Sight-reading tools for natural memorizers


I became a good sight-reader the old-fashioned way: I didn’t practice enough as a kid and so had to fake my way through half-learned pieces in my piano lessons. But while sight-reading felt easy, memorizing was a chore. It wasn’t until later in life, when I became serious about the piano and eventually chose to begin teaching, that I learned that most pianists fall into one of two categories: natural sight-readers and natural memorizers.  

The memorizers that I had the privilege of teaching were the sort of piano students my teachers wished I’d been: hard working and meticulous perfectionists.They were the students who didn’t try to fake their way through their pieces, but took the time to learn them, bit by bit, measure by measure. But when asked to read an unfamiliar passage, they froze. My search for ways to help these pianists become better sight-readers led to the following suggestions that have worked for numerous players. If you struggle with sight-reading, they might work for you too.

Start with something easier than your playing level

This isn’t cheating; this is learning a new skill. Half of learning to sight-read is gaining confidence that you can do it. Make sure the piece is unfamiliar, short, and easy. 

Abandon the illusion of perfection

Here’s the truth: good sight readers are rarely playing note perfectly, they only sound like they are. Sight-reading is one of those times you've got to “fake it ’til you make it.” And when looking at fistfuls of unfamiliar notes, approximation (not perfection) is the measure of success.

Read the piece with your eyes before you begin

Count out the timing of the first phrase. Hear the melody in your mind. Note the time and key signatures. Look at the structure of the piece. Where are the repetitions? This crucial step allows you to practice the piece before you play a single note, thus increasing the possibility that you’ll do well once you start playing.  

Be in your chosen tempo before you play a note

Imagine you’re listening to a metronome and hear a measure or two of beats in your head before you start playing. Establishing your tempo before you play gives you the heartbeat of the piece, and this pulse will help keep you from hesitating as you play.  

Once you start, don’t stop

It doesn’t matter if you play loads of wrong notes, panic at the sight of a big chord, or feel tempted to hesitate at bar lines. No matter what happens, regardless of how messy and ugly it is, keep going. In fact, give yourself permission to play like a little kid who strikes keys for the sheer joy of creating sound. Just don’t stop. 

Look ahead while you play

If you’re always looking at the notes you’re currently playing, you’ll always be surprised by everything that’s coming up. Learn to read a half a measure ahead of where you are and you’ll become a much more fluent sight-reader.

Choose correct timing over correct notes

Yes, you read that correctly. Try (of course) to play the right note at the right time; but if circumstances force you to choose, make an educated guess about the note and play the correct timing. It’s easy for a listener to ignore a bad note or two. Incorrect timing, which frequently throws off the pulse of the piece, can make the music unrecognizable.  

Keep the melody going

Good sight-readers know that there’s a hierarchy to the notes of a piano piece. The most important line is the melody. The second most important line is the bass. All the notes in the middle are less important. If a sight-reading disaster strikes, keep the melody going—even if you have to drop all the other notes. You can jumps back in with the rest of the notes when you come to a familiar section (now aren’t you glad you noted where the composer repeated things?).  

Do this for a few minutes every day

Think of this as learning to read a new language, and sight-read something new every day. Over time, you'll be rewarded with recognizable progress.  

Sight-reading may never feel as easy or natural as memorizing, but knowing that you can read through a new piece of music with few struggles is a gift you can give yourself.  


I took up the piano a year-and-a-half ago at the ripe age of 70. I have a wonderful teacher and supportive wife who rarely complains about my ponderous practicing. My teacher tells me I am making good progress and I feel like wise. Except in my sight reading. Pathetic does not adequately express my skill. Your list of suggestions have given me some clear directions to follow. I will print them off and keep them near my piano. I am encouraged and hopeful. Thanks for taking the time to share your insights.
Rhonda Rizzo said…
John, first of all, congratulations on your choice to pursue piano studies, and second, thank you for your kind comments and for sharing your story. Best of luck to you as you continue to grow as a pianist.