How to Sight Read

Sight reading, or the skill of performing a piece of music the first time you see the music, is a skill that everyone can develop! It just requires consistent and careful practice. We’re going to lay out some tips to help you get started.

Think of sight reading as performing. Just as you shouldn’t stop and return to fix a missed passage in a concert, don’t do it while you’re practicing sight reading!

Rhythm is the most important element of music. For many reasons, a stable sense of rhythm is essential to sight reading, and even more so when you’re playing in an ensemble. If you miss a passage, keep track of the time and come back in as soon as you can. A steady sense of rhythm creates a feeling of trust in a listener. As they say, don’t miss a beat!

Prepare before you play. Wait, didn’t we say that sight reading is playing music WITHOUT preparing? Well, yes, but it is absolutely essential that before you play a note you make a quick scan of the music and note some very important details:

  • What is the time signature?

  • What key is the piece in?

  • What is the fastest rhythm that I will be required to play? This will determine what tempo you choose. Make sure you start at a speed you can maintain until the end!

  • Will I be required to change positions? I.e. are all the notes playable in one part of the guitar, or will a shift be required? If possible, figure out where you will shift beforehand.

  • Are there any other notable elements in the piece, like lots of chords, or sections with lots of accidentals?

Practice giving yourself 30-60 seconds to look over the music before you start playing. You won’t get everything, but it will give you a great head start on knowing how the piece should sound, and will help avoid unpleasant surprises.

Playing the notes correctly is just the beginning. The most important elements come from things like dynamics, phrasing, color choices, and articulations, all of which join to produce a convincing musical narrative. Make sure you’re including these as you practice sight reading.

Learn from your mistakes. After reading through a study, go back and figure out the parts that you missed. That way you won’t be tripped up the next time you run across a similar passage.

Practice sight reading every day you practice guitar. Sight reading is a skill that takes time, repetition, and consistent, careful practice to develop. Don’t be discouraged if it isn’t easy right away. If you can play the guitar, you can sight read! Sign up for our exercise of the day, and we'll email you a new sight reading study every morning.