If you harbour any ambitions to learn to play an instrument, play professionally or simply reach the top of your hobby, it is essential to learn to sight-read music at the earliest opportunity. It is a worthy investment of time as once you have done it once, the process never changes and you can set about improving your knowledge and experience as you see fit, all with a fantastic skill behind you.
As with anything worth doing, learning to sight-read music is not necessarily easy, but it is hugely rewarding. The chances are that you’d rather spend more time with an instrument in your hand, singing or doing whatever else makes sense. It is therefore always worth thinking about how to make the learning process quicker and more efficient, and the following tips are sure to set you well on your way.
1. Focus on Theory more than Specifics
The ability to sight-read music will serve you well for years to come, so it is important not to focus too much on what you’re working on at the time. If you’re learning the guitar and have plans to play heavy metal, there will naturally be more focus on those elements of music notation. However, just because something is not relevant now does not mean it should be ignored – try to learn as much as you can in as many different genres as possible so as not to limit your musical progression in the future.
2. Start with a Focus on Rhythms
As far as we’re concerned, the best foothold you can get when learning to sight-read music is to start with rhythms. Work with a variety of rhythm patterns early on to get to know their nuances and specifics. That will make everything you do from that point onwards far easier and more natural. It is also an essential concept whether you’re an instrumentalist or a singer, which is relatively rare in this area of music.
3. Prioritise Key Signatures
If you follow a sight-reading course or other instructions, the chances are that you’ll come across key signatures relatively early on. It is difficult and time-consuming, but the rewards will soon make themselves known. It allows you to have an idea of what’s coming next rather than just focusing on the current passage, and it will not only boost your skills in sight-reading but aid you in practice sessions and even during performances going forward.
4. Learn About Scales
This is an area in which the tips differ depending on whether you’re a vocalist or you play an instrument. For the former, your focus will be on learning the differences between major and minor keys with emphasis on tone changes. For the latter, scales help you to learn muscle memory which assists in ensuring that your hands are in the right place as soon as they need to be.
5. Embrace Mistakes
There are various things you can do to make sight-reading easier – a guitar player may shift their view from their hands to the music and back again while they go. It is better to get out of this habit early on, as you probably won’t have the opportunity to do this on stage or in the studio. We actually find it better to make the mistakes that these aids would prevent early on, as you can start to work on the root cause rather than glossing over and advancing faster than you should.
6. Expand Your Musical Horizons
We touched on the importance of doing more than reading your favourite music in the first tip. We would also suggest reading all the music you can, as often as you can. The underlying technique is the same, but this is once again about building up your talents to ensure you can cope with anything. If you become a session musician, take requests or anything else that is impossible to prepare for directly, you’ll be thankful that you learned the slight differences between styles beforehand. Only then can you claim actually to be able to sight read all music.
7. Gain an Overview of the Piece before You Practice
Only when you can successfully sight-read and no longer need to train should you dive right into the music and start playing. In the learning stages, you should devote time to going over the piece before you tackle it so that you can understand any nuances or unusual structures contained therein.
8. Take Notes
If you practice alone, we can assume that the books or electronic files you use are your own, and you should never worry about potentially defacing them. Like a spoken language, music does tend to stick to a certain structure and have its own rules. Also, like languages, those rules can be bent if it makes something easier. In this case, you may have a specific area that is particularly troublesome – even if you just notate the music to indicate that the tricky part comes soon, there is nothing wrong with that.
9. Mentally Play Along as You Read
During the preparation stage, there is nothing wrong with playing the song in your head as you go. As noted, it does not take all that long to learn to sight-read music if you go about it the right way, and it may only take a couple of sessions before you can reproduce what you see on the page in your head. This will help to guide you through the actual performance and will make clear the more difficult parts before you confront them.
10. Keep an Eye Out for Musical Direction on the Page
It is often better to focus on the notes and other standard information in the early stages, but you’ll soon recognise the musical direction and other annotations. It will be easier to keep up with these as you progress as you naturally pay less attention to the notes and more to the details.