Piano sight reading guide

Sight reading on the piano seems like a tough skill to learn.

There are some people that appear to do it so naturally….

The rest of us, not so much.

But what if I told you that with some exclusive tips and exercises, sight reading isn’t really that hard to master?

We’ve put together an ultimate guide to piano sight reading that has awesome tricks to help you learn quickly.

You’ll get some great tips and even a few resources that are sure to make you a better sight reader in no time.

Free Download: Click here to download The 7 Easy Ways to Stay Motivated With Piano, which covers the best ways to improve on the piano and make practicing fun again!

Why it’s Important to Learn to Sight Read

Why is it even important to learn how to sight read?

After all, don’t piano pieces sound better if you practice and polish them?

While that may be true, it’s important to have piano sight reading skills.

Here's why:

Imagine that you’re at someone’s house.

You walk in the door, and right there in the middle of the living room is a bright, shiny baby grand piano.

You don’t pass up the opportunity to play one of those. You just don’t.

Your friend sees your drooling stare, and invites you to play. What do you do?

Stick to the same five songs you’ve memorized?

Whip out sheet music you just happen to keep in your bag?

Chances are, you’ll want to sight read something.

There are so many situations where sight reading will offer you new opportunities.

You can accompany singers, play at get-togethers, and test out that beautiful instrument in the mall.

But it’s hard, you say.

You can’t do it, you say.

You’ve tried.

Sure, it’s tough.

But it’s not impossible.

And once you have it down, you’ll have a whole new world of music open to you!

How do you begin?

Start by reading the next section!

Tips to Make You a Better Sight Reader

7 sight reading tips for piano players

Sight reading isn’t impossible, but it does take some work and technique.

So where do you start?

Use these tried-and-true tricks to get going!

Practice Ahead of Time

Wait - what? Isn’t sight reading about being able to play without practicing in advance?

Well, the answer is yes and no.

You want to be able to play random pieces of music without any previous preparation, but there’s no way you’ll ever get to this point if you haven’t trained yourself to be able to work with a variety of tempos, fingerings, common left hand patterns, and key signatures.

Do lots of drills, and you’ll find that many new pieces are actually pretty easy for practiced fingers to play.

Memorize Key Signatures

Key signatures are what really trip up most sight readers.

There are two aspects to this:

First, train your brain to play in a variety of key signatures. If you’re stuck with only C and D forever, you’ll be limiting what you can sight read.

Secondly, learn to tell a key signature by a quick glance.

Here’s a hack for you:

For key signatures that are written in with sharps, look at the last sharp and go a half-step up.

For example, the key of G has one F sharp. A half-step up from this is G. So, your song is in the key of G.

For flats, you can tell they key by looking at the second to last flat. The second to last flat in the key of E flat major is – you guessed it --- an E.

Peruse the Piece

Before you start tickling the keys, take a good look at the piece you’ll be playing.

Take note (pun intended) of the key signature, the rhythm, the tempo, and elements like repeats.

Mark it Up

This might not always be an option, but when it is, take advantage of it!

During your quick preview of the piece, make notes on anything that looks like it might be tough.

This way, you can anticipate it as you’re playing.

Tap Out the Rhythm

Don’t let those pesky triplets trip you up!

Tapping out the rhythm before you start will help you get a grip on how the piece is supposed to sound.

Don’t Look at Your Hands

Do you glance down at your hands while you’re playing piano?

This might work out OK if you’re playing a well-known piece from memory, but it’s a bad habit when it comes to sight reading! Instead do this:

Practice playing familiar songs without looking at your hands. This can help you break this bad habit.

Then you’ll be able to focus on the music in front of you when you’re sight reading.

Don’t Stop!

If you make a mistake, just keep going.

Stopping, groaning, and repeating might be OK for practice, but it’s not going to work if you’re sight reading as an accompanist.

You’ll inevitably be in this position someday, so prepare yourself for it now.

Exercises to Hone Your Sight Reading Skills

7 piano sight reading exercises

One of the best ways to improve your sight-reading skills is by doing exercises.

Yep, your fingers need to build some muscle, too. And more importantly, they need to build muscle memory.

Use Flash Cards

That’s right:

You don’t even have to be at the piano to practice sight reading!

If you’re still a little fuzzy when it comes to written music notes, this is a great way to practice.

More advanced players can use flashcards to memorize key signatures, chord progressions, and more.

Practice Your Scales

I know, I know—scales are boring. However:

Scales are necessary if you want to become a better sight reader!

Spend just five or ten minutes a day practicing scales, and you’ll see real improvement.

Be on the lookout for scale-like passages within a piece. You’ll be surprised at how common it is!

Practice Your Chords

Like scales, chords are an essentially building block of music.

As you improve in your piano-playing abilities, you’ll find that almost anything can be broken into series of chords.

Sometimes this is subtle, but often left-hand accompaniments are in blatant chord formation! And here’s the thing:

The better you know your chords, the more natural it will be to work with them in sight reading.

Read Ahead

Get in the habit of reading ahead, even on familiar pieces.

It might seem awkward at first, but pretty soon you’ll find that it’s the easiest way to play!

Reading ahead will allow you anticipate the music ahead, creating space for you to choose the correct fingering or timing.

