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Sight-reading and rhythms

what-brass-players-want-sight-reading-rhythmSight-reading, and reading rhythmic patterns, is often viewed as something that is difficult or tricky, and can put people off of trying new pieces or be that dreaded part of the exam! Some people seem to find it really easy. So what is it about sight-reading that can cause such anxiety or concern?

Reading music at sight, and developing rhythm reading is a skill and can be something that is acquired or learned.  There are a number of techniques that can be used to help with building or developing this skill.

Skills development

So what will help to develop your sight reading skill?  Obviously, and this unfortunately is usually the case, the best way to get better at this is to regularly practice it.  This of course means that it’s necessary to aim to play lots and lots of music.

Playing lots of different pieces of music is a great way to develop reading but this can be a slightly frustrating approach if you encounter the same sorts of problems.

Reading rhythms accurately can really help develop your sight-reading skill very quickly. Often the most important part of playing a new piece is getting the rhythms correct and the notes will often take care of themselves.

  • When looking at a piece of music for the first time it is useful to quickly check the most obvious details such as the time signature, key signature, range, dynamics and other obvious features.
  • The next thing to consider is if there are any patterns you can see or repetition.  Are there any bars of music that are simply repeated, or just a note lower/higher or have different notes with the same rhythm?
  • Is there a simple structure to the piece? How does the piece, or section of a piece, end?
  • Reading rhythms can be a little tricky at first, but It is often worth considering the rhythms separately from the pitches of the notes.

Rhythm Reading Technique

Breaking down the rhythmic patterns is an easier way of approaching a piece.  Look at the following piece for Trumpet.

what-brass-players-want-sight-reading-rhythmFrom this short excerpt we can see the following important features:

  • The piece is in 6/8.
  • The tempo is slow.
  • The key is Bb Major.
  • There is a dotted rhythm with a steady quaver beat.
  • There is a series of tied noted that may cause an issue with rhythmical accuracy.
  • The first two bars of the first line is repeated on the second line with embellishment.
  • The quick bit looks like it will be really tricky to play!
  • Breaking this down a little bit further you can see that the first 3 notes just belong to the Bb major scale, the next 3 notes are the notes from an F major chord (with an added 7th) and the next three notes are simply the Bb major arpeggio.
  • The beat is a steady quaver beat, so crotchets receive two counts each and there are 6 beats in each bar.
  • It is possible to either work out the rhythms by counting the notes or you can add words to the rhythms to help you remember how they go.  It is a good idea to use a metronome  to keep a steady pulse as you work out the rhythms.  Aim to always get the main beats of the bar in the correct place.  So in 6/8 it is good to ensure that the 1st and 4th beat of the bar are always correct.

What patterns can you see in the following piece?


There is, again, lots of repetition and use of the same idea up or down a note. Repeating an idea up or down a note in pitch is known as a sequence.  Notice with this Mozart piece that the music seems to work in fairly short phrases.  This is useful for working out the flow of the music and will make reading the piece much easier.

The two excerpts given above are fairly straight forward in terms of rhythms and melodies and are used as examples for illustration.  Very often the piece you play will contain more tricky rhythms with syncopation (music that is off-beat), ties, accents and music in irregular patterns or time signatures.  The approach to these pieces would be exactly the same.

The most important thing to do initially is look at the key, tempo, time signature, spot patterns or repetition and then break the music down further into bars or particular beats.

Sight Reading Checklist

  • Check the key signature.
  • Check the time signature.
  • Check the tempo marking.
  • Look for repeated rhythms.
  • Look for any repeated melodies or sequences.
  • Use a metronome to check tricky rhythms.
  • Get the main beats of the tricky rhythmic patterns in the correct place.
  • Check to see if there is any use of syncopation, or if there is a pattern of off-beat music.
  • Check to see if there are any stresses or accents on or off the main beats.

Sight reading and rhythm reading is something that can be developed over time with a little dedicated practice.  Time spent playing a wide variety of music across a range of styles will not only improve your sight reading skill but develop a greater sense of musicality and awareness.

what-brass-players-want-sight-reading-rhythmWhat issues have you personally faced with sight reading and approaching new pieces? Have you ever had any issues that have driven you away from a piece of music? Let us know by completing the comment form below, or contact me via Shaun the Music Teacher

Happy practicing!

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