Sight reading
Sight-reading is the reading and performing of a piece of written music
Music is an art form whose medium is sound and silence. Its common elements are pitch , rhythm , dynamics, and the sonic qualities of timbre and texture...

, specifically when the performer has not seen it before. Sight-singing is often used to describe a singer who is sight-reading.


Authors in music literature commonly use the term "sight-reading" generically for "the ability to read and produce both instrumental and vocal music at first sight ... the conversion of musical information from sight to sound" . Udtaisuk and some other authors prefer the use of the more specific terms "sight-playing" and "sight-singing" where applicable. This differentiation leaves a third more restricted use of the term "sight-reading" for the silent reading of music without creating sound by instrument or voice.

Highly skilled musicians can sight-read silently; that is, they can look at the printed music and hear it in their heads without playing or singing; see Audiation
Audiation is a high level thought process, involving mentally hearing and comprehending music, even when no physical sound is present. It is a cognitive process by which the brain gives meaning to musical sounds. In essence, audiation of music is analogous to thinking in a language. The term...

. (True sight-reading or sight-singing—not code-deciphering—is actually notational audiation.) Less able sight-readers generally must at least hum or whistle in order to sight-read effectively. This distinction is analogous to ordinary prose reading during the early Middle Ages, when the ability to read silently was notable enough for St. Augustine to comment on it .

The term "a prima vista" is also used, as Italian words and phrases are commonly used in music and music notation. To play a musical piece a prima vista means to play it 'at first sight'.

According to , "the ability to hear the notes on the page is clearly akin to music reading and should be considered a prerequisite for effective performance.... Egregious errors can occur when a student, analyzing a piece of music, makes no effort to play or hear the composition but mechanically processes the notes on the page".

Sight transposition

Some musicians can transpose music during performance to suit particular instuments or vocal ranges, to make the playing of the instrument(s) or singing easier, or a number of other uses. It is not necessary to know how to read the music—just the knowledge of how to play the transposed chords and melodic lines in a new key to take a song that is "too high" or "too low," and tailor it to fit an appropriate range.


According to Udtaisuk, "many [authors] use the term sight-reading for instrumental sight-reading performance." However, Udtaisuk and some other authors use the more descriptive term "sightplaying" (or "sight-playing") for instrumental sight-reading, because sight-playing combines two unique skill sets: music reading and music making.


When singers sight-read, it is often called sight-singing. Some authors, according to Udtaisuk, use the term "sight-singing" for vocal sight-reading. As with sight-playing, Udtaisuk advocates and uses the more descriptive term "sightsinging" for vocal sight-reading, because sight-singing combines sight-reading and singing skills.


The ability to sight-read partly depends on a strong short-term musical memory
Short-term memory
Short-term memory is the capacity for holding a small amount of information in mind in an active, readily available state for a short period of time. The duration of short-term memory is believed to be in the order of seconds. A commonly cited capacity is 7 ± 2 elements...

. An experiment on sight reading using an eye tracker indicates that highly skilled musicians tend to look ahead further in the music, storing and processing the notes until they are played; this is referred to as the eye–hand span
Eye–hand span
The eye–hand span is the distance between the eyes and the hands on a text—usually linguistic text that is being copy-typed or music notation that is being performed. The eye–hand span is typically measured from the location of central visual input, and stretches between the syllable or chord...


Storage of notational information in working memory can be expressed in terms of the amount of information (load) and the time for which it must be held before being played (latency). The relationship between load and latency changes according to tempo, such that t = x/y, where t is the change in tempo, x is the change in load, and y is the change in latency. Some teachers and researchers have proposed that the eye–hand span can be trained to be larger than it would otherwise be under normal conditions, leading to more robust sight-reading ability.

Sight-reading also depends on familiarity with the musical idiom being performed; this permits the reader to recognize and process frequently occurring patterns of notes as a single unit, rather than individual notes, thus achieving greater efficiency. This phenomenon, which also applies to the reading of language, is referred to as chunking
Chunking (psychology)
Chunking, in psychology, is a phenomenon whereby individuals group responses when performing a memory task. Tests where individuals can illustrate "chunking" commonly include serial and free recall, as these both require the individual to reproduce items that he or she had previously been...

