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Music as language: sight playing through access to a complete musical vocabulary.

This article was inspired by a request to be on a panel addressing the above topic for a local MTA meeting. My first concern is with what exactly we, mean by the term "sight reading"--is this something that is done only in one's mind? If someone is writing words on a chalkboard in front of you, you are probably reading along as they am writing, but you probably are not reading out loud. Would it be more aptly called "sight playing, "which involves both the mental process to see and recognize musical patterns on the page, as well as the technical means to produce those patterns on the instrument? Have you ever asked a student to "read" through a new piece and watched them sit, hands in their laps and look at the music? And, if so, do you stop and "correct" them, or do you recognize the value of that step in the process that is "sight playing"?

Have you found that your most successful sight reading experiences have occurred when you are what athletes call "in the zone . When you have the ideal combination of mental and physical awareness, at just the right intensity of each, without over thinking or undue physical or mental stress, where you are recognizing what is coming up at the perfect pace for the content of the piece and the tempo you have chosen? How can we teach this so a piece of music can be placed before our students, and they are capable of performing--not only accurately, at a consistent tempo and with good rhythm, but maybe incorporating musical elements such as indicated dynamics, articulations and possibly even a touch of musical phrasing and appropriate style?

When reading the excerpt above from Jabberwocky, we recognize that many of the words are not actually "words," yet we can read them through our knowledge of pronunciation rules, infer their meaning through the context of the sentence and paragraph, as well as enjoy the "music" of the sounds themselves. If we think about music as a language, with a syntax of recognizable patterns and structures, such comparisons acquire greater meaning.

Let's start by examining what we mean by the word "read."

If you think about teaching a child to read a book, you would recognize immediately the importance of that child having had extensive verbal experience--first a breadth of aural experience from hearing language for years, then the development of an oral vocabulary, beginning with the speaking of single words (often charmingly mispronounced), then two or three words put together and then simple sentences. We also would assume the child had been read to over many years while looking at engaging pictures, cuddled up closely to someone he or she loves and trusts, and memorizing bits of stories he or she hears over and over again.

How can we possibly hope to create the same experiences for our music students? Most of them are at least 7 or 8 years old before we meet them and may or may not have had positive, reinforced and consistent musical experiences at home. We certainly can't "speak" music to them twelve hours a day, nor will they encounter musical language with the same saturation as they do verbal, which appears throughout their daily lives--not just in books they read, but on road signs and billboards, labels on cereal boxes, homework, T-shirts and so on.

We can endeavor to create similar positive musical language experiences for our students. To do this, they need an atmosphere where they hear patterns over and over again and are allowed and encouraged to repeat them both through singing and playing on their instrument. This should be done without risk of "punishment" or humiliation if they make a mistake, until they build a vocabulary that allows them to recognize patterns they know how to perform before they ever see them in printed notation. If we develop this atmosphere, we will have created an environment and vocabulary that will develop our students into good sight players.

As I'm sure you've experienced in your own teaching, some students are able to sight read easily and well from the very beginning. Their ability to learn and recognize patterns intuitively is what allows them this. But you also know that many students are not intuitive readers and must be taught the mental and physical steps and processes required to read and perform music comfortably. This accomplishment involves two distinct, but interrelated, activities in the lesson. First, we should create musical experiences away from both printed music and the instrument itself, through the listening to and repeating of patterns. Secondly, through development of technique, which includes the obvious, such as five-finger patterns, scales and arpeggios, and chords and chord progression patterns, as well as tonal and rhythm patterns sung by the teacher and repeated by the student at the instrument, and finally progressing into learning to read and recognize patterns within the context of new pieces.

For a research project, a colleague, Debra Pajtas, examined the repertoire in two standard late-beginner/early-intermediate anthologies, the Celebration Series Level 1, published by the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, and Essential Keyboard Repertoire, Volume 1, looking for the repeated occurrence of common tonal patterns. The ten most common, with the frequency of their occurrences noted below each pattern in parentheses, were:


If such patterns are taught to the student, both in singing and imitation or playing and imitation, and in a variety of keys and modes, their appearances in music will be greeted with recognition, familiarity and confidence.

There is a process identified and defined by music learning theorist Edwin Gordon as "audiation," which refers to the ability to hear and understand music through recall or creation. (1) Just like the meaning of a sentence is understood by the listener through their own personal vocabulary and awareness of the many possible meanings created by various word combinations, so a musical passage will be recognized and understood by the listener or performer as it relates to or differs from patterns with which they are familiar.

