MTNA Conference: Wednesday Session; Learn at First Sight- A Review of Sight-Reading Research


By Margaret M. Young

What is Sight-Reading (or sight-playing)? Performing from written notation without prior playing.

7 Stages:







3 Stages

-Perceiving notation

-Recalling previously played music

-Programming muscles

Interesting things about sight-reading:

Almost all sight readers examine score they begin playing.

Novices focus on musical parameter.

Eye movements- does not remain static while sight-reading. Each fixation lasts between200-300 mill-sec.

Saccades can be forward or backward looking Located on note-heads, spaces, dynamic markings, bar-lines, and other musical cues.

Experts extract more info per saccade and have fewer saccades than do novice readers.

Skilled Reader- read 1 pattern; Unskilled reader reads note by note.

Our eyes can take on more if the tempo requires it.

Eye hand span- distance between production and perception (varies with difficulty of music)

Perceptual Span-amount of info taken in during one fixation (usually 2-4 bbets- 1 measure)

Recalling previously learned musical material (2nd stage of SR)

-Recognizing patterns: combinations of notes are stored in memory as chunks to be recalled in anew context. Pianists have superior pattern recognition skills. Expert sight-readers use their training and knowledge to predict what happens next. Expert readers can infer the correct note if it is altered or erased. Expert readers let the structure of the music to guide their performance. E.R. play tonal music more accurately than atonal music.

Programming the Performance:

-Usually automatic

-Complex movements are specified as cognitive representations of individual actions.

-Opposed to other skills, like typing the duration of actions while SR is paramount.

Kopiez and Lee 2006 create 23 factors to predict SR success (see picture below for list)


Sight-read easy pieces can be predicted by SR experience info processing speed

Sight-read difficult pieces can be predicted by: trilling speed; info processing speed.

High sight-reading can be predicted by trilling speed, non-right handedness. (decreasing RH superiority)

Ways to become a high performing Sight-Reader-

Visual reaction time shorter then 170.5 ms.

Slow visual reaction time, slow reaction to auditory stimuli and more then 631 hours 3 of accumulated sr experience

Fast auditory reaction time and more then 9,4944 hours of SR.

Speed matters, highly individualized paths to the high performance group, SR experience should be acquired before age 15.

Deliberate practice is not enough to account for the discrepancies in SR ability.

Kopiez and Lee 2008

Best combination of factors

Trilling speed

Reading experience before 15

Speed of info processing

Aural imagery. (hear score without playing it) Are able to imagine how the sight-reading example will sound with only visual input.

Other factors that influence Sight-Reading:

-Performance of rehearsed music

-Taking Lessons

-Accompanying experience

-Teacher that emphasize SR


-Age (how much they can attend to one time.)

Rhythm Reading- Rhythm is one of the most common mistake in sight-reading.

-Improve Rhythm Reading:

Body movements

elongating note-heads (did not improve)

Color-coded notation (did not improve)

Error detection- listen and/or see note errors.


Chunking procedures

Rhythm reading drills

tonal pattern drills

Pre-playing score study

Sight-read before you Begin


-Should select music in advance.

-Should be easier than music they study for lessons.

-Find appropriate and variety of music

-Teach students to read intervallically (relationship between notes is most importantly)

-Consistent fingering patterns

-Don’t cover score to help with sight-reading. Sight readers look forward and backwards


-Examine score for relevant info (musical parameters, rhythm, melody, harmony)

-Select tempo they are able to maintain throughout score

-Avoid looking at hands

-Read ahead and anticipate what is coming next

-Encourage students to chunk note groups.

-Focus on the big picture (errors and omissions are ok; get to notes however you can.)

After you finish-

Identify the mistakes you made.

Misreading (error occur during processing stage)

Misexecution (errors occur during execution stage)

Keep a sight-reading journal.

Keep track of common mistakes, pieces you would like to sight-read, sretagies that work well.

Suggestions to improve Sight-Reading

  1. Practice – start early
  2. Find music that has clear patterns.
  3. Search for and learn different patterns with your students. (***have students describe out loud those patterns)
  4. Practice Sight-Reading in groups. (requires to continue playing in spite of mistakes)
  5. Do your own experiments.

Here is the Learn at First Sight handout you can download.


1 Comment

  1. Heidi Neal

    Thanks for this informative post. I like your practical tips at the end. Ever since I followed the suggestion to start playing sightreading drills along with my students (a group of 2 🙂 I have seen a lot of improvement in their rhythmic accuracy which students typically struggle with. It also helps that I set a very slow tempo for them to match. Jen Fink at has some helpful short sightreading drills for elementary students that I love to use at lessons periodically to see how many consecutive measures they can sightread accurately.


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