Helpful Sight Reading Tips to Read to Improve Your Musical Abilities

music sheet with earphones
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When learning to play a musical instrument or to sing in an organized chorus or choir, a person will often be required to confront sheet music. It’s basically a road map from Point A to Point B through a piece of music in a specialized language made largely of symbols and abbreviations. To follow this virtual map involves understanding the language and being able to follow along smoothly. It isn’t easy, but it can be done with sufficient sight reading tips and tricks.

What Is Sight Reading?

According to Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, to sight-read is “to read, play, or sing without previous practice, rehearsal, or study of the material to be treated.” This definition can apply to fields outside of music. When we refer to sight-reading as a musical activity, we basically have in mind reading music.

 Sight-reading, though, specifically has to do with that aspect of seeing the sheet music perhaps for the first time and being able to play it on an instrument or sing it on the spot. A good sight-reader can do that with a high level of competency. Oh sure, they may not nail it perfectly right away, but they can give themselves and others a reasonably strong idea of how that composition is supposed to sound for whatever part they are performing.

Of course, sight-reading extends to subsequent exposure to the music. Rehearsal of the music is greatly enhanced by the use of sight-reading. It’s definitely more difficult to learn if the sheet music is not understood or if there’s none to refer to at all. As the musician goes over the song, again and again, he or she internalizes the sequences and patterns more easily. Those who cannot sight-read accomplish the same result through practice, but the sight reader has a head start on everyone else and will likely be the leader of the group.

Sight Reading Tips to Prepare You

Following are some sight-reading tips that will set you up for success. Without paying attention to these, you may lack a proper foundation to succeed in this activity.

Mental Discipline

This could encompass an array of actions and renunciations that will make you more receptive to the world around you in general, and it would follow that you could then be able to follow the road map that sheet music provides. Some that come to mind are getting enough sleep, being well-fed, and being sober.

These are all rudimentary to that discipline we really have in mind. That is concentration. Getting focused and maintaining that focus can really help you follow what’s on the staff sheet. Deciding to concentrate while reading music can help, but the decision itself may not be enough. There are methods to help develop your ability to concentrate and we recommend making one or more of them a routine in your life. A few suggestions include playing brain games online, doing Sudoku or other puzzles, and meditating.

Learn the Terms

Knowing how the time signatures play enables you to get a feel for the basic rhythm of the song. For practice on this, you can study sheet music and listen to the corresponding recorded music to hear how these rhythms sound when performed.

Get key signatures down pat. These help you know what to expect in the composition and inform you as to what key you will be playing or singing in. Looking over the piece in advance and keeping the key signature in mind, you can mentally prepare for the fingering positions needed in the places where notes are sharpened or flattened.

sight reading tips: flute close-up hand
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Practice Basics

Mastering certain basics will help apply sight reading tips. For instance, learning the scales will not only help you learn how to play those sequential notes, but it also points out the hand positioning for different key signatures. When you see these on the staff sheet, you’ll know where you should be on your instrument. This goes for arpeggios and chords as well. When you see some of the more challenging note progressions, your arpeggio practice will pay off because you won’t be overwhelmed by the now-familiar flurry of notes.

Strive to play without looking at your hands. Close your eyes or look at something in the room instead. To get accustomed to this, you could start with easy phrasings or songs, then progressively work up through more difficult pieces. If you don’t have your attention on your hands, you can have your eyes free for sight-reading.

Become Familiar with Different Types of Music

Looking over a variety of musical styles and scores can broaden your experience right away. Composers all have their own ways of doing things even while the basic system is standardized to a large degree. Exposing yourself to classical and jazz and pop and hymns prepare you for anything that might come your way. You should be able to approach new challenges with greater confidence.

woman playing brown classical guitar
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And Then There Was Music

Now you’re ready to tackle the sheet music you’re about to play with some last sight reading tips. Take a careful look at the composition. Be aware of the time signature and key signature. Get a feel for the rhythm. Then look for the special notations that give direction as to how the piece should be played—rhythm changes, volume fluctuations, clef changes and more. Figure how you can move through the tricky spots beforehand. Make notes on the music if permitted to help alert you to anything that could derail you. Also, you can sound out the whole piece in your head or vocally to make it conceptually real. This can improve your sight reading in general.

Tricks for Sight Reading

Concentration was given as one of the earlier sight reading tips. To implement it, start with breathing slowly and deeply, relaxing in effect. This can help you get off to a good start and maintain your concentration.

Bringing It to Life

Begin sight-reading as you play your instrument or sing if this is for choral work. Take it slow at first. You can bring it up to full tempo when you are more familiar with it.

As you progress with the notes, put some of your focus on larger musical phrases or sections, enabling you to see the direction of the piece. If you’ve reviewed it ahead of time, this looking ahead slightly will act as a reminder and aid in the flow of the music. If you’re new to sight-reading, it might seem a lot to ask to look ahead at all. The notes aren’t as important to the performance as the rhythm and maintaining the flow of the music. So, make it a point to keep the movement intact even if you miss some notes here and there at first.

Make it a strict practice to keep going even if you make mistakes. Even when by yourself, carry on to the end. You can take the rough spots by themselves later and drill out the problems. When you start from the top again, run the whole piece to the end. The challenge will result in greater improvement than you would experience by stopping and starting. It also prepares you for public performance, where you never want to stop and restart. You will find that an audience either doesn’t notice a lot of the mistakes or is simply forgiving of them.

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Sight-reading tips for singers differ from those for instrumentalists on one point at least. Singers don’t have a keyboard, no strings or any keys to consult as to the accuracy of the notes they produce. If they don’t have perfect pitch, they may not have a feel for a starting note or perhaps an unusual note progression in the middle of the song. One routine that can be especially helpful is learning Solfege or Solfeggio.

Solfege is a vocal exercise using “do re mi fa sol la ti do.” Each syllable has a note assigned to it. There are drills for the singer that help establish where the notes fall on the staff and the relationships between the various notes up and down the scale. With this basis, the singer can develop their sight-reading ability.


Whether you’re a singer or you play an instrument, being able to sight-read will be valuable to you at some point. Even if you sing or play only by ear, you may very well encounter situations in which you could benefit from reading music. These sight reading tips in this article, if used, will give you more options to enjoy your musical life to the fullest.

Mastering sight reading skills can even lead to opportunities you wouldn’t have considered before learning those skills. At the very least, just being able to sight-read proficiently can enrich your musical experience. To sit down with some sheet music and to play or sing it effortlessly is fun.

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