How To Improve Your Sight-Reading

As I mentioned earlier in an article about cruise ship musician skill level, you should have very good sight-reading skills if you are going to work on a cruise ship, especially if you are planning to work in the show band. Its no surprise that sight reading is a big part of most ship auditions.

If sight reading isn’t your thing, I have a few suggestions. I often work as an audition accompanist, which is a job that sometimes requires 100% sight reading for hours on end, so I’ve learned a few tricks over the years.

Take a Breath

I’m careful not to just put the song on my stand and start playing the little black dots immediately. I take a minute and look at the whole thing before I start.

Read the Title

This sounds stupid, but in the rush of smoothing out the music and trying to start as soon as possible, sometimes I skip right past the title and start staring at everything else. Read the title and the tempo/style markings at the top. If I’m playing with someone that knows the tune, I’ll ask them for a tempo. Often when someone gives me the tempo, they also give me an idea of the feel and groove of the song.

Understand the Song’s Roadmap

Sometimes sheet music is just written poorly. DS’s and Codas are dumb ways to save paper, and they are no help to a sight reader. I circle all important symbols before I start playing.

Scan for Key, Meter Changes

Find any key changes, or meter changes. I always sing through the meter changes in my head before I start the song.

Notation as Shapes

As you become a better sight reader, you’ll find that notation often comes in familiar shapes. I find this especially true of piano music. As I’m sight reading, I don’t have time to look at each individual note of a chord as it flies by. Over the years my eyes have become accustomed to seeing familiar chords as shapes. You know what a basic, 3-note triad looks like, right? If the top note is G, I’ll bet you that’s a C major chord, depending on the key signature. I don’t need to look that closely at the other two notes.

You know what a fourth looks like, right? If there are two fourths stacked on top of each other, and you see that the bottom note has one ledger line, I’m certain that chord is C, F & Bb. I don’t need to sit and place each note, I can usually tell what the chord is from the shape of the note heads and the placement or span of the top and bottom chord tones.

You can see melody lines as shapes, too. See all notes as a collection of familiar patterns and phrases and it’ll help your sight reading immensely.

Read Ahead

Beginners always look directly at the note that they are playing. Once they’ve played it they look at the next note. Then the next note. Its a slow process.

I like to be looking 1-4 measures ahead of what I’m are playing at all times, sight reading or not. To be a serious sight reader you need to acquire the ability to create a buffer between what you are reading and what is coming out of your hands.

Its a lot like an anti-skip CD player (remember those?) that is reading twenty seconds ahead of what’s actually coming out of the headphones. If the CD player gets hit and skips, it has 20 seconds to fix the skip before you’d hear it. Its usually fixed in those 20 seconds, so you never hear a skip. The same is true of a musician reading 2 measures ahead. If I get to a difficult part or a key change, I’ve already had 2 measures worth of time to look at it before I had to play it. It makes a huge difference.

Don’t Stop

If I screw something up, I never stop and go back. I make something up, or lay out for a minute, then get back on track. Remember, we aren’t practicing, we’re sight reading. If you are playing with someone else – a singer for example – and you mess up and go back…the technical term for that is “train wreck,” and its bad. Laying out for a few measures is better than stopping if it comes to that.

A Note on Music Notation

As I alluded to earlier – sometimes sheet music is just written poorly, and that doesn’t help with sight reading. Recently I received a piece of hand-written music that was a copy of a copy. The 15th measure was scratched out and it said “To Key of Db –>” with a big “Db” written on measure 16. There was a DS and a Coda. In my opinion, that is an unreadable piece of music, and luckily it wasn’t for a sight-reading gig this time. But I’d seen that and much worse, even in auditions.

You will always do better with a clean, original copy of music. You might not notice what a difference it makes when a copy machine skews the notation, lightens the staff lines, or cuts off the bottom of the page. It makes a big difference to your eyes, and that comes out in your fingers. At the very least, your eyes need the staff lines to be clear and straight.

To Get Better At Sight Reading, You Need To Sight Read

Practice will make it better, but practicing sight reading sucks. I think the best way to get better at this is to put yourself in stressful sight reading situations – again, like audition accompanying. When you start doing this gig, you’re going to screw some things up, and you are going to feel like a real idiot. And I guarantee you’ll learn something and be better the next time.

Also – get some friends together and read new music together. That’s a great way to get familiar with news songs, as well as hone your reading chops.

If you are practicing sight reading alone, play with a metronome. That will keep you from slowing down in the hard parts, and speeding up the faster parts.


The best piece of advice here is to sight read as much as you can. You will get better, and you will naturally begin to absorb the other ideas as you do.

Published by

David J. Hahn

David J. Hahn

David J. Hahn (@davidjhahn) is the co-founder of and a former Broadway conductor. He grew up near Chicago, lived in New York City, and settled in California. In 2012, he left the music business to found California Surfcraft, a San Francisco-based start-up that makes high-performance surf gear out of fiberglass-reinforced cork. He is the inventor of the Bodypo®, a sustainable alternative to the traditional bodyboard. He is a cancer survivor, an advocate for unlikely career paths, and, beginning in spring of 2015, a father.

