Should You Read the Notes or the Intervals?

When reading music, should you read the notes or the intervals? Which is faster? Read on to find out whether you should read the notes or the intervals, or both.


read the notes or the intervals


A common question I see amongst piano beginners is this: “Should you read the notes or the intervals when sight-reading?”


Reading the music one note at a time is not the most efficient way of reading music so does that mean you should only read the intervals? Is it ok to only read the intervals or should you read the notes too?


Let me offer some insight into what I think is best.


But first off…


What are intervals?

Briefly speaking, an interval is the distance between two notes.

For example, the interval between C and E is a third because it includes three note names, that is, C, D and E. Similarly, the interval between E and B is a fifth because it includes E, F, G, A and B.




As observed on the Music Notation website, “the staff functions like a ruler or measuring tape that helps us to see the distances between notes which indicates their interval relationship.”


What are the advantages of reading intervals?

Reading intervals:

– greatly speeds up your note reading because you’re processing more than one note at a time;

– allows you to make your way through a piece even without knowing all the notes;

– helps you see the relationship between the notes and recognise patterns which in turn, speeds up the learning process;

– helps you read chords because chords are made up of two or more sets of intervals, like in the following example:


What are the disadvantages of reading intervals?

There aren’t any disadvantages per se but problems do arise when you are ONLY reading the intervals and NOT the notes. When only reading the intervals:

– you might lose your spot;

– you constantly have to refer back to the previous note to know where to go next which slows down your reading because you want to be looking ahead, not backwards;

– if you get one note wrong, all the subsequent notes will be wrong.


Another thing to keep in mind is that sheet music is written in such a way that it does not reflect the quality of the interval, in other words, you can’t know if the interval is major, minor, perfect, diminished or augmented just by looking at the notes on the staff. You can only know if it’s a second a third, a fourth, and so on.


This means that when reading a piece of music with one or more sharps or flats in the key signature and/or with accidentals, you need to be able to read the note so that you know which notes are affected by the key and/or accidentals.


The bottom line is…


Read the notes AND the intervals

To be a good sight-reader, learn to read the notes and the intervals. This way you’ll know where you are (the notes) and where you are going (the intervals) at all times.


What’s next?

The next time you sit down at the piano to practise, try to observe what you’re doing when you’re reading sheet music. Are you reading the notes and the intervals or only one or the other? Are there certain notes in the treble and/or bass that are causing you to slow down? If so, make note of them and revise them later. Do you ever lose your spot and if so, why? Is it because you’re reading the intervals and not the notes?


The first step in improving any skill is to become aware of what you’re doing and answering these questions will help you do that. Try to work out where your weaknesses lie – if you have any – and try to turn these into strengths. If recognising notes or intervals is not your forte, practise with one of these note reading apps.


LEARN MORE >> How to Read Sheet Music

LEARN MORE >> How to Identify Intervals on the Staff Quickly


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  • Kathleen says:

    Hi. I agree wholeheartedly that one must read both notes and intervals when playing an instrument. As a kid it was easier to play by intervals instead of reading notes. I realize now, as I learn piano, it’s almost like starting from scratch!

  • Emmanuelle Fonsny

    Emmanuelle Fonsny

    Emmanuelle Fonsny, or Manu, is a piano and violin teacher, composer and accompanist based in Sydney, Australia. She is passionate about sharing her love of music and her sight-reading and practice tips to help other pianists become more confident sight-readers.



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