What Is Sight-Reading? (Video Included)

What is sight-reading? Is it a skill we are born with or can we acquire it? And what does it take to become good at sight-reading? Read on to find out.



Sight-reading, also called a prima vista (Italian meaning “at first sight”), is the ability to read and perform a piece of music you’ve never seen or played before.


For example, this could be:

– a piece you’ve never played before

– a piece you’ve heard before but not played before

– a piece you’ve played but haven’t committed to memory


In other words, if you are actively reading the music to play the piece as written, as opposed to relying on your memory, you are sight-reading.


But when is sight-reading useful?

It is useful when:

  • learning a new piece
  • demonstrating to a student
  • accompanying someone
  • playing at short notice or without time to rehearse


As I discuss in my article on Why Is Sight-Reading Important, being able to sight-read is essential for many reasons and can save you a lot of time.


Why is sight-reading so hard at the piano?

While sight-reading can be challenging for any instrumentalists, it is particularly demanding for pianists and keyboardists. Just think of the sheer amount notes we have to deal with on any given beat, in any given bar, let alone in a single piece!


Reading piano music at sight involves reading two lines simultaneously, most often in two different clefs, with the melody played in one hand and the accompaniment in the other. Sometimes it requires us to play two or more voices between the hands, not to mention different rhythms in both hands.


Another difficulty is that our hands don’t stay in one fixed position for the whole duration of a piece – unless it is music for beginners. They have to frequently move across the keyboard, between the white and the black keys or leap around.


My point is: it IS hard to sight-read at the piano, so don’t beat yourself up if this is something you can’t do or can’t do very well at this stage.




it is possible to sight-read


It IS possible to sight-read. The proof is that many pianists can. If you ask any competent sight-readers, they’ll tell you that the reason they CAN sight-read is simply that they do it A LOT. And they’ve most likely done it for years!


LEARN MORE >> How to Become a Sight-Reading Expert


Sight-reading is a skill

What you’ll hopefully come to realise in this blog is that you can learn to sight-read like any other skills. It isn’t an innate talent you either have or don’t have. Just like people are not born with the ability to speak Chinese or French. What we are born with is the ability to LEARN skills and sight-reading is one we can acquire through practice like any other skills.


As Dr Noa Kageyama noted in his blog article Are great sight-readers born or made?:


[…] while there are some innate factors that may certainly contribute to being a great sight-reader, it seems that sight-reading is a skill that can largely be improved with the right kind of practice and skill development.

Conclusion: You too can learn 

This means YOU can also acquire sight-reading abilities. But just like any other skills, it won’t be immediate. There is no quick fix, no secret recipe. You will need to dedicate time to practising this skill consistently and progressively. It may take you months before you can sight-read fluently but keep at it because you WILL get better.


Need help getting started? Check out these articles:

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

>> 5 Tips to Improve Your Sight-Reading + FREE Cheat Sheet

>> The Best Sight-Reading Books for Piano – Review & Buying Guide


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    Emmanuelle Fonsny