What Makes a Good Sight-Reader?

In this continuing series on sight-reading, I thought it might be interesting to look at some recent research published in the Journal of Research in Music Education, and consider a few practical ways to improve this necessary skill.  In a 2004 study, conducted by Joyce Eastlund Gromko and titled Predictors of Music Sight-Reading Ability in High School Wind Players, the author’s stated purpose was to “investigate relationships among music sight-reading and tonal and rhythmic audiation, visual field articulation, spatial orientation and visualization, and achievement in math concepts and reading comprehension.” (Journal of Research in Music Education, Spring 2004, Vol. 52 Issue 1, pp. 6-15) While some of the educational terms are a little unfamiliar to me, I gathered that the gist of the study was to determine what effect both musical skills (tonal and rhythmic audiation) and non-musical skills (achievement in math concepts and reading comprehension) have on sight-reading ability.  The author conducted her study at several Midwestern high schools with diverse populations.  The results of the study include several tables of numeric data, which support the author’s conclusion, quoted below.

Based on the results of this study conducted with wind players (N = 98) from four midwestern high schools serving rural, suburban, and urban populations, music sight-reading ability can be predicted by a combination of cognitive abilities. The presence of reading comprehension in the model supports Kolers et al. (1985), who suggested that reading music may be like reading words because both symbol systems are rule-governed. The presence of rhythmic audiation extends previous research conducted in music education that found rhythmic sight-reading to be the single best predictor of music sight-reading ability (Elliott, 1982). The finding supports the idea that precise aural feedback is necessary when processing the rhythmic information contained in music notation. The presence of spatial orientation in the model supports the research of Sergent et al. (1992), who asserted that “the relevant information contained in musical notations is derived not through feature analysis of the notes but through analysis of the spatial location of the notes” (p. 107). This finding suggests that reading music is a spatial process that may be like the reading of two-dimensional architectural drawings that are comprehended as three-dimensional objects. In other words, when skilled musicians read musical notation, they may mentally represent the sound as an image with spatial and temporal dimensions. Finally, the scores of the visual field articulation test were negatively correlated with the Watkins-Farnum scores. Students who scored high on visual field articulation focused on each individual square; these students scored lower on music sight-reading, which researchers claim to require a focus on musical patterns rather than individual notes (Goolsby, 1994), and on the spatial location of the notes rather than a discrete feature analysis of the notes (Sergent et al., 1992). (Journal of Research in Music Education, Spring 2004, Vol. 52 Issue 1, pp. 6-15)

Pretty interesting, isn’t it? From this study I think we can point to a couple of things which could improve sight-reading.

1) Since there is a strong correlation (at least in this study) between reading comprehension and sight-reading, it stands to reason that improving your reading and comprehension skills could  improve your ability to sight-read.

2) The author came to a conclusion with which many other musicians would probably agree:  Good sight-readers must have good rhythm. The above conclusion notes that “The presence of rhythmic audiation extends previous research conducted in music education that found rhythmic sight-reading to be the single best predictor of music sight-reading ability (Elliott, 1982).” I think one way to improve rhythm in sight-reading is simply to practice reading rhythms, either by clapping and counting, or playing rhythmic patterns on a single pitch. I really like Robert Starer’s Rhythmic Training, which is basically a collection of rhythm studies, ranging from simple to highly complex.

3) According to the above conclusion, good sight-readers have well-developed spatial orientation and pattern recognition abilities. I’m certainly not qualified to offer any real suggestions on how one could improve spatial orientation and pattern recognition, but one idea which immediately came to mind was video games (!).  In my limited experience, good video and computer games seem to require some of the same skills pointed out as predictors of sight-reading ability.  Perhaps future research might explore these connections – I’d certainly be interested in the results.

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One of the toughest things for me when I took up horn in the community band was reading the rhythms. I’d never played parts before, and having just bits of the music was a new experience, as was seeing all the off beats and syncopations in isolation. Over time I learned the various formulations, or clichés, that are used in band music for horn and am reading better.

What really jumped out at me in this, though, was that, “the relevant information contained in musical notations is derived not through feature analysis of the notes but through analysis of the spatial location of the notes.” I’ve found over and over again that paying attention to layout, and especially note spacing, makes the little part books I do much more readily comprehensible. Conversely, poorly laid out band parts can really throw me for a loop.

Great post.

I would be careful not to assume that correlation indicates causation. In this case it may be that both reading comprehension and sight-reading have a common underlying cause, and therefore working on improved comprehension may have no effect on sight-reading at all.

As for the rhythm issue, what you say is true but trivial. You can’t be a good musician without good rhythm, because it is true of all music making and not merely sightreading. Rhythm is probably the foundation of all music, to a greater extent than either melody or harmony. Try playing a the tune of simple nursery rhyme such as “Three Blind mice” with all not values equal and see how unrecognisable it it. Then just clap the rhythm of it. The tune is more recognisable from the rhythm than from the notes.

I would be interested in hearing your ideas on what people can do to become better sightreaders.

Hi Jonathan,

Thanks very much for the comments. I agree about the causation issue, and I think more research certainly needs to conducted before stating that yes, improving reading comprehension will definitely improve sight-reading. I hope I was careful enough in stating that the results of this study suggest to me that improving reading comprehension “could” improve sight-reading.

One thing I’ve noticed with many students is a preoccupation with playing the correct pitches, while completely ignoring rhythm. These are generally competent players, but their sense of pulse and subdivision goes out the window in a sight-reading situation. I think rhythmic studies such as those in Robert Starer’s book are quite useful because they allow the student to focus on only one parameter without having to consider pitch.

Hi James

I agree with you about the preoccupation with notes in sightreading, where rhythm is actually more important.

I have a little game I play on students to emphasise this point. I play some very well known tune, with the correct notes but no rhythm – all notes equal length. It can be a nursery rhyme, it can be some well-known pop song, or a TV theme tune. Any tune the pupil is likely to know and that has a distinctive kind of rhythm which is lost when you play equal-length notes. I then ask the pupil to identify the tune. Usually they can’t.

I then choose another well-known tune and this time just clap the rhythm.

They are far more likely to be able to identify the tune from the rhythm without the notes than to be able to do the same from the notes without the rhythm.

With this point made, I go on to make it clear that in sight-reading, getting the rhythm right is actually more important than getting the notes right. This is often something of a revelation to them!

I then go on to teach sightreading using the techniques I’ve described in The art of sight reading. I’ve never had a case where using this method I couldn’t significantly improve somebody’s sightreading skills.

Its relatively easy for music teachers in Britain to motivate their pupils to improve their sightreading. It is worth 21 marks out of 150 in the Associated Board exams! Without that spur, it may be harder in America for you to persuade your pupils to put in the work in the same way.

Those are great suggestions Jonathan. I especially like the pencil idea! I recommend many of the same things to my students. I think another skill to develop that helps sightreading is the ability to feel common time signatures, such as 4/4, 3/4 etc. This goes beyond sensing individual beats, and really helps create a framework for reading a new piece of music.

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