How to Learn to Sight Read Music in Simple and Compound Time

The purpose of this article is to enable you to start to sight-read music. If you know what to do, music is not difficult to read. The myth that music is hard to read and the fear that accompanies this, has been propagated by poorly trained music teachers, who themselves have never been taught how to read music and cannot offer help to the person who wants to learn this skill. The cardinal rule is:

Never start to read a piece of music which you do not already know.

The old maxim applies, always move from the sound to the symbol.

The second rule is;

Start with traditional songs which are simple and follow a stylised approach to song writing which has worked reliably for hundreds of years. Such songs can be found in the Appleby and Fowler collection, 'Sing Together.'

To begin with learn how to read music in simple time - where the beat divides into halves.

These songs have time signatures of 24, 34 and 44. Other songs with a time signature of 68 are written in compound time - where the beat divides into thirds. The Associated Board does not introduce compound time sight reading until Grade 5. This suggests that simple time is easier to understand than compound time.

The next thing to understand is that a strange piece of music requires the singer to process three distinct strands of information. 1. The words. 2. The melody. 3. The rhythm. This is a lot of information and I suggest that you eliminate two of them.

The baritone, John Noble, who taught me in London, was recognised as one of the best sight readers in the business. His advice to me was, "Get the rhythm right and the notes (that is the melody) will take care of themselves." This was very good advice. When sight-reading music, singers do not have time to process all the information. It makes sense to filter out the non-essential and concentrate on the essential . The rhythm is essential, as is an appreciation of the shape of the melody, but not details like exact pitches. You do not have time to read every single note. With a little practice the music can be scanned, leaving you time to concentrate on the rhythm, which needs to be accurate. More complicated melodic intervals will - of course - need a little more thought. But simple diatonic melodies can be quickly scanned and we do not pause to read every single pitch.

When learning to sight-read, choose simple pieces which are familiar to you. This ensures that you move from the known sound to the unknown symbol. Putting this another way, you know how the tune goes, but you do not know how it is written down.

First. Sing your song through. You will be reading the words but not the tune. The tune comes from your long-term memory. Now you are ready to start to learn how to read the piece.

Second. Take note of the time signature. Make sure you know exactly what it means. (The upper line tells you how many beats there are in a bar. The lower number tells you what sort of note is worth one beat! Do not confuse the two pieces of information. Then read through the rhythm using the mnemonics shown in the table below. This focuses your attention completely on the notes. You must read the rhythm accurately in order to complete the task. Repeat this task until you can do it fluently.

Third. Sing through the song using the mnemonics, not the words. Your tune will be recognisable from the singing of correct pitches and rhythms. Of course the words will sound foreign.

Practise this technique regularly. It does work.

Example: What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor.

Now I will show you how this technique works with a song like 'What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor.'

The tune is shown below.

How to Learn to Sight Read Music in Compound Time

The difference between simple and compound time is as follows:

In simple time the beats are divided up in to half beats and quarter beats. In compound time the beat is divided up in to thirds of a beat and sixths of a beat. Thus we find dotted crotchet is a beat; this divides up in to 3 quavers and further in to 6 semi-quavers. Time signatures include 68, , 98, , and 128.

If we apply these mnemonics to the song 'The Animals Went In Two By Two.' The time signature in 6 over 8, which means there are 6 beats in a bar and the quaver is worth one beat. In practise we would count the dotted crotchet as one long beat. The dotted crotchet will be 'drum' and 3 short quavers will be 'clarinet'.

First sing through the tune, then read the rhythm with the mnemonics. Third, sing through the tune using mnemonics, concentrate on reading the tune and the rhythm.

How To Improve Your Piano Sight-Reading

Many piano teachers, myself included, allow pupils to practise their piano music, hands alone and then hands together. This gives the pupil the opportunity to read carefully all the information on the stave and learn fingering, phrasing and expression. When you are learning grade pieces this method produces very good results in the long term.

However, it does not work in the sight-reading test, for the following reason:

The sight-reading test is a short test which lasts only 2 or 3 minutes. The candidate can look at the test and try it in the 30 seconds before the examiner hears the piece and marks it. Therefore you do not have time to consider each stave individually. Practising it hands alone will only ensure a fail.

I recommend you consider the piece as a whole. Scan the entire piece looking for patterns of rhythm or melody. Make yourself aware of any awkward points. Then play the piece hands together. Get used to reading both clefs at once. Remember you only have 30 seconds to prepare your attempt.

I have tried this approach with piano students and the results are good. Once they start to read both treble and bass clef at the same time, their performance improves

Copyright © 2014 Jonathan Jessop.