s take a look at what you have to do. If you play the piano or keyboard, you have to learn to read to lines of music at once, in two clefs, each line will have different notes and rhythms, and each hand must work independently. But reading the notes is not enough – there is the timing, the expression….. it sounds impossible doesn’t it? In a half hour lesson with a teacher, when you have to fit in work on new pieces, scales, aural tests, theory, it is no wonder that there is little time to work on this skill too.
How can software help?
- Interactive – in some piano software you get instant feedback on whether you played the right notes with the correct timing
- Rewarding – you can improve your score over time and monitor the progress you have made
- Fun – many software packages have pieces with built-in backing tracks so you can play along with the band or orchestra while improving your sight reading skills
- Suitable for all abilities – most software comes with a range of pieces so beginners and advanced players can all benefit from the technology
- Practise when you choose – the software is always available and can enhance everything you learn in conventional lessons
- Invaluable if you are working for an exam and need to know if you are right – with limited lesson time this is almost as good as having a teacher on hand to help
- Graphical representations of your keyboard will show you which note to play next if you are stuck!
- Work at your pace – you can always slow the tempo of the software down to your level and work up.
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Which sight reading software is best for the piano?
eMedia Piano Learning Software
Without a doubt, for a small cost you can improve your sight reading skills on piano very effectively with software. If you look at the image above from the eMedia Piano Method Software, it shows you the instant feedback you can get as you play the piano. The eMedia Piano Method Platinum is a piano learning software package which covers all the foundations of piano playing and then has plenty of improver tools with interactive notation, ability to practise slowly and get instant feedback to help correct your playing errors. This makes it a perfect tool to help you generally play the piano better and specifically to improve your sightreading skills.
What is more, you can use it either with a digital piano or even a traditional acoustic piano. You simply play into your computer’s microphone and the software can recognise what you are playing.
In the eMedia Piano and Keyboard Method software, Instant Feedback shows you when you play the correct notes as you progress through a melody. Your computer will listen as you play and highlight correctly played notes in green. As you reach your goal of playing the melody correctly, you’ll realise that reading piano music notation is easier than you thought. And your sight-reading skills will have improved considerably.
ABRSM Sight-Reading Trainer (iOS and Android)
Available for iOS and Android, the ABRSM (Associate Board of Royal Schools of Music) app can help you to develop the sight reading skills. It trains you to quickly spot the key features, patterns and characteristics in music before you play it. By working your way through a series of games you can unlock 155 brand new pieces of music, and gradually improve. The ABRSM Sight-Reading Trainer app has been designed to cover the sight-reading element of Piano exams at Grades 1-5. You can download the app for iPhone and iPad if you click here. Or download for android tablets and phones by clicking here.
SightRead4Piano by Wessar (iOS only)
Available for iOS only, the SightRead4Piano sight-reading app works by removing bars once they have been played, forcing students to look ahead and not go back. There is a psychological thing when you are learning to sight-read that you want to go back and correct mistakes. This ‘stumbling’ will not lead to a fluent performance. So the SightRead4Piano could be worth trying if you find that you have a particular problem with this. You can purchase over 1,100 pieces of music for beginners up to professional student level, and you do not have to buy them all at once. Just buy the level that you need.
The Wessar app is a good addition to your sight-reading resources. However, we still love the instant feedback you get from the eMedia Piano Software. The SightRead4Piano will help you develop fluency, the eMedia software will let you know you got it right. Plus, the software colours the music green as you play, so you still have that feeling of moving forward.
Music Tutor (Sight-reading) App (iOS and Android)
You can learn to read sheet music and improve your sight-reading skills with the Music Tutor (Sight-reading) app, available for iOS devices and for android. This app will help you to develop your speed and accuracy in reading sheet music by identifying music notes in timed sessions. You can choose to practise treble clef, bass clef. The Music Tutor app also helps with ear training and practising your listening (aural) skills. During the practice session, every note is displayed along with the sound of the note (optional). After each test, you can review your mistakes and see your progress.
The nice thing about the Music Tutor app is you can connect your MIDI keyboard to benefit from the interactive features.
15 Brilliant Sight-Reading Tips
Firstly, here are some fantastic sight-reading tips from Angela Hewitt, one of the most phenomenal piano players in the world.
Now here is a list of 15 things you can try to improve your sight-reading, And your piano playing in general.
- If you can, memorise a lot of tunes, phrases, etc. 99% of music comprises bits and pieces of stuff you probably already know. Once your fingers have learned a mass of material, they’ll respond when your eye spots a particular phrase, riff or chord shape.
- Scales, arpeggios, chord shapes: make sure you’re totally fluent in all of these in all the keys you have learnt. As soon as your eye recognises a particular scale pattern in a piece, your fingers will lock onto it. You won’t have to think any further. Mastering the chord wheel will help you with this.
- Get someone to hold a book over your hands while you are playing. This will make you have focus on the music.
- Play through masses of music – anything you can lay your hands on. This is where the software can help with the range of built-in music. Or get access to 1000’s of sheet music downloads at MusicNotes.com.
- Use playalong tracks – either book and cd combinations or the software mentioned above. They force you to keep going whatever happens!
- Try silent reading – ie take a piece of music and sit with it away from the piano, ‘read’ it through and try to hear everything in your head as you go through. You should eventually try to know what it sounds like without ever making a sound!
- When you listen to music on CD or radio, try to visualise the dots on the page as you’re listening. Imagine a sort of music score scrolling past in your mind’s eye as you hear the sounds. This is really difficult to do to begin with. But if you keep at it you’ll be amazed at what you can “see”.
- Practise sight-reading regularly. The more you do it, the better you will get!
- Practise pattern recognition. Pattern recognition games like Tetris can be good for this. And make a change from practising the piano.
- When you look at a new piece of music, don’t just start playing. Stop and think about the time signature and the key signature. And once you start playing, keep going. The most important aspect of sight reading is keeping a sense of the rhythm. So when you listen to music, tap your feet or clap along!
- Look ahead in the music, and work out the highest and lowest notes in the piece. Then you can place your hands in a suitable position, including fingers over sharps and flats. Work out if your hands will need to change to a different position and how to get there.
- Focus especially on the first and last two bars of any sight reading piece. This will mean you get a strong start and finish.
- Get yourself a metronome, and practise playing along. (Alternatively, there are free metronome apps are readily available for tablets and smart phones. And many electronic keyboards have one built in)
- Do practise lots of with nice easy pieces, reward yourself with success.
- Do sight-read at a nice steady pace you can maintain. If you go off too fast, you may not be able to keep it going through the whole piece!
And Finally …
We hope you have found the above helpful. Good luck with learning to play the piano, and in particular enjoying tackling those new pieces. Just remember, the more you practise, the better you will get. Enjoy.