What Is Sight Reading (And How Complicated Is It Really?) Sunday November 27 2022, 1:30 AM
Yona Marie
Singer, Songwriter, Producer.
What Is Sight Reading (And How Complicated Is It Really?)

What Is Sight Reading?

Want to learn one of the coolest superpowers known to the music world? Okay, I may be exaggerating a bit here, but I'm proud to say that I'm a professional sight-reader that has been studying the art for over a decade. 

Sight reading is simply the ability to read music that is transcribed into sheet music form. Many people in and outside of the music world have seen what a music note looks like but don't bother to get too deep into the way music can be written.

Those who excel at sight reading can look at a piece of music for the first time and be able to perform it right there on the spot, almost perfectly.

This is why I like to call it a superpower, because who wouldn't want to be able to excel at their favorite thing without needing much practice? 

In comparison to the general act of reading music, which may happen for most people very slowly even if they are familiar with reading musical notation, avid sight-readers are able to pick up a piece of sheet music and perform the song near-correctly on the spot.

The History Of Sight Reading

Sight reading, also known as "a prima vista" in Italian (which translates to at first sight), is an act that has been around since the very first examples of music notation in music history dating back to Ancient Greece.

The music to be sung was transcribed into letters and symbols for music groups to perform in religious settings.

Music notation and sheet music had a slow start until around the year 990 in early Europe, where Guido of Arezzo pioneered music staff notation, which massively influenced the development of Western musical notation.

Once performers were able to notate and share their musical ideas for others to perform, the art of reading music came into play. 

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How Hard Is Sight Reading, Really?

The main elements that are involved in all music notations can include pitch indication, rhythm notation, chords, lyrics, and technique. Many symbols can be included in sheet music, so it all may seem overwhelming at first. 

Depending on how far you want to go in terms of difficulty, sign reading can be much easier than you would think.

For example, If you are thinking about becoming a professional classical pianist, then you will be entering a world of advanced sight-reading that is truly difficult and will take years to learn.

But in comparison, if you are looking to be able to pick up a hymnal in your local church and read along without needing any rehearsal, then you may not have too far to go so long as you learn the basics. 

The process requires a hefty load of short-term memory for you to keep all of the notes that you've read stored in your brain as you actively perform, and it's not something that will come instantly to you as a natural talent. 

But if you're like me and love a musical challenge, the journey as you explore the theory and art of notated music will not feel like work, and it will be more like an exciting hobby that you've grown accustomed to!

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The Benefits Of Sight Reading 

As I said before, sight-reading is a great way to get to perform without needing much rehearsal at all. This is especially handy for live and studio performers who get paid to perform new music regularly and are paid extra for having such a skill. 

Sight reading is also a great look into the world of music theory in general, where you can see how the fundamentals of music really work to create the countless decades of amazing musical works we've been exposed to. 

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I also mentioned that sight-reading requires a lot of short-term memory, but the skills developed with sight-reading go much deeper than that.

This skill can help you gain proficiency with aural imagery (ear-playing and sight-singing), the ability to keep a steady beat, read and remember rhythm, and so much more.

Is Sight Reading A Necessary Skill For Music?

While many renowned musicians are known as sight-reading legends, there are tons of popular musicians who don't know how to read music at all.

It heavily relies on the style of music that you are interested in pursuing in your career, as well as your instrument of choice.

If you, for example, want to be a successful opera singer, you likely do need to become a good sight-reader in the field. If you want to become a pop singer, you probably won't need to learn how to sight-read music to excel in your arena of music.


Common Instruments For Sight Reading

Sight-reading is not limited to the vocal instruments we all have.

All instruments that are involved in orchestra ensembles, including the piano, violin, flute, trumpet, and bass drum, require musicians to know how to sight-read music, at least at the most basic levels. 

Jazz professionals who play instruments like saxophone and trombone are commonly excellent sight-readers as well, given the complexity of the genre itself. 

While most guitarists prefer to read tabs, which show focus on block chords and are easier to read, many professionals have stated that sight-reading is well worth the learning process for more accuracy in comparison.  

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Where Can You Learn Sight Reading?

I always recommend that beginners start with my favorite online tool by the name of MusicTheory.net if they want to get some information on the basics of sight reading.

Practicing with a tool like this on a consistent schedule can seriously strengthen your sight-reading skills at no cost.

You could also check out beginner tutorials on Youtube that have plenty of music professionals giving simple and quick lessons that anyone can use to start with or share with their music students.

Since reading music is a visual process, I also suggest books like "Alfred's Essentials of Music Theory: A Complete Self-Study Course", an all-inclusive book and audio guide lessons that would be good for a school-like lesson plan over time. 

Yona Marie

As a session singer, writer, and producer that has worked with over 300 clients to provide high-quality jingles, singles, and features, Yona spends her time creating and marketing new music and helpful resources for creators. Check out Yona’s latest releases on her Spotify, her Youtube and share if you like it!

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