20 thoughts on “How To Improve Your Sight-Reading”

  1. Great advice on a skill that can help anyone. While it’s true that many musicians have plenty of work and never have to read music, there is more work available to those that can.

    It’s also worth noting that composers, arrangers, and band leaders can learn something here. Make your music easy to read! Especially when it comes to the tune’s form. I think D.S. and Coda’s are great because I know I’m looking at music I already played, but they’re worthless if the symbols aren’t clearly marked, like at the beginning of a line (or system).

  2. I’m an e-bass player who graduated from Berklee College of Music with a rating in read of a 6 out of 8. Is that good enough?

  3. When I was in high school, I started doing (what was then called) “record copies.” That is, I’d listen to a recording (many, many, MANY times) and then sit down and work my way through it with score paper to notate the arrangement. Very old school, but it’s how I learned.

    The most interesting thing that happened to me after spending many hours transcribing notes and rhythms is that I noticed after a while, my sight-reading skills got better. Comparable to your section on Notation As Shapes, I started recognizing familiar rhythmic patterns as groups.

    I have long maintained (but have never tested my theory) that if one spends the time transcribing music, one will become a better reader. The logic seems solid enough.

    1. “I have long maintained (but have never tested my theory) that if one spends the time transcribing music, one will become a better reader. The logic seems solid enough.” Outstanding piece of advice. You’re the only person besides me that I’ve known to say this.

  4. Great article, Dave. I’m impressed that you can get so many measures ahead of the music; perhaps my main obstacle is that I’m still only able to look a few notes ahead.

    What you said about recognizing shapes really rings true. I’ve noticed in my own reading that arpeggios, conjunct melodies, repeated phrases w/ chromaticism and other devices are now easier to recognize as a whole group. When this started happening, I realized I had reached a significant milestone. I think it will be years to come before I can read like a true monster, though.

  5. Hi. Your articles and forums, especially about the cruise ship gigs, are very interesting. Could you post an example of the sight reading music? I think my perception is distorted. Is it chords, or multiple melody lines, etc? Is it anywhere near piano chamber music like the Brahms piano quintet? If you can’t post anything, could you compare it to a specific work that I could look up? Thanks!

  6. Nice article. (This site is full of great info!)

    Nonchalant Savant said it above, but I think the most under-valued thing one can do to improve sight reading is transcribing. And then writing out those transcriptions.

    Classically trained musicians tend to have trouble with the “playing what you hear” part and self-taught musicians tend to have trouble with the “writing it down” part, but if you can learn to notate what you’re hearing, it won’t take long to start hearing what’s notated.

    Think of it this way, in elementary school reading and writing (I’m talkin’ words) are taught in conjunction, so most people can write at a level similar to what they can read. Unfortunately, as musicians the writing part tends to be ignored. Then we wonder why we don’t read well.

    And to anyone out there who doesn’t want to “put the time” into learning to read well, just think about how much time you’ll save in the future when you can just READ the music instead of “working it out.”

  7. Dave – Great collection of tips! I especially like your “Take a Breath” reminder, as it’s something I struggle with. As much as I consciously know the importance of looking over music before sight reading, I still have a bad habit of just diving in sometimes, truly “a prima vista”.

    Nonchalant Savant, Kevin – This idea of transcription helping with sight reading is fascinating! Never heard that before, but it sort of makes sense. On one hand it seems like an indirect approach, but on the other hand it’s good to have exercises like this that work multiple musical muscles at once so you don’t become a lopsided musician. Anyway, thanks for introducing me to the concept!

    @benjohnsen – I work full-time on a resource for sight reading practice. It provides sight reading exercises at various levels of difficulty with companion audio samples so you can check if you played them correctly. These are exercises composed by real musicians with an emphasis on musicality. Please check it out if you think this might be of use to you!

  8. thank you for a good piece of advice. What about fingering of the left hand when the gap btn tenor and bass is more than an octave because when i reach there i slow down.

  9. Your article on sight-reading is helpful. My 9 year old daughter plays beautifully but I want her to be able to sight read. I myself am an excellent sight-reader and in my ignorance – I thought that every pianist could sight read. I found out that actually a good sight reader is more rare than this. And so…. I’m researching this topic because I want my young daughter to become as good if not better a sight-reader than myself. As a child I did not have very good training; however I practiced a ton and there was one thing that helped my sight reading immensely. Each month I received SHEET MUSIC magazine, and I played the issue cover to cover that entire month – until the next issue arrived. I did this for many years as a child. I really believe this is what helped me. You are correct The best way to sight read is to do it a LOT! I will continue to research this topic – I find it fascinating.

  10. I totally agree on the shapes. I’ve never been much of a site reader but I started recently taking piano lessons again and it seems I almost read more by the shapes and distance between the note than the actual notes themselves. Of course, I can’t read that far ahead of the music. A skill I’ll have to keep working on. Great article.

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