Having trouble looking ahead when sight-reading? Not sure how far ahead you should read? Then keep reading this article to learn how to look ahead and find out which method can make a huge difference.
You probably already know that in order to sight-read fluently, you need to be able to look ahead. But how exactly do you do that?
Let’s find out!
Prerequisite: Playing without looking at your hands
As obvious as it sounds, looking ahead requires that you keep your eyes on the music. In other words, you have to be able to play without looking down. To learn how to do this, head over to How to Play Without Looking at the Keys if you haven’t read it already then come back to read the rest of this article.
How to look ahead when sight-reading
Broadly speaking, looking ahead involves these two elements:
– Processing the notes and the rhythm; and
– Using your working memory.
Let’s look at these two things in more detail.
Processing the notes and the rhythm
Reading music requires that you process the notes and the rhythm simultaneously. This means you have to recognise notes quickly and have a good understanding and sense of rhythm. Ideally, you should be able to recognise any note instantly and know which piano key it corresponds to.
LEARN MORE >> How to Read Basic Rhythm
To read music faster, you need to group notes into meaningful chunks, that is, intervals, chords, and patterns, as opposed to individual notes.
Using your working memory
Processing the notes is one thing but the key factor that actually enables you to look away from the notes you’re reading and to look ahead at the next notes is your working memory (the type of memory that helps you hold information long enough to use it while in the middle of an activity). Without it, you would need to keep looking at each note you’re playing.
The Read Ahead app is a sight-reading app which trains you to read ahead with specific exercises involving memory and pattern recognition. Check out the app if you haven’t already.
Improve your aural skills
To drastically improve your working memory when sight-reading, you need good aural skills. The better your aural skills, the better your sight-reading will be.
Because as you play, you need “aural feedback” to tell you if what you’re playing is correct and to help you remember what you just played. Your ears should serve as a feedback loop, continuously telling you the information you need to keep moving forward and not look back.
If you were to rely solely on your visual input and not use your ears, you wouldn’t have this aural feedback to help you and you would need to look back to remember what notes you just played, instead of looking ahead at the next notes.
So, put simply, the more feedback you get from both the visual and aural input, the easier it will be for you to retain the information and look ahead.
How to improve your aural skills?
At the most basic level, you can train your ears to recognise intervals and chords with ear training apps, but this method will only get you so far. The most advanced and effective method, in my opinion, is solfège. THIS is the method that can make a huge difference!
Solfège is a method of learning music where you associate syllables (do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti in English) to sounds. The type of solfège I’m referring to and that I learned is the fixed-do method (not the moveable-do method). This means that the pitch C is always sung as do, the pitch D as re, the pitch E as mi, and so on. What this enables you to do is to develop an acute sense of pitch (sometimes even perfect pitch) which in turn allows you to remember what you hear instantly and to use audiation, that is, the process of hearing music in your head. This means activities such as mental practice, composing, improvising and sight-reading become almost like child’s play.
When sight-reading, the notes that you read instantly translate to the sound and the syllable, giving you not only an aural reference but a linguistic one too. So if you want to take your sight-reading to the next level, consider learning solfège with the fixed-do method. I will be writing more on this topic so stay tuned.
How far ahead should you look when sight-reading?
The short answer to this question is: look as far ahead as you need to to stay in time. It largely depends on the number of notes you have to play in one beat. For example, if you sight-read a piece of music containing long and short note values, say crotchets and quavers, you need to process the quavers in the same amount of time that you process the crotchets, otherwise you’ll end up taking too long on the quavers and distort the rhythm. This means that when you see a group of quavers or semiquavers, you need to process them as a group of notes or “chunk”.
As an experiment, try the following excerpts with a metronome set to 60 bpm. As you play, always move your eyes ahead of what you’re playing. Avoid keeping your eyes on the same note at any one time.
Notice that for the first three excerpts, both hands play the same notes one octave apart so keep your eyes on one line (either the top or the bottom line).
For excerpts 2 and 3, use the long note values to process the quavers and semiquavers as one group (as indicated by the brackets).
For excerpt 4, keep your eyes on the top line and only glance down at the bottom line when the note changes in the LH.
How did you go? Were you able to process the quicker notes in time?
Reading two lines of music
Things get more complicated when you have to read two lines of music simultaneously. As you saw in the last excerpt above, your eyes need to move horizontally to look ahead as well as vertically to look at the bottom line! If you need advice on how to read two lines at the same time, check out How to Sight-Read Both Clefs at the Same Time.
You may only be able to read one or two notes ahead at this stage and that’s okay. Make it a habit of always looking ahead. As you expose yourself to more and more patterns and as your understanding of music theory deepens, you’ll get better at processing more notes into chunks until you can read several beats ahead.
- Play without looking at your hands;
- Work on your note-recognition if you still take more than a split second to recognise and locate notes on the piano;
- Work on your rhythm so that it becomes intuitive and you no longer have to count;
- Learn your music theory to help you recognise intervals and chords faster; and
- Develop strong aural skills to help you remember what you read so that you can keep looking ahead.