How to Sight-Read Both Clefs at the Same Time (FREE Handout & Exercises)

Reading one clef at a time is manageable, but how do you read TWO clefs simultaneously? Read on to find out which are the 6 skills you need to sight-read both clefs at the same time and grab the FREE handout & exercises to work on these skills.

 

Many pianists find it hard to read two clefs or two lines of music at the same time. It is a complex task that requires many skills but the good news is that each of these skills can be acquired.

 

In this post, I’m going to take you through these skills and give you some exercises that you can try sight-reading yourself. If you wish to print out the PDF of these exercises as well as the examples and diagrams provided here AND get extra exercises, just fill out the form below.

 

 

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So, what are the skills that can help you accomplish this complex task?

 

Tips

First off, let me give you two tips so that you’ll have a better chance of success at acquiring the skills:

 

Go slowly

Be kind to yourself and sight-read hands together SLOWLY. The more time you give yourself, the more time your brain will have to process the information in the music. The aim of sight-reading is NOT speed but FLUENCY.

 

Sight-read pieces below your level

Don’t be afraid to start easy. As I explain in my article on the best sight-reading books, your reading ability will usually be one or two grades lower than your current playing ability anyway.

 

Being able to sight-read one clef at a time is one thing, but TWO at a time is quite another so have patience!

 

Find pieces in which the two lines of music are not too busy, in other words, with not too many notes. A great resource I recommend you start with is the Sight-Reading Exercises Op. 45 from Book 1 by Schaefer (which I reviewed in my article on the best sight-reading books).

 

As you can see in the following example, there are very few notes and all the notes are of long values, which means you have plenty of time to look ahead (provided that you don’t start at a really fast tempo!) as you sight-read.

 

Have a go at sight-reading the following and as you do so, notice how the notes are moving up or down by step. 

 

example of easy sight-reading music for both hands

 

Skill #1: Being proficient in both clefs

This may sound obvious but it’s still worth mentioning here. Pianists sometimes forget to start with the basics, most likely because they’re so eager to play pieces hands together. But before you can read the treble and bass clefs at the same time, you need to be able to read each clef separately. 

 

Ideally, you should be able to recognise the landmark notes in either clef as well as the notes in between.

 

Here is what I mean by the “landmark notes”:

 

landmark notes of the piano

 

Notice how middle C (the note in red) is the common note, and the notes on either side of middle C are a mirror image (the black and the green notes respectively). But beware that while the treble C’s are a mirror image of the bass C’s (in the second example), the treble G’s are a mirror image of the bass F’s.

 

Notice in example 3 that F to C and C to G are intervals of a 5th. 

 

If you have trouble remembering which is F or G, think of the order of the alphabet, that is F comes first, then G. So F’s in the bass, and then G’s in the treble. 

 

Here are the landmark notes with the other notes. Notice how the notes in the treble are a continuation of the notes in the bass. This is how you should think of the keyboard, i.e. as one unit. 

 

landmark notes and other notes of the piano

 

The most efficient way to learn the notes is to learn them in reference to the landmark notes. For example, if you know that the note in the second space in the bass is C, then you’ll know that the next note on the line is a D. Likewise if you know that the note on the 4th line is F, you’ll know that the note before it is E, and after it is G. And so on. 

 

Before attempting to read both clefs at the same time, learn the notes so that you can name each one and know which notes correspond to which keys on the piano. The more notes you can recognise immediately, the easier it will be to read each clef and ultimately, both clefs at the same time.

 

Skill #2: Hand coordination/independence

To be able to play hands together, you need to be able to coordinate the hands, especially when the hands have wildly or even slightly different rhythms or articulation, which is in most cases! In other words, your hands need to be independent. 

 

You can practise hand coordination/hand independence either by:

Doing two-handed rhythm exercises

For example, here would be a standalone rhythm exercise to train hand coordination where you tap the bottom line with your left hand (L.H.) and the top line with your right (R.H.):

 

hand independence exercise

 

For more exercises like this, you can download the FREE handout & exercises by filling in the form above.

 

Turning a piece into a rhythm exercise

Say you’re practising this piece by Bach and you struggle with putting the hands together, you could practise the rhythm by tapping the left-hand notes with the left hand, and the right-hand notes with the right. 

 

Example of contrapuntal music

 

Doing hand independence exercises

Here would be an example of a hand independence exercise where one hand plays staccato notes while the other plays legato:

example of a hand independence exercise

 

For more exercises like this, you can download the FREE handout & exercises by filling in the form above.

