You may ask yourself: Why is sight-reading important? Can’t I just learn pieces by ear or learn bit by bit, one hand at a time? Well, yes, you could. But as you’ll see, sight-reading could save yourself a LOT of time. Keep reading to discover the top 6 reasons why you should learn to sight-read.
N.B.: If you don’t know what sight-reading is, check out this article first: What is Sight-Reading?
Memorisers vs sight-readers
Have you noticed how some pianists (usually) tend to be excellent memorisers but poor sight-readers whilst others are excellent sight-readers but poor memorisers? Have you ever wondered why?
The answer is simple: the pianists who have become excellent memorisers became good at memorising pieces because they DIDN’T spend time reading music and instead NEEDED to rely on their muscle memory to learn pieces.
On the other hand, the pianists who have become excellent sight-readers DID spend time reading music and DIDN’T need to rely on their muscle memory to learn pieces.
So, broadly speaking, you have two avenues to choose from:
- learn to read music and become a good sight-reader
- learn by ear and become a good memoriser
Having said that, you CAN and SHOULD take this third avenue, which is:
- learn to read music and memorise and become a good sight-reader AND a good memoriser
Why sight-reading is more valuable
While the ability to memorise is highly praised by music institutions, examination boards and competition juries, and useful for advanced repertoire, the ability to sight-read will get you MUCH FURTHER.
The ability to sight-read gives you a way to quickly access the notes on the page. Moreover, you can always go back to a score at any time. By contrast, if you’ve learned pieces only by ear and muscle memory, you won’t be able to use the score as a memory aid and may actually forget the pieces that you’ve spent so long working on!
I’m sure you’re all familiar with this quote:
Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime
You could apply this to sight-reading and say:
Teach a man a piece by ear and you help him to play one piece. Teach a man to sight-read and you help him to play any piece for a lifetime
6 reasons why sight-reading is important
By sight-reading, you would:
1. Learn pieces faster
Given a choice, would you rather spend your time decoding dots on a page or playing the music? If you’re like me, you’ll want to be able to play the piece as soon as you can. But if you struggle to sight-read and play hands together, it will take you a long time before you can play the piece.
Think how much faster you could learn pieces if you could sight-read straight off the bat. You could then spend your valuable time on refining pieces instead of trying to decipher them.
2. Learn MANY more pieces
Being a good sight-reader means you can take (almost) any piece of music and play through it. It won’t necessarily be a perfect rendition, but it will be a good enough representation of the piece for you to take pleasure in it.
This means you could pick a random piano book from your shelf and play through the pieces. You could mark the ones that you particularly like so that you can come back to them to learn them properly. By doing so, you could widen your repertoire.
Think of all the composers you could discover!
3. Play at short notice
Say you’re visiting a relative or a friend and they happen to have a piano. Wouldn’t it be great if you could play whatever they give you to play? Or if you had the confidence to accompany a student for their upcoming exam with only two weeks to prepare? Wouldn’t it be great if you could just turn up at a music soirée and play duets from a duet collection you’ve never seen before?
The possibilities are endless.
4. Learn pieces without having to memorise them
If you can sight-read well, this means you can continue to read the sheet music with ease.
While you may start to remember notes automatically, you will still be able to follow the score and pay attention to other important markings like dynamics, tempo markings, pedal markings, slurs, fingering, which are vital for a genuinely musical interpretation.
Here’s an example:
Do you see how many markings there are on just one page? That’s a lot of information you would miss if you couldn’t follow the score and had to rely on your memory.
5. Develop your overall musicianship
If you sight-read music from a large variety of musical styles – from the Baroque, Classical or Romantic periods, for example – you’ll become more familiar with these styles, and your overall musicianship will improve. You will learn to recognise common characteristics between composers of the same musical era and even peculiarities of individual composers.
6. Be an independent learner
Rather than rely on someone else’s instructions to tell you what notes to play, or on video tutorials or synthesia videos where you just learn which keys to press and for how long, you could take a piece of your own choosing and learn the notes by yourself. And it could be ANY piece you like. The disadvantage of relying on video tutorials or synthesia videos is that you would only have a small number of pieces to choose from. But there are so many pieces out there for piano by so many composers! Why limit yourself to a handful of popular pieces?
By being able to sight-read, you would:
- learn pieces faster
- build a broader repertoire
- play at any given time
- save time by not having to memorise everything
- become a better musician
- have the confidence to learn on your own
All in all, it would save you a lot of time, wouldn’t it?
The irony, though, is that to get to this point and save time, you need to invest time in sight-reading! Start with 5 minutes a day and gradually increase the time to 10 or 15 minutes as the level of difficulty increases.
And the earlier you start, the easier it will become for you.
READ MORE >> The Best Sight-Reading Books for Piano
READ MORE >> 5 Tips to Improve Your Sight-Reading