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.