. Errors in sight-reading tend to occur in places where the music contains unexpected or unusual sequences; these defeat the strategy of "reading by expectation" that sight-readers typically employ.

Professional use

Studio musician
A musician is an artist who plays a musical instrument. It may or may not be the person's profession. Musicians can be classified by their roles in performing music and writing music.Also....* A person who makes music a profession....

s (that is, musicians employed to record pieces for commercial
Advertising is a form of communication used to persuade an audience to take some action with respect to products, ideas, or services. Most commonly, the desired result is to drive consumer behavior with respect to a commercial offering, although political and ideological advertising is also common...

s, etc.) often record pieces on the first take without having seen them before. Often, the music played on television
Television is a telecommunication medium for transmitting and receiving moving images that can be monochrome or colored, with accompanying sound...

 is played by musicians who are sight-reading. This practice has developed through intense commercial competition in these industries.

, jazz musician, professor, and private instructor, describes auditions for University of North Texas
University of North Texas
The University of North Texas is a public institution of higher education and research in Denton. Founded in 1890, UNT is part of the University of North Texas System. As of the fall of 2010, the University of North Texas, Denton campus, had a certified enrollment of 36,067...

 Jazz Lab Bands as being almost completely based on sight-reading: "you walk into a room and see three or four music stands in front of you, each with a piece of music on it (in different styles ...). You are then asked to read each piece in succession."

This emphasis on sight-reading, according to McNerney, prepares musicians for studio work "playing backing tracks for pop performers or recording [commercials]." The expense of the studio, musicians, and techs makes sight-reading skills essential. Typically, a studio performance is "rehearsed" only once to check for copying errors before recording the final track. Many professional big bands also sight-read every live performance. They are known as "rehearsal bands" though their performance is the rehearsal.

According to , score reading is an important skill for those interested in the conducting profession and "Conductors such as the late Robert Shaw
Robert Shaw (conductor)
Robert Shaw was an American conductor most famous for his work with his namesake Chorale, with the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus, and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Shaw received 14 Grammy awards, four ASCAP awards for service to contemporary music, the first Guggenheim Fellowship...

 and Yoel Levi
Yoel Levi
Yoel Levi is a musician and conductor. Born in Romania, he grew up in Israel. He studied at the Tel Aviv Academy of Music, earning a Master of Arts degree with distinction. He also studied at the Jerusalem Academy of Music under Mendi Rodan. Levi won the 1978 International Besançon Competition...

 have incredibly strong piano skills and can read at sight full orchestral scores at the piano."

surveyed over 40 professional associations regarding opportunities and requirements in music careers. They found sight-reading, transposition, and improvisation among required skills for careers in instrumental performance including armed forces musician, orchestra musician, small ensemble musician, concert soloist, band musician, and clinician. Employment in music for worship including organist, choir director, cantor, and hazzan
A hazzan or chazzan is a Jewish cantor, a musician trained in the vocal arts who helps lead the congregation in songful prayer.There are many rules relating to how a cantor should lead services, but the idea of a cantor as a paid professional does not exist in classical rabbinic sources...

 require skills in sight-reading and open score reading. Sight-singing and memorization are required for vocal performers such as dance band or night club vocalist, concert or opera chorus member, concert soloist, and opera soloist.


Although 86% of piano teachers polled rated sight-reading as the most important or a highly important skill, only 7% of them said they address it systematically. Reasons cited were a lack of knowledge of how to teach it, inadequacy of the training materials they use, and deficiency in their own sight-reading skills. Teachers also often emphasize rehearsed reading and repertoire building for successful recitals and auditions to the detriment of sight-reading and other functional skills .