Use Separate Hands

You probably already do this when you’re learning new pieces. Why? It’s simple:

Playing with one hand at a time lets your brain focus a little better on just one thing at a time.

When it comes to sight reading, it also lets you make improvements step by step.

Learn to sight read with your right hand alone, then move to your left hand alone. Once you have this down, it will be much easier to put them together!

Play Easy Songs

Remember that beginner’s lesson book you still have stashed in the closet?

Go dig that out and use it to practice.

Better yet, buy one with totally new content. I have a few suggestions below!

Sight reading easy material is a great way to practice the skill and to build your confidence.

Learn to Read in Chunks

You don’t read every letter of a word, do you?

No, you read the whole word.

Learn to do this with piano as well!

Rather than looking at every single note, do this:

Read music a phrase at a time.

How does this work?

It’s easy! You can practice this by doing drills and looking for patterns within your pieces.

Common Questions and Answers

Is your mind buzzing with questions about sight reading?

No worries: I’ve anticipated some of the most common questions about sight reading.

How can I get better at sight reading?

The best way to get better is by practicing.

You learned to sight read words by practicing (you’re reading this right now), and you can learn to sight read music the same way.

When will I get too old to be able to become a better sight reader?

You are never too old to improve your skills!

Life is a process of learning, after all.

Should I look at my fingers or the music?

Look at the music.

In fact, try to break the habit of looking at your hands at all.

What if I make a mistake?

Mistakes are OK.

Let me say that again: mistakes are OK.

Everyone makes mistakes. Even professional piano performers.

If you are sight reading, you’re bound to miss a note or two.

The important thing is that it doesn’t trip you up or stop you from playing. Keep going, and keep that music flowing.

What if I see something I can’t play?

If you see a note that is just not going to happen, it’s OK to skip it.

If there’s a crazy chord you know you can’t reach, modify it.

These things happen, and the important thing is that you don’t get flustered.

The more you practice sight reading, the more you’ll learn to recognize the essentials and non-essentials.

Music was not intended to be a right-or-wrong thing, like a math problem.

It’s meant to be art, and as such, you can modify it as you need to in order to keep it sounding smooth and beautiful.

I don’t like playing beginner songs. Can I skip this step and play music I like?

You could.

Unfortunately, the best way to learn is by starting with easy, formulated music.

Lesson books may seem boring…

But they are great because they teach you to read patterns instead of struggling to break down difficult phrases.

Keep plugging away at your level, and you’ll be where you want to be before you know it!

Resources That Can Help You Improve

There are plenty of great books on the market that can help you be a better sight reader!

Here are a few of our favourites. Most of them are available in multiple levels.

Improve Your Sight Reading! - By Paul Harris

Improve Your Sight Reading Book by Paul Harris

This is the first in a series of seven sight reading books that are designed to help you improve at every level.

You’ll learn the techniques it takes to be a great sight reader while also getting exercises and helpful practice.

Progressive Sight Reading Exercises - By Hannah Smith

Progressive Sight Reading Exercises by Hannah Smith

This book is a great book for practicing rote exercises.

You’ll be motivated to keep moving forward with this book, practicing new patterns every day until you get them all done!

Level 1 Sight Reading Book - By Nancy and Randall Faber

Level 1 Sight Reading Book by Nancy Faber

This book is designed to go with the other Faber books.

It’s intended to help students who have trouble learning to read music, which makes it a great tool to help anyone with sight reading.

Each assignment in the book comes with a check box, so you can keep track of what you have already accomplished!

Sight Reading & Rhythm Every Day - By Helen Marlais and Kevin Olsen

Sight Reading and Rhythm Every Day by Helen Marlais and Kevin Olsen

I like this book because it takes a slightly different look at sight reading.

Focusing on rhythm, it helps pianists coordinate hand, eye, and ear to become proficient sight readers in 5 minutes per day.

Once you finish this book, there are several more in the series.

Use Online Tools to Become a Great Sight Reader

playground sessions logoThe best online sight reading tool I’ve found so far is Playground Sessions.

This is actually a complete piano lessons program, but it has awesome features that can help you with sight reading in particular.

One thing I love about Playground Sessions is that it is designed for all levels.

So you won’t be mired down in all this beginning stuff if you’re not a beginner. With a click of a button, you can scoot on over to Intermediate or Advanced lessons.

The lessons are also progressive:

So, if you’re practicing sight reading, you can start at your current level and see visible improvement as you go.

Also, you’ll know when you should go to the next level.

If you’re using a digital piano that’s connected to your computer, the program will give you an accuracy score.

If you want a great tool that gives tips, feedback, and a ton of music to work with, Playground Sessions is definitely the way to go. You can check out our full in-depth review here.

Becoming a great sight reader is an accomplishment worth working for.

If you’re going to put extra time and effort into any new aspect of music, make it this one.

After all:

If you can learn to sight read well, you’ll improve all aspects of your musical abilities.

So keep working at it! Implement a few of these skills, and you’ll see improvements in no time.

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Breana Johnson
Breana Johnson

I’m Breana, long-time piano player and casual guitar strummer. I grew up on Moezart and the Beach Boys, and I love all types of music! My day job is writing, but I moonlight as a piano teacher and occasionally play for events.