Piano Sight Reading: A Beginner's Guide

Ever wondered how somebody can pick up a piece of written music and just start playing it perfectly? It's not magic (or cheating), they've simply learned the skill of piano sight reading – and you can too!

by Rhian Avery

With the right knowledge and proper practice, you'll be able to read and play practically any piece of music you come across. Sounds good, right? Then let's jump right into it – beginning with a basic understanding of how to read written music.

The basics of reading music

Music is a language. Like any language, music has a written form: musical notation. This includes a vocabulary of notes, markings, and symbols that tell you what to play, when to play it, and how to play it. Here are the key elements that make up musical notation.

The staff

Music is notated on what we call the grand staff. Each note written on the grand staff tells you which corresponding key to play on the piano. The first symbol that appears at the beginning of every music staff is a clef symbol. It tells you which note (A, B, C, D, E, F, or G) is found on each line or space.

The grand staff consists of a treble clef at the top and bass clef below, as shown in the following image. 

Typically, you play the notes on the treble clef with your right hand and the notes on the bass clef with your left hand.

The grand staff with treble and bass clef

Middle C and other notes

The lines and spaces of the grand staff are home to various musical symbols, including notes. Middle C lies in the gap between the staves, above the bass clef and below the treble clef. Just as it is the center point for orientation on the staff, so it is on the keyboard.

Now, we'll focus on how to find your way around the notes of the treble clef. First, find middle C (highlighted on the staff and keyboard below.) From here, follow the sequence of the musical alphabet (A to G) to name all the notes found on the treble staff. 

Middle C and notes on the treble clef

Instead of counting up from middle C every time, you can use memory aids to identify the notes.

The four spaces of the treble staff spell out "ACE:"

Notes in the space of the treble clef

The five lines of the treble staff are EGBDF. We've heard "Every Good Boy Does Fine" or "Every Girl Boss Does Fine." 

Notes on the lines of the treble clef

The same goes for the bass clef. You don't need to count down from middle C to work out the notes. You can use the following memory aids, or make up your own!

The four spaces of the bass clef from bottom to top are ACEG: "All Cows Eat Grass” or “All Cars Eat Gas.”

Notes in the spaces of the bass clef

The five lines of the bass clef are GBDFA: "Good Boys Do Fine Always" or "Good Burritos Don't Fall Apart."

Notes on the lines of the bass clef

Note Values

A note value indicates how long you hold the note. Just as the position of the note tells you which key to play, the shape of the note tells you how long to play it. For now, we'll look at the four main note values:

  • A whole note is an empty circle and lasts four counts.
  • A half note adds a stem and lasts two counts.
  • A quarter note fills in the circle and lasts one count.
  • An eighth note has a “flag” and lasts for half of one count.

Lenghts of different notes

Key signature

As its name suggests, a key signature identifies which key a piece of piano music is in. Appearing immediately after the clef symbol on every music staff, the key signature tells you which notes are sharp and flat throughout the piece. 

Grand staff with the key signature of G Major

A sharp or flat identified in the key signature indicates that every instance of that note is sharp or flat. For example, if you play a melody in the key of G, you can expect to play all the Fs in the piece as F-sharps.

Note: Most music will not stick entirely to a key signature, adding extra flats or sharps throughout. These are called "accidentals". They are placed on the same lines or spaces as their "natural" notes but with little symbols to the left of the notes.

Time Signature

The time signature appears to the right of the clef symbol. It includes two numbers stacked on top of each other, like this:

4/4 time signature

The two numbers in the time signature tell you how many beats are in each measure of music. The most common time signature is 4/4 – it's so common in fact that it's also referred to as "common time." It has four quarter beats per measure, so you count "one, two, three, four" as you play.

Tempo

To count properly, you need to know the speed intended for the piece, known as tempo. Traditionally, this is written in Italian terms like Lento ("slowly"), Moderato ("moderately") or Allegro ("fast and bright"). In modern pieces, the tempo is often marked in beats per minute (bpm), referring to the number of quarter counts per minute.

Tempo markings

How to get better at sight reading

Now that you've familiarized yourself with the basics of musical notation, it's time to put that knowledge into practice with some real sight reading. 

The most important thing to remember before you start sight reading is that you shouldn't simply jump into playing a piece. Do your groundwork first and skim through the sheet music. This will help you get a better feel of what is expected from a piece, so you can play it more fluently and with fewer mistakes. 

Ready to go? Here's a step-by-step guide for how you should prepare to sight read a piece of music:

  1. Begin with the basics: check the key signature and the time signature to establish the key you'll be playing in and how many beats will be in each measure.
  2. Find the right starting position, putting your fingers over the notes. If black keys are needed, rest your fingers on them.
  3. In your head, read the music in short phrases. Think with both hands together. If you prepare each hand separately, you won't get a feel for the harmonies or for the way the hands coordinate throughout the piece. 
  4. Look for note patterns, such as scales, as well as repeated rhythm patterns. 
  5. Notice performance markings, such as the suggested speed and dynamics; e.g. loud (f) and quiet (p.).
  6. Run through in your head how the piece might sound while imagining the feeling of playing the correct notes. If any hand position changes are needed, move your hands at the right time to each new group of notes.
  7. Pay through the piece slowly. Begin by counting and playing, making sure to hold each note value for its appropriate duration. If you are uncertain of a note, don't be afraid to miss it out or to play a note that seems like a good fit. It's more important to keep going at a steady pace than to play everything perfectly.
  8. After playing through the piece once, go ahead and work through it one more time. You'll probably notice that you're able to play more fluidly after just one run.
  9. Make sight reading a regular part of your practice routine. The more pieces you play – in different keys and styles – the better you will get at sight reading!

Setting yourself up for success

As you work on your sight reading, it can be helpful to set specific goals for improving your skills. It can be something as simple as committing to practice sight reading for 10 minutes a day. You could also buy a book with sight reading exercises and commit to tackling a certain number of exercises each week. 

During practice sessions, you might notice that you tend to trip up on certain aspects of sight reading. Maybe you don't always remember which key signature is which. Or maybe you find it tricky to nail down the tempo of your pieces. Make a note of common mistakes and then make an effort to focus on these as you practice – it will take your sight reading a long way!

Lastly, remember that learning to sight read is a lot like learning a language. When you start learning a new language, you have to concentrate on the meaning of each word, then put it into the context of a sentence. Eventually, you understand each sentence without thinking. 

Music is the same. It simply takes practice to get good at sight reading. Stick to it and in time, you won't just see a page of notes and symbols. You'll hear chords, melodies, harmonies, and know what to play without even thinking about it.

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