 

Skill #3: Identifying chords quickly

Chords appear in many piano pieces in one form or another, sometimes as block chords, other times as broken chords. The important thing is to be able to recognise the shape of these chords in an instant so that you can focus on other notes. And to save you time, always look at the BOTTOM note of the chord, NOT all three (see examples below where the bottom notes are coloured in red), unless there are accidentals.

 

Chords generally appear in one of three ways: as a root position chord, a first inversion chord or a second inversion chord. Let’s look at each of these. (To know more about major or minor chords, see How to Sight-Read in Any Key: Part II.)

 

Root position chords are the easiest to identify because of the way they look. They are made of two thirds, stacked on top of the other. If starting with a space note, like in the first example, the chord will be made up of 3 space notes. And if starting on a line note, the chord will be made up of 3 line notes, like in the second example. Use fingers 1-3-5 in the right hand, and 5-3-1 in the left.

 

root position chords on the piano

 

If we take a look at this next example, can you see how the left-hand part is entirely made up of root position chords? Use the same fingering (5-3-1) for each chord and only look at the bottom note of each chord to know where to place your 5th finger. You don’t need to look at each note of each chord, just the bottom one.

 

example of a piece with root position chords

 

First inversion chords are made up of a third at the bottom, and a fourth at the top. Notice that the fingering is now 1-2-5 in the right hand but still 5-3-1 in the left. 

 

first inversion chords on the piano

 

Second inversion chords are made up of a fourth at the bottom and a third at the top – the reverse of the first inversion chords. Notice that now the fingering is 1-3-5 in the right hand but 5-2-1 in the left. 

 

second inversion chords

 

Bonus tip: To learn to identify these three types of chords, try to remember the “look”, the feel and the fingering so that when you see these chords, you can play them instantly. 

 

Skill #4: Identifying intervals quickly

As I mentioned in my article on How to Become a Sight-Reading Expert, looking at the intervals is a much more efficient way of reading music than looking at every single note. 

 

The easiest way to remember the intervals is to group them into even-numbered intervals (2nd, 4th, 6th, 8th) and odd-numbered intervals (3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th).

 

even-numbered intervals on the piano

odd-numbered intervals on the piano

 

Try to look at the harmonic intervals (when the notes are played together to make harmony) and the melodic intervals (when the notes are played separately within a melody). Here is an example:

 

example of looking at the intervals

 

Skill #5: Spotting the differences/similarities

Remember those games we used to play as kids where you had to spot the differences between two drawings? Well, you can approach a piece of music in the same manner, by trying to spot the differences (or similarities) within the score. Try to find repeated notes, rhythmic patterns, melodic patterns, etc.

 

What this allows you to do is free up your brain to look ahead at the next note(s).

 

Try sight-reading this next example but before you do, notice the similarities (in the boxes) and the differences. The idea is to quickly glance at the similarities so that you can focus your attention on the differences.

 

For example, here you would glance at the left-hand chord and the rhythmic pattern in the right so you can focus your attention on the differences, that is, the notes of the right hand in the first 2 bars. Then in bar 3, quickly glance the bottom line to read the chord so that you can focus your attention on the right-hand notes, and so forth. 

 

example of how to see similarities in piano music

 

In chordal music such as the following chorale, try to quickly spot the notes that stay the same (coloured in notes) so that you can pay attention to the notes that change.

 

example of spotting differences in chordal music

 

Skill #6: Reading the music horizontally AND vertically

To read two lines of music, you need to look at the dots horizontally as well as vertically. The best way to do this is to move your eyes back and forth between the two lines so that you know which notes fall together but you also know what’s coming.

 

Luckily, the music is notated in such a way that the notes that are played together in both hands also align vertically in the score! The red lines in this next example illustrate this: 

 

example of reading piano music vertically

 

Go ahead and try sight-reading this example, and try to look at the music both horizontally and vertically. Go as slowly as you need to.

 

To recap

As you can see, reading both clefs at the piano involves many skills so it is no surprise that we find it a challenge. Hopefully, you will already possess some of these skills so I would suggest you work out which skills are your weaknesses and hone in on them. Looking straight at our weaknesses can be uncomfortable but it’s really the only way to improve any skill!

 

So, for example, if you feel that you struggle with reading chords, print the chord charts from the PDF handout and spend time learning the chords. Or if the problem is not so much a reading problem but a hand coordination/independence problem, then print out the exercises for hand independence and practise them daily until they become easy.

 

I hope this article has been useful to you. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to write them in the comments below. I will be more than happy to answer them.

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    Emmanuelle Fonsny
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