New approaches to sight reading for pianists

New approaches to sight reading for pianists

What is sight-reading and how do we improve it? Sight-reading can be for many, a mysterious thing. Some musicians are very good at it whilst other will struggle. We do know that good sight-reading improves the rate of learning (Lehman & A., 1993; Lehman & Ericsson 1996). Research questions whether sight-reading ability is an innate skills or an acquired and trainable skill.

Sight-reading is a complex skill comprised of cognitive skills of comprehension, audiation, spatial-temporal reasoning, and visual perception. Research has demonstrated that eye movement is related to sight-reading ability. Expert sight-readers are able to see larger “chunks” of music than less experienced sight-readers.

Research into sight reading

Research into teaching sight-reading is less documented. Simply practising sight-reading, which occurs in many teaching studios, does not guarantee improvement. Deliberate practice in conjunction with sight-reading is necessary. However, deliberate practice accounted for only half of the variance for improvement in sight-reading in a study by Meinz (2010). This suggests that other factors are at play in acquiring and improving sight-reading skills.

These other factors are considered to be working memory capacity which is an innate trait, and psychomotor skill. Psychomotor skill has been shown to reach its peak by the age of 15 years after which further sight-reading development is compromised (Kopiez & In Lee, 2006).

The sight reading investigation

Zhukov (2013) investigated sight-reading improvement in university music students and advanced-level studio music students. The students were randomly broken up into three treatment groups and one control group. One group was an accompanying (accompanist) group, another group was a rhythm training group, and the third group was a style training group. These groups were given guided training material in their designated programme. All the participants were pre- and post-tested in sight-reading ability.

The results of Zhukov’s (2013) study were that all groups improved in their sight-reading, some more than others with improvements made in particular areas. The rhythm training group had the largest effect. All groups showed improvement in pitch with fewer extra or wrong notes and improved continuity in the post-test follow-up. The control group also made improvements in sight-reading skills, although only in two pitch categories. Zhukov (2013) suggests that this may be because rhythm and style training groups which both received rhythm and pitch training, had a more holistic effect on improvement of sight-reading skills rather than mere sight-reading practice as expected in the control group.

Sight reading training is beneficial

These findings demonstrate training does have a positive impact on sight-reading, although no single sight-reading program stands out as the most beneficial. All treatment groups, regardless of the training methods, showed improvement on one pitch and one rhythm category. The research does suggest that training in all three of rhythm, pitch, and style is has beneficial outcomes for sight-reading. The only group which did not show an improvement in sight-reading was the accompanying group. Zhukov (2013) reasons this was due to factors of lack of consistent and  actual practice time with a soloist to realise improvement.


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Kopiez, R., & In Lee, J. (2006). Towards a dynamic model of skills involved in sight reading music. Music Education Research, 8(1), 97-120.

Lehman, A. C., & A., E. K. (1993). Sight-reading ability of expert pianists in the context of piano accompanying. Psychomusicology, 12(2), 192-195.

Lehman, A. C., & Ericsson , K. A. (1996). Performance without preparation: Structure and qcquisition of expert sight-reading and accompanying performance. Psychomusicology, 15(1), 1-29.

Meinz, E. J., & Hambrick, D. Z. (2010). Deliberate practice is necessary but not sufficient to explain individual differences in piano sight-reading skill: the role of working memory capacity. Psychol Sci, 21(7), 914-919.

Zhukov, K. (2013). Evaluating new approaches to teaching of sight-reading skills to advanced pianists. Music Education Research, 1-18.

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