If children begin instrumental lessons before they are out of what Gordon calls "music babble," their ability to audiate, and therefore to sight read or perform well, will be forever limited. They first should be taught to move to the music's fundamental beats and be able to chant simple rhythm patterns and sing in response to the teacher's demonstration of short patterns and songs while maintaining tonality and keyality. They also should be able to sing the keynote of a tonal pattern or song presented by the teacher. (2)

Every musical experience children then have should be taught as language--with the four vocabularies: aural, verbal, reading and writing, being taught in that order. Therefore, in formal musical instruction, they are never expected to read a tonal or rhythmic construct they haven't experienced first through listening and then through chanting, singing and finally performing in melodic or rhythmic isolation that is, melody patterns without rhythm, rhythm patterns without pitch differences. (3)

Tonal Patterns

If melodic patterns are taught and reinforced as "words" in a musical vocabulary, their appearance in a piece of music that the student is sight reading will be quickly identifiable and performed with ease. This isn't to say we are teaching pieces strictly through rote or imitation, but through the recognition and comparison of a visual clue with a known, physical motion or gesture. If the student will be reading a new construct such as Alberti bass, the chord progression and Alberti pattern will have been taught before the piece itself is introduced to be sight read.

For example, the first two of the following examples would not be taught unless the student was comfortable singing and playing the root position major triad, broken and blocked, in at least the key of C major, or transposed to several keys. The third example should be prefaced by an introduction to the triad inversion patterns, especially the second inversion position, which also could be practiced in other keys.


Such introductions of repertoire through review of singing and playing tonal patterns will help the student identify and read similar patterns in new situations and easily be able to play them. Their ability to successfully sight play patterns that differ by varying degrees from familiar ones also will improve, similar to understanding the meaning of an unfamiliar word by its use in the context of a sentence.

If introducing a piece such as "Lonesome Trail" from the Supplementary Solos Level 1 book,


the accompaniment pattern could be introduced for student imitation as shown below.


The teacher then would point out the places in the music where the changes in position occur and ask the student to play each once. The next steps would be 1) for the student to play the left hand of the piece while reading the music, 2) the student plays the left hand while the teacher plays the right and sings the student part on solfege and 3) the student "reads" through the entire piece, hands together.

Likewise, the shifting triad inversion melodic positions encountered in a piece such as "Bagpiper's March," also from Supplementary Solos 1,


can be practiced in isolation from the rest of the piece before the student sight plays it for the first time.



Rhythm patterns always are taught with musical inflection to aid in the audiation of meter and so students learn that music always is performed musically. Meter can be established through an up/down toes-to-heel (to the heel on the downbeat) or side-to-side motion, and pulse felt with the tapping of the arms against the side of the body. Rhythm patterns are then chanted on "Bah" or rhythm solfege (4) for students to imitate and then be shown in notation. (5)

New individual elements always are taught within context. (6) For example, rhythms are not taught as comprised of a series of individual note durations, such as a quarter note = 1 count and a half note = 2, so a dotted quarter = 1 1/2, but durations taught as functioning members of a pattern. For example, here is a technique for teaching rhythms using dotted quarters: while the teacher and student move rhythmically and tap the beat as described above, chant and student-respond the following rhythm pattern, first on a neutral syllable such as "Bah," then using Gordon's rhythm solfege:


("Du" pronounced with the long U sound, "De" pronounced "Day")

It is then perfectly appropriate to show the rhythm pattern, such as each of the above measures in succession, and discuss how the pattern that was just performed is represented in notation, including what the "dotted quarter" and "eighth note" are called. The pattern then could be clapped or chanted again, this time while looking at the notation.

Patterns in Pieces

Similarly, intervals are not taught as isolated pitches arbitrarily related to one another, but as functional elements of a keyality and modality. Melodic intervals are part of a melodic pattern and are heard, then sung, then performed, then identified, read, written and, finally, if necessary, discussed as theoretical abstractions. Differences in recurring patterns within a piece can be taught through teacher/ student singing and imitation, playing and imitation and then noting the appearances and differences in notation.

For example, from the piece "Riding the Wind," from Fabers' Piano Adventures, Lesson Book Level 2B:

(Faber and Faber, FJH Music Company, Inc., 1994)


Each two-measure pattern is sung by the teacher, first on the neutral syllable "Bum," then using solfege with moveable Do, and both times sung in response by the student. The teacher then plays each pattern on the piano, the student again singing, or at the next stage, playing in response. Next, the teacher shows the student the three patterns in the piece and asks him to identify which one the teacher sings or plays. After the student has successfully identified each of the three patterns, he then can perform each pattern on the piano while reading the pattern in notation. He is then ready to try to play through the right hand alone from beginning to end.

If the student makes a mistake while reading one of the three patterns, the teacher can stop the student and sing the pattern the student played, then sing the correct pattern, which the student then sings and plays back in response. The student can then return to playing the piece from that now corrected measure. This way the student is not only being taught how to see and hear the pattern before he plays it, but is allowed the opportunity to aurally compare the pattern he played with the one he was "reading," which reinforces the contribution and simultaneous interaction of the eyes, ears and mind in reading and playing music.

Another crucial aspect of successful sight playing is that context always should be established first. One means of doing this is to have students identify the key signature and key of the piece, then play the scale, arpeggio and chord progression of the key they will be playing the piece in.

