Sight-Reading: A Necessary Skill for Music Majors

Sight-reading is an important and necessary skill for music majors. Quite often, they will be asked to learn pieces of music in a very short amount of time. The ability to sight-read is critical to the ability to function within a performance ensemble. And it opens doors to getting gigs including life-changing opportunities that arise at the last minute.

by Michael Kozubek

Developing the skill of sight-reading

Most young musicians seeking to major in music will need to audition, especially at more competitive music schools. The auditioning process will very likely contain exercises in reading music at sight.

To prepare, one should do a little bit of sight-reading every day. Start with simple pieces and gradually increase the level of difficulty. After all, sight-reading is 50% skill rather than talent and skills can be developed, whereas talent is intuitive. It takes talent as well to be an incredible sight-reader, but most young musicians can certainly increase their level of musicianship by working on their reading ability.

Musicians on some instruments start with reading immediately, whereas others begin with positioning and ear development.

Eventually, reading music becomes a foolproof way of earning your living as a professional. If you can read music like you read a novel, your phone will ring off the hook with work.

The science of sight-reading

If you understand the sight-reading process, you can begin to develop the appropriate skill sets required to be a good reader. Regardless of what instrument you play, reading is always a mental process. Your optic nerve (your eyes) picks up a symbol on the music staff. That symbol is then sent to the brain where it processes this information. The brain then sends a signal through your neural network (your nervous system) and tells your muscles what string to press or valve to open or key to push.

If your brain can’t process this information quickly enough, then one of two things is happening:

1.You don’t know the notes on your instrument well enough to react to the given symbol on the staff;

OR

2. The piece is too far beyond your brain’s ability to process the information.

If the first problem is the case, you suffer from slow pitch recognition. By the time your brain figures out where that pitch is on your instrument, the time to play that pitch has elapsed and you are late getting to the next note.

Remember that rhythm and pitch are integral parts of one another. If you play the correct note at the wrong time, it’s a mistake. If you play at the correct time but the wrong pitch, it’s a mistake. This is why you need to play slowly and accurately rather than quickly with stops and starts.

Recommendations

  • Read with a metronome no matter how slow the speed.
  • Play slowly and accurately rather than quickly with stops and starts.
  • Keep going to the next note whether you have properly played the last one or not. Do not stop! If this is not possible, you may be selecting pieces that are too difficult for you or you don’t know the notes of your instrument well enough to play in time.
  • If your music reading stops at every other measure, you are not learning the proper skill sets. Reduce the difficulty of your music until your reading flows fluently with the metronome.
  • Work on sight-reading every day for about twenty minutes and see how much better you get within a year. Eventually you will begin to read at a steadier rate and the complexity of your music will increase.
  • Do not sight-read a piece of music more than twice. If you do, you are beginning to practice rather than reading at sight.

You can develop sight-reading music skills if you work at it daily.

Remember the notes don’t move! You simply have to recognize them quickly.


Michael Kozubek, B.M.,M.M., is Director of Guitar Studies at Azusa Pacific University School of Music.

Comments

  1. David

    I have just turned 20 years old and I am currently thinking of becoming a music major for my career but I have questions on exactly how I should go about doing so. I am a completely self-taught musician. I have been playing guitar, bass (upright and electric), and drums for 7 years but only being self-taught I lack the ability to read sheet music and only have a basic understanding of music theory. That being said I am and have always been very passionate about music, but coming from a low income family I did not have the funds neccesary to further my musical education. How should I go about learning these necessary skills? Should I seek private lessons before pursuing a music degree or should a be able to learn as I am starting my degree?

    • Since getting into a music program is competitive, you would need to do everything possible to get through the pre-screen as well as the audition. Strong performance skills are essential. Private lessons are very important. Sight reading is, too. And at least a foundation in music theory is important, because you’d be taking several courses in theory that build upon each other. We suggest you check out community colleges with strong music programs, where you can take lessons, be in ensembles, learn to sight read, learn music theory, and get feedback on your skills before looking seriously at transferring to a 4-year school. Regardless of what happens, we hope you’ll continue playing music and enjoy every moment of it.

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