Sight Reading and Finger Choice

This study suggests that finger choice in piano sight-reading has more to do with level of expertise rather than difficulty of repertoire presented. The findings are consistent with the view that piano fingering is largely based upon the notion of the use of learned, rule-governed response sequences triggered by familiar visual patterns of notation. Monophonic instruments have a one-to-one relationship of note to fingering, however, the piano has a one-to-ten choice in relation to fingering choices for each key and thus is unique.


Finger choice by pianists is a skill which is developed over many years and is considered to be an example of problem-solving. The problem-solving view means that finger choice is determined by the acquisition of heuristic (experience-based) devices for reducing the search space. This technique is commonly used by experts in relation to problem-solving.

Three areas in which the finger-choice problem is defined is through the motor-anatomical, cognitive, and artistic. Motor-anatomical relates to properties of the hand and the keyboard and motor independence. Cognitive areas considered are the executive and memory processes. Artistic areas of expressive requirements of the music are considered.

Motor-anatomical and short-term cognitive processes are considered the most important areas for piano fingering. Expert pianists place a large amount of importance on the acquisition of foundational fingering practice and is central to the motor-anatomical process.

The study hypothesised experts would chose fingering with lower levels of overall difficulty scores than those chosen by novices. The theory is that experts are superior to novices in the application of rules of fingering. It is not believed that a conscious application of the rules of fingering are taking place in sight-reading of rapid passage work. It seems more likely that the use of conventional fingering rules will underpin pattern-recognition, and prior experience of similar passage work will determine fingering choices made. Expertise and pattern-matching has received considerable attention in other domains. Subsequent links have been made to music and an experts’ ability to pattern match.

Expertise in finger-choice is also represented by consistency to the application of traditional rules of fingering. Experts will chose suitable fingering and will be able to replicate this fingering choice better than novices. Experts have a greater store of learned fingering patterns over than of novices.

Results showed that pianists’ sight-reading follows the classic fingering literature. Expert pianists used the most ergonomically favourable fingering possible. For example, avoiding passing a thumb under to a black note and minimising the use of weaker fingers. Consistency of experts’ fingering choices suggest more adherence to conventional and traditional fingering rules. The years of routine drilling of technical work, experience of learning and developing a large amount of repertoire, and the subsequent development of pattern recognition abilities as a result of this learning, has a positive effect on the sight reading abilities of pianists.

Sloboda, A. J., Parncutt, R., Clarke, E. F., & RaeKallio, M. (1998). Determinants of finger choice in piano sight-reading. Journal of Experimental Pyshcology: Human Perception and Performance, 24(1), 19.

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