Mental Practice

You also can have students "read" and practice mentally before putting hands to keys to try to play from "memory." This can be done using specially written short "sight-reading snapshots,"

(Richardson 2002)


where they look over ("read") the short fragment with their hands in their laps (and no "finger wiggling") and then try to play the fragment as" they remember it, while looking at their hands. "lb remove the students' urges to look up and double check, you might want to cover the notated fragment when they have begun to play. They should be encouraged to just make up something if they can't remember how it goes, because much of successful sight reading is being able to play through what may or may not be mistakes. Students also must learn to trust their ears and minds to fill in patterns in an appropriate, contextual way. After their "memorized" attempt, students then play the fragment three times while looking at the notation; the teacher can now cover their hands instead of the music. If the teacher does not have a resource for short "snapshot" patterns, they can merely be isolated from simple sight-reading exercises or pieces from sight-reading or method books.

Mental practice in general should be encouraged, and students often will be quite surprised that the mistake they have been making at the piano for weeks many times will occur as they "play" it through in their heads. This reinforces the concept that most physical errors are actual outward manifestations of errors in our thinking or planning, or lack thereof, for that particular segment or element, and that these actual mistakes need to be solved mentally before we can even begin to solve them at the instrument.

Students should work on a variety of "easy," readable pieces and technical exercises, such as Schmitt studies, which should be transposed to all keys and consist of varying interval patterns;


(Schmitt, Alfred Publications, Inc., 1977)

and/or pieces from the Mikrokosmos, six levels of short pieces composed by Bart6k for piano instruction for his son, which includes pieces in parallel and contrary motion, imitation, inversions and many keys, modes and meters.


(Bartok, Hawkes & Son, 1987)

Encourage your students to play through mistakes, especially for the initial playing of the piece at a lesson, and in all performance situations, although the discipline to stop themselves a measure or two later and go back to practice and correct those mistakes is a crucial element of productive, balanced practicing. The student should be made to understand there are different, and sometimes mutually exclusive, goals when practicing, and playing through mistakes or stopping to correct and drill sections are two different means toward two different but interrelated goals of convincing sight playing and cohesive performance. Toward the same end, students also should be able to start midway through a piece, even a measure, in any of their repertoire to encourage quick, flexible recovery skills. Returning to the comparison with verbal language, if you misspeak a word in the course of a conversation, do you need to return to the beginning of the sentence to convey your meaning? It might be ideal for expressive purposes, but it certainly is not necessary, nor usually desirable.

We want to teach students to think in "music" and to play "audiationally"--just as someone can speak sentences which they essentially are improvising, using words and meanings they know but are combining them in original and unique ways, so should all musicians be able to read and play music with the same level of familiarity, understanding and ease. The formation of a musical vocabulary and the physiological means to produce that vocabulary on the instrument will make "sight reading" not only possible, but successful, enjoyable and a valuable contribution to further learning and musical performance of the piece.


(1.) Gordon, Edwin, Learning Sequences in Music. (Chicago: GIA Publications, 1997).

(2.) Gordon, Edwin, A Music Learning Theory for Newborns and Young Children. (Chicago: GIA Publications, 1997).

(3.) Ibid.

(4.) Gordon, Edwin, Rhythm: Contrasting the Implications of Audiation and Notation. (Chicago: GIA Publications, 2000).

(5.) Gordon, Edwin, Reference Handbook for Using Sequence Activities. (Chicago: GIA Publications, 2001).

(6.) Gordon, Learning Sequences in Music.


Bluestine, Eric, The Ways Children Learn Music. (Chicago: GIA Publications, 1995).

Flesch, Rudolf, The Art of Clear Thinking. (New York: Harper & Row, 1951).

Levinowitz, Lili Muhler, "Informal Music Instruction as Readiness for Learning Sequence Activities," Readings in Music Learning Theory, ed. Darrel Waiters, Cynthia Crump Taggart. (Chicago: GIA Publications, i989).

Lowe, Marilyn, Music Moves for Piano. (2001).

Ranke, Mary Veronica, "The Application of Learning Sequence Techniques to Private Piano Instruction," Readings in Music Learning Theory, ed. Darrel Walters, Cynthia Crump Taggart. (Chicago: GIA Publications, 1989).

Rubinstein, Beryl, The Pianist's Approach to Sight Reading and Memorizing. (New York: Carl Fischer).

Tobin, J.R., Common Sense in Sight Reading: A Guide Book for Piano Teachers. (London: Joseph Williams, Ltd., 1957).

Sheryl Iott Richardson is a doctoral candidate in piano performance and visiting instructor in piano pedagogy for academic year 2003-2004 at Michigan State University. She also is on the part-time faculty at Hope College, the president-elect for the Holland chapter of the Michigan MTA, a member of the state certification board and maintains a private studio in her home. She performs frequently as solo and collaborative pianist and is editor of Edwin Gordon's Preparatory Audiation, Audiation and Music Learning Theory, published in 2002 by GIA Publications.
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Author:Richardson, Sheryl Iott
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2004
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