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Sight Reading Music Vs. Sight Reading Music

I am writing this article because of a discussion that recently occurred on a piano forum that I participate in. The argument was about the proper use of words when describing music reading, specifically the term “sight reading”. If you are sight reading a piece of music, is this the first time you are playing it or have you played it before and so you are just reading music and not sight reading anymore? Some on the forum felt that the use of the term “sight reading” did not accurately describe the process he was talking about at the time. I hadn’t realized there were such strong thoughts about the way we describe playing sheet music, but I quickly learned that there are more than a few people with different opinions on the use of words. I will share both sides of the argument and offer my own thoughts on the subject.

Many in the music community see the term “sight-reading” to mean “sight-reading music”. This can also be its definition, and is often the ultimate goal for anyone trying to read music. Many sites and forums are devoted to the skill of sight-playing music, a skill that is very difficult to master and can be frustrating, especially for the beginning piano student. Most pianists need to play a piece of music several times before they can play it directly. So this definition would lead many to believe that sight reading is an impossible task for the beginner. Personally, I don’t like this limited view and therefore tend to go along with the more general definition.

The other side of the argument is more in my position. The term “sight reading” to me simply means “play music by what you see” as opposed to playing it by ear or from memory (imitating another player, like on YouTube). I do not make a determination as to whether it is the first reading or the hundredth. In fact, I would define a person’s sight-reading ability not only by the difficulty of the pieces he can play, but also by the number of times it takes him to play it before errors are minimal. Even for a seasoned professional, each time he reads an additional piece of music, it usually results in higher accuracy. If he could play a piece of music by spending 5-10 minutes with it, playing it several times, and then being able to play it smoothly, wouldn’t that be an achievement of his ability to read music with the naked eye? There are advanced techniques for improving skills to minimize first read errors, but I don’t want to lower someone’s skill level just because it takes them several more times to play until they really get it.

One more point on my side of the argument. As someone who has been called upon to sight read music often (playing for musical theater auditions, for example), I can honestly say that I rarely, if ever, play music without reading it first. I read the piece I’m about to play, looking for difficult sections, analyzing the various notes and patterns. So you could argue that the first time I played the music is actually the SECOND time I read it. So would that mean that by definition I’m just reading the music now and not reading the view? I would not make that distinction. It would be like reading a speech before delivering it. Even if you’re reading your cards and giving that speech for the first time, it’s technically not the first full reading.

This is how I define sight reading, in the broadest definition. I understand that some put a stricter meaning to the word, but in the end, aren’t we all trying to learn and do the same? We want to be able to look at a piece of music and play it with as few mistakes as possible, whether it’s the first time or the millionth time.

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