How to Sight Read

There are many skills that musicians must develop. Finger agility, hand-eye coordination, note reading, and many more. The skill that is possibly the most important is sight reading.

Hannah B Flute | How to Sight Read

If you can sight read music, you can do just about anything. Sight reading allows you to play in ensembles, learn pieces more quickly, and even take on last minute gigs.

This post is all about how to sight read. Start off on the right foot with your next piece by sight reading it first.

What is Sight Reading?

Sight reading is exactly what it sounds like; it is where you read and play a piece of music at first sight. This is an important ability that you should learn as soon as you can.

If you are not able to sight read, that means you will have to spend even more time looking at the piece before you can actually start to play it. Sight reading speeds up that initial process of learning a piece.

Sight reading not only speeds up the learning process, but it also means you can play in more settings than on your own.

Why is Sight Reading Important?

Most ensembles do not pass out the parts before the first rehearsal. Your first look at the piece will be with everyone else around you. You will not have the time to look over the whole piece to figure out what the hard parts are.

Ensembles require you to sight read in the first rehearsal. Only after reading through the piece will you (usually) get to break the piece down and work on it.

If you are serious about music and want to take on gigs, sight reading is sometimes necessary. You may have one rehearsal with the other musicians, and that may be the time when you get your part. In that case, sight reading will help you give a better performance without a ton of rehearsal time.

Know Your Music Theory

A big part in sight reading is knowing how to read music. Know all the notes in the written range of your instrument. Check out this PDF if you don’t know your instrument’s range.

You should also be able to read simple and complex rhythms. Notes and rhythms form the basis for written music, and those foundations will help you sight read with ease.

Be sure you know your time signatures and your key signatures. If applicable, know the different clefs that your instrument plays in. That will help you with the next step.

Check the Piece

Before you start to play a piece, there are a few things you should check. First, check the clef. While flutists and violinists will only ever play in treble clef, bassoonists and cellists could play in bass or tenor clef.

Next, check your key signature. Part of knowing the notes is knowing if any are sharp or flat. The piece won’t sound right if you miss every F# or Bb.

Thirdly, you should check the time signature. The top number notates how many beats are in a measure, and the bottom number notates the type of note (quarter, eighth, half) that gets a beat.

Lastly, you should also check to see if there is a metronome marking. In ensembles, the conductor will set the tempo, but in your own practice, it’s on you. You don’t have to sight read fast pieces at tempo, but you should at least know what you’re working towards.

The Next Downbeat

When you finally get to sight read, there is one thing that you should always do. Get to the next downbeat, visually and physically. Avoid focusing on each note as it comes up.

Yes, music from the baroque and classical periods are fairly predictable, but romantic and 20th century composers are less so. Newer works have more chromaticism and other weird quirks that you need to prepare for.

If you’re a flutist playing in Db major, it’s tempting to use the thumb Bb for everything. But if you get a rogue high Gb, that Bb thumb will cause you to sound flat. Other instruments probably have similar issues.

So always keep your eyes ahead of yourself in the music. That will help you stay on track and avoid mistakes while sight reading.


As with anything in music, you will not become a master overnight. Sight reading takes practice. If you take lessons, ask your teacher for sight reading exercises. If you do not take lessons, look online for easier pieces for your instrument.

Incorporate sight reading into your practice routine, just like scales and tone exercises.

You will not be perfect, after all, sight reading is only your first time playing a piece. But sight reading practice will help you with reading music and, in a way, multitasking.

Sight reading requires you to adapt to any changing key and time signatures, look out for upcoming sections, and play the piece in time.


Do you have any sight reading tips? Leave them down in the comments!


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