Hardy reviewed research on piano sight-reading pedagogy and identified a number of specific skills essential to sight-reading proficiency:
  • Technical fundamentals in reading and fingering
  • Visualization of keyboard topography
  • Tactile facility (psychomotor skills) and memory
  • Ability to read, recognize, and remember groups of notes (directions, patterns, phrases, chords, rhythmic groupings, themes, inversions, intervals, etc.)
  • Ability to read and remember ahead of playing with more and wider progressive fixations
  • Aural imagery (ear-playing and sight-singing improves sight-reading)
  • Ability to keep the basic pulse, read, and remember rhythm
  • Awareness and knowledge of the music's structure and theory

Beauchamp (1999) identifies five building blocks in the development of piano sight-reading skills:
  1. Grand-staff knowledge
  2. Security within the five finger positions
  3. Security with keyboard topography
  4. Security with basic accompaniment patterns
  5. Understanding of basic fingering principles

Grand-staff knowledge consists of fluency in both clefs such that reading a note evokes an automatic and immediate physical response to the appropriate position on the keyboard. Beauchamp asserts it is better to sense and know where the note is than what the note is. The performer doesn't have time to think of the note name and translate it to a position, and the non-scientific note
In music, the term note has two primary meanings:#A sign used in musical notation to represent the relative duration and pitch of a sound;#A pitched sound itself....

 name doesn't indicate the octave
In music, an octave is the interval between one musical pitch and another with half or double its frequency. The octave relationship is a natural phenomenon that has been referred to as the "basic miracle of music", the use of which is "common in most musical systems"...

 to be played. Beauchamp reports success using a Key/Note Visualizer, note-reading flashcards, and computer programs in group and individual practice to develop grand-staff fluency.

Udtaisuk also reports that a sense of keyboard geography and an ability to quickly and efficiently match notes to keyboard keys is important for sight-reading. He found that "computer programs and flash cards are effective ways to teach students to identify notes [and] enhance a sense of keyboard geography by highlighting the relationships between the keyboard and the printed notation."

Most students don't sight-read well because it requires specific instruction, which is seldom given. A major challenge in sight-reading instruction, according to Hardy, is obtaining enough practice material. Since practicing rehearsed reading does not help improve sight-reading, a student can only use a practice piece once. Moreover, the material must be at just the right level of difficulty for each student, and a variety of styles is preferred. Hardy suggests music teachers cooperate to build a large lending library of music and purchase inexpensive music from garage sales and store sales.

Assessment and standards

In some circumstances, such as examinations, the ability of a student to sight-read is assessed by presenting the student with a short piece of music, with an allotted time to peruse the music, then testing the student on the accuracy of the performance. A more challenging test requires the student to perform without any preparation at all.

Washington State
Washington Assessment of Student Learning
The Washington Assessment of Student Learning was a standardized educational assessment system given as the primary assessment in the state of Washington from spring 1997 to summer 2009. The WASL was also used as a high school graduation examination beginning in the spring of 2006 and ending in 2009...

 has piloted a classroom based assessment which requires 5th and higher grade students to sight-sing or perform on instruments from sheet music they have written. It is suggested that students use solfege
In music, solfège is a pedagogical solmization technique for the teaching of sight-singing in which each note of the score is sung to a special syllable, called a solfège syllable...

 or numbering systems or fingering without instruments as aids. 8th graders are expected to sing by sight: "Students are asked to perform a sight-singing exercise of four measures of music. Students will be assessed on their understanding of rhythm and steady beat and their ability to perform in the designated key with accurate interval changes, acappella."

Many students and adults cannot sight-sing, and even some professional singers cannot sing by sight. However, in combination with an assessment which requires composing music on a staff as early as 5th grade, it is hoped that such a requirement will raise arts achievement. Pilot data show that many students can meet or exceed such standards. Other states are evaluating possible performance assessments as well.

See also

  • Ear training
    Ear training
    Ear training or aural skills is a skill by which musicians learn to identify, solely by hearing, pitches, intervals, melody, chords, rhythms, and other basic elements of music. The application of this skill is analogous to taking dictation in written/spoken language. Ear training may be...

  • Eye movement in music reading
    Eye movement in music reading
    Eye movement in music reading is the scanning of a musical score by a musician's eyes. This usually occurs as the music is read during performance, although musicians sometimes scan music silently to study it, and sometimes perform from memory without score. The phenomenon has been studied by...

  • Shape note
    Shape note
    Shape notes are a music notation designed to facilitate congregational and community singing. The notation, introduced in 1801, became a popular teaching device in American singing schools...

  • Subvocalization
    Subvocalization, or silent speech, is defined as the internal speech made when reading a word, thus allowing the reader to imagine the sound of the word as it is read. This is a natural process when reading and helps to reduce cognitive load, and it helps the mind to access meanings to enable it to...

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