If, as a musician, you find yourself staring at sheet music like an illiterate puppy staring at an episode of Countdown, then you’re not alone! It can be endlessly frustrating if you’re more than able to play your instrument, but learning to play a new piece costs you weeks if not months of your precious life. Maybe you give up halfway through, maybe you just keep plodding on; in any case, you probably wish you were just better at reading music. Or maybe you’re good at it, but just want to speed the process up. All of this is possible! In this blog, we offer some practical advice to help remove the frustration from reading music. While I use reading music for the piano as an example, all of these tips can be applied to your instrument of choice.

Better, Faster, Stronger: Learn to Read Music at Speed

Eyes, Brains & Hands – The Dream Team

When reading sheet music that you’ve never seen before, three things have to work perfectly together: your eyes, brain, and hands. Your eyes have to constantly switch between the manuscript and your hands, while your brain is busy figuring out the notes, and your hands are occupied with finding the right keys. Even on paper this isn’t easy!

Better, Faster, Stronger: Learn to Read Music at Speed

Crotchet, Quaver, Sharp – Learning the Names of Notes

It seems obvious, but in order to read music well and at some speed, it’s essential to know the basics inside out. Just like at primary school, you didn’t start learning to read by beginning with long, beautiful sentences and (nicely written) blogs, but started with the building blocks – the alphabet – and the sound that each letter stands for. Learning to read music is not that different. First, you learn the names of the notes and dynamic notation, and the different kinds of sounds they stand for and then slowly, you learn to play simple pieces. As such, you need to get yourself as familiar with notes and notation as you are with your A, B, Cs, so you can recognise everything without having to think about it.

Dictation and/or an App

  • A good way to sharpen your notation recognition is using note dictation. Just take any piece of music and read every note aloud from left to right.
  • You could also write the names of each note next to them using a pencil. After just a few pages, you’ll probably notice that you don’t even have to count the lines of the stave any more! Pay attention to the clefs and symbols at the start of the piece and read aloud or write ‘no B’ if a B# is indicated at the beginning of the piece. This exercise isn’t about playing the piece, but familiarising yourself with notation to speed up your recognition.
  • There are also apps available that can help with reading notes. These can be particularly helpful when reading notes that fall outside of the five lines of the stave. Music Tutor (iOS and Android), ClefTutor (iOS) and Sight Reading Trainer (iOS) are all examples of good apps.

Better, Faster, Stronger: Learn to Read Music at Speed


As I’ve already mentioned, when reading music, your eyes need to be focused on two things at once: the score and your hands. If you’re a beginner, it only makes sense that you’re going to be looking at your hands a lot, but at some point, your eyes need to be able to focus on nothing but the score as you play, so that you’re looking at your hands less and less. To get to this point, you need to know what your hands are doing, without having to look at them. This process can be compared with blind typing – where you’re able to type without having to look at the keyboard of your computer. In the YouTube video included below, you can easily see the difference between what the eyes of a professional and what the eyes of a student are doing as they play while both perform a piece of music for the first time ever. The student looks at their hands twice as much as her teacher, and as such, plays much slower.

Finger Exercises

Improving coordination while actually playing your instrument requires hours upon hours of practice and as such, a lot of noise. Luckily, every instrument has its own logic when it comes to the placement of the notes. So it’s a good idea to spend a lot of time playing the intervals (thirds, fifths, sevenths, etc) so that you can play them blindly. There are countless music books available that include finger exercises that can be used to get more comfortable playing intervals in different orders and rhythms. Using finger exercises develops your technique and is the key to faster and more precise playing!
Better, Faster, Stronger: Learn to Read Music at Speed

Conclusion and Step-by-Step Plan

As you might have noticed already, speeding up your sight reading and playing a new piece is not easy. A number of different skills need to be developed and honed and then combined so that you get more familiar and more confident with your instrument and with reading score. As soon as you’re able to recognise every single note in a piece, and your hands can (almost blindly) find the right piano key, valve, hole, or fret, then you almost don’t even need to look at your hands as you play an entirely new piece of music.

  1. Practice until you are able to read the notes and notation of a piece of music with flow, with your instrument as well as without it.
  2. Memorise all the intervals of your instrument until you don’t have to look at your hands any more. Use finger exercises and try to look at your hands less and less.
  3. Try not to stick to the same piece. You’ll learn much more by reading the notes of score you’ve never seen before.
  4. Use your ears to correct yourself, rather than your reading glasses!
  5. Try to only allow yourself even little a peak at your hands during more difficult transitions.

Sneller en beter noten leren lezen: het kan!

See Also …

» Major & Minor: Hearing and Understanding the Difference
» Reading Music: Rhythm, Tempo & Measure
» Drum Notation 101: Tips & Tricks for Beginners
» Learning To Read Guitar Tab
» Sheet Music Apps: Yay or Nay?

» All Music Theory Books
» All Music Books
» Manuscript Paper
» Sheet Music Accesories
» Musical Instruments

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