April 29, 2020 7:57 pm

Geri Green

If your students struggle with sight reading they could be looking at too much of the detail and not enough of the bigger picture. Maybe they’ve so far learnt to read, like I did, memorising mnemonics like Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit or FACE. perhaps they haven’t any other way to read notes. I’ve personally found this method to be quite inefficient, and detrimental in the long run.

During my mission to improve my own poor sight reading skills, I have found that there are 3 essential elements to reading music successfully.

It’s not just about what you SEE written on the stave, it’s also about what you FEEL (or touch) and what you HEAR as you play.

#1. SEEING Music

If we look close enough we can see patterns in music everywhere. Recognising these patterns when sight reading is where the secret to fluency lies. This is about learning to see the whole rather than the individual parts. If your students can do this they will really improve their reading skills. 

But first, we’ll need to quickly check off some fundamentals to reading music. This may seem obvious to you but it may not be to your students.

Clefs Clarity

The true name and function of the clefs are often overlooked when learning to read music. But their role in sight reading is crucial and way more useful than just seeing the “right hand” and “left hand” positions on the keyboard.

The treble clef is also known as the G clef because of how the line of the clef is drawn around the note G. It pinpoints on the stave where the Treble G note is.

The bass clef is also known as the F clef because of how it wraps around the note F and encloses it with the two little dots? It pinpoints on the stave where the Bass F note is.

clefs diagram

The Treble G and Bass F notes are often called landmark notes, and they will help your students navigate their way around the stave.

Landmark Notes

Landmark notes are incredibly useful for beginning students. These few specific notes create visually memorable patterns across the stave that help students to remember them.

I’ve mentioned already about Treble G and Bass F. Visually these two notes are located on the 2nd line from the bottom of the treble staff and the 2nd line from the top of the bass staff respectively. 

Where it gets interesting is when you notice how the G’s and F’s crosses over to mirroring positions on the alternate clef.

landmark notes f and g
Treble G crosses over to Low G on the bottom line of the Bass staff while Bass F crosses over to High F on the top line of the treble staff.

The same mirroring patterns occur more with the notes F and G.

Treble F (bottom space of treble staff) crosses over to the Low F (1st space below the bass staff), while Bass G (top space of bass staff) crosses over to the High G (1st space above the treble staff).

The next series of landmark notes is the note C.

C is like a spotlight that sheds light on our position on the stave in such a clear and beautifully symmetrical way.

the 5 C's

Drawing a line through middle C, can you recognise how the C’s on the staves are a mirror image of each other?

Once students can see these patterns the next step is to drill them into their minds in various ways. It’s so much easier for them to remember only three letters and their positions on the stave then every single letter individually. 

From here you can read other notes through the interval relationships.

Students are not reliant on remembering each note name as you go, or by reciting the alphabet up and down the lines and spaces on the stave.

The Wonderous Interval

Would you describe intervals as exciting? I would. Their uses in the musical landscape are many and varied. In particular, I’ve found them to be a hugely beneficial tool for improving sight reading. 

I’ve talked previously about my journey as a bad sight reader, and how I owe my recovery in part to unlocking the power of intervals in my sight reading. So yeah, I’m a big fan. If you’re already an intervals enthusiast then you know what I’m talking about, but if you’re not just yet, let me tell you what I’ve learnt about how to optimise your student’s sight reading using intervals. 

For this, we need to see the interval as a whole and not the notes or steps in between.

Let me explain.

All intervals within an octave have a number (1-8) and a quality (maj/min/aug/dim). For the purposes of sight reading, we focus more on the number rather than the quality.

For a quick visual method of determining an interval’s number, we can use what I like to call the Same and Different rule. 

All notes sit on either a space or a line on the stave. The two notes that make up an interval can be described as:


One note appearing on a LINE and the other on a SPACE.

Intervals that are DIFFERENT are represented by EVEN numbers  2, 4, 6, 8 

Diagram of the different intervals


Both notes appearing on TWO LINES or TWO SPACES

Intervals that are the SAME are represented by ODD numbers  1, 3, 5, 7

 Diagram of the same intervals

Once students can see these interval shapes, drilling their recognition of them will be a crucial first step.

#2. HEARING Music

Active listening is an under-utilised skill for sight reading.

Students are often so focused on what they’re seeing that they completely ignore what they’re hearing.

Simply asking them to pay attention to what they’re hearing will make a big difference. 

Ask your student, does it sound right? Or is it what you expected to hear? If not, search for the right sound using your ears, and DON’T LOOK DOWN at your hands to check!

Being able to translate the intervals that they’re reading into what they’re hearing really is a must. If they haven’t done much in the way of aural interval training, get them hooked up with an aural training app now and get them practising.

Not training aural skills is a BIG mistake and will hold students back, in more ways than just sight reading.

#3 FEELING Music

The kinesthetic connection between sight, sound and touch is the magic fairy dust that transforms reading notes on a page into an instinctive and natural form of expression. It allows us to get in flow with the music. We can detach from the analytical process and get on with the feeling.

The fastest way to get to this place is to take the focus AWAY from your hands. Put simply don’t look down.

It will be a train wreck at first, but trust me, the more students can do this the better they’ll get at it. Over time and with lots of practice, they’ll start to find their way by feeling the black key groups quickly, by recognising the shape and feel of intervals under their hands, and by improving their spatial awareness of distances across the keyboard. 

Gradually, the fingers will learn to read music almost like reading brail. The ears activate because they’re no longer distracted by the hands. Their sight will be transfixed on the score meaning, more accuracy, more fluency, and a greater awareness of what’s coming up.

Top Tips To Start Improving Your Students Sight Reading Today!

#1. Drill the landmark notes. Students may wish to skip this step if they’re already a good note reader. Otherwise, to switch over to a different mode of sight reading might require unlearning what they’ve already learned, especially if there are some bad sight reading habits at play.

#2. Drill interval numbers using the Same and Different Rule.

#3. Get them to STOP LOOKING DOWN!! Allow the wrong notes to come. remind them to keep the pulse going and try to catch up even if it takes several bars. If they’re always looking at the score they less likely to lose their place. 

#4. Remind them to always listen. If they recognise a wrong note, they should try to find the right note without looking down.

#4. Do regular intentional sight reading practice using this method. Consistency and regularity is the key to making this method stick. Even just 5 mins a sitting can make a difference, micro efforts will build up into significant improvement over time. 

About the Author

Geri Green is a pianist, teacher, composer, and mum of 2. She's passionate about exploring ideas that will enhance our musical lives by building a teaching and business practice with purpose, creating through incremental imperfect action, and pursuing our potential through ongoing personal and professional development.

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