Fixation, Eye Movement, and Sight-Reading

There is a growing consensus that sight-reading skills consists of perceptual, cognitive, and motoric skills. Another aspect which warrants further investigation is how these skills are developed. The use of eye-tracking in music reading is scarce, however, what is known are that the eyes do not move linearly across a musical score. The eye jumps around in rapid shifts called saccades. Between saccades, the points of fixation (stopping) are of most interest, as this is where the information is gathered and processed by the performer. The average fixation during music reading is 200-400 milliseconds.

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The second area of interest is the relation to perceptual and eye-hand spans. Perceptual span is the amount of information visible and gathered during the points of fixation. Some studies suggest that the size of the perceptual span is 3-5 beats to the right of the point of fixation. Perceptual span is a common feature to all eye movements, however, eye-hand span is related in particular to sight-reading and the processing of musical notation. A sight-reading musician’s eyes may be typically 1 sec ahead of the music playing, that is, the point of fixation and the point of execution. Studies show that more skilled sight-readers have a larger hand-eye span in terms of the number of notes between fixation and execution. That is, skilled sight-readers have longer hand-eye spans and implies that they look further ahead when playing.

The hypothesis investigated was that skilled sight-readers spend less time on fixations than novice sight-readers. Novices require more fixation time to process notes as they have not yet developed a fully automated system of notation decoding. With practice, it is assumed the process would become more automatic, the fixation times become shorter, and sight-reading proficiency increases. 

This study investigated eye movements in terms of length of fixation, between complete novices and amateur pianists. The results of the study showed that fixation time was smaller in good sight-readers and was a function of increased skill. Large melodic intervals had an affect on fixation time for novices — the larger the interval, the more time spent in fixation at that point. Further, little time is spent analysing metrical groupings at novice level, as they are more preoccupied with individual note recognition. 

Thus skill development in sight-reading is related to instant identification of notes and results in a shortening of fixation time. As sight-reading improves, the less time spent on fixation gives the performer more ‘spare-time’ to explore the score further and pay attention to the upcoming demands of the score. The results also showed that skilled sight-readers spent time not only looking ahead, but also looking-back. In general, poorer sight-readers make fewer and longer fixations than skilled sight-readers. Skilled sight-readers tend not to fixate on certain notes, but process note patterns in single fixations and then move on. This is the concept of chunking, a short-term memory feature. It has also been found that skilled sight-readers fixate well ahead in the score and then move back to the point of execution, termed look-back. 

An insight into patterns of fixation allows for an understanding of some of the difficulties faced by novice sight-readers.
For example, what could be the most effective use of the ‘spare-time’ to guide novice and developing sight-readers. How should problematic notes, symbols, and visual clues be approached with the knowledge of fixation and look-back techniques? Do your students even know that they use a combination of fixation, look-ahead and look-back techniques when sight reading?

Penttinen, M., & Huovinen, E. (2011). The Early Development of Sight-Reading Skills in Adulthood. Journal of Research in Music Education, 59(2), 196-220.

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