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"Sight-Reading Tips (Part 1)"
by Richard Middleton

First published in Victory Review, June 2002.

I want to share a few tips and techniques for making sight reading a little easier. This month, we'll look at reading pitches, and next month we'll look at rhythms.

The usual method for learning to read pitch is to memorize the "names" of the lines and spaces on the staff, usually using a mnemonic device.

For example, the lines in treble clef are usually remembered using the phrase, "Every Good Boy Does Fine" (giving us E-G-B-D-F for the lines, from bottom to top), and the spaces with the letters of the word "F-A-C-E" (bottom to top). The lines in bass clef are often labeled, "Good Boys Do Fine Always," and the spaces, "All Cows Eat Grass." After you've used this method for a while, the pitches become familiar in themselves, and the mnemonics aren't needed any more.

For example, in Figure 1, the pitches are C, E, G, E, F, C, B, G, E, F, G, C, F, A, G, B.

Figure 1

The ability to name any pitch is, of course, a vital skill, and you should master it. However, it does have one major shortcoming, which is that notes are seen as entities unto themselves, and the relationships between them are ignored. These relationships are important, and we can begin to appreciate them by using other sight reading approaches.

Playing the Intervals

The first of these approaches is to play the intervals between the notes. An excellent way to practice this is to ignore (for now) the names of the notes and focus solely on the intervals between them, going from note to note in "connect the dots" fashion.

In Figure 1, the interval sequence is: 3rd, 3rd, 4th, 3rd, 5th, 2nd, 3rd, 3rd, 2nd, 2nd, 5th, 4th, 3rd, 2nd, 6th (and, when you take the repeat, a 2nd from the B back to C at the beginning).

Keep the following Useful Facts in mind:

  • The staff is a representation of a scale, not of every pitch on your instrument. In other words, the staff is always in some major or minor key. For example, if there are no sharps or flats, you're reading in C Major or A minor, which means that every line and space represents a white key on the piano, and no black keys are shown (unless an accidental is used). However, other key signatures use sharps or flats, meaning that some black keys are used and some white keys are not. So remember: know the key you're in, and play the pitches and intervals in that key.
  • The interval between a line and the very next space (or a space and the very next line) is always a 2nd.
  • The distance between two adjacent lines is a 3rd; two adjacent spaces are also a 3rd apart. In other words, the lines on the staff are 3rds apart, and the spaces are 3rds apart. This means that our mnemonics (EGBDF and FACE in treble clef, GBDFA and ACEG in bass) are strings of 3rds.

From Useful Facts 2 and 3, we can derive the following principle: if an interval is made of a line and space (or a space and a line), it's even: 2nd, 4th, 6th, octave, etc.; if an interval is made of two lines or two spaces, it's odd: 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, etc. A shorthand way to remember this is if they're different (line/space or space/line), it's even; if they're the same (line/line or space/space), it's odd.

Look again at Figure 1 and try to identify the intervals. First, determine whether each is odd or even, then identify the specific distance. Play the sequence of intervals on your instrument. Again, don't focus on the names of the pitches, but on the intervals between them.

Since we know that adjacent lines and adjacent spaces are 3rds apart (Fact 3, above), we can use 3rds as a "unit of measurement." For example, if an interval is similar in size to a 3rd but is even (line/space or space/line), it's probably a 4th. If the interval is line/line with a skipped line between (or space/space with a skipped space between), it's the next odd interval bigger than a 3rd: a 5th.

Longer Interval Sequences

Notice that the first three notes in Figure 1 are 3rds apart from each other. You can also think of these three notes as forming a C Major triad, played one note at a time (C-E-G, or root, third, fifth). Do you see any other triads? There are two: the first is an E minor triad played backwards, starting on the second-to-last note of the first measure (B-G-E, or fifth, third, root); the second is an F Major triad starting on middle C in the second measure (C-F-A, or fifth, root, third).

When you're reading chords (three or more notes played at the same time), you can "decode" them by breaking them down into the intervals that they're made out of. Even the most complex chord is comprised of smaller, simpler intervals.

Scale Tones

Another sight reading approach is to identify the notes in terms of where they fall in the scale you're in. Although this can be challenging at first, it offers several benefits: it allows you to transpose more easily; it enables you to sight sing; and it highlights the functional roles the notes are playing, both melodically and harmonically.

Remember, as we learned in the first Useful Fact, above, the staff is simply a "picture" of a specific scale. With that in mind, we can identify where each note falls in the scale. You can use "do-re-mi" or numbers to label the scale tones (i.e. "do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do," or "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 1"). In C Major, C is "do" or "1," D is "re" or "2," E is "mi" or "3," etc. If we're in G Major, G is "do" or "1," A is "re" or "2," and so on up through the scale.

Figure 1 is in the key of C Major. See if you can identify where each note falls in the scale, using "do-re-mi" or "1-2-3" labels. Try it on your own, then compare with the answers below.

In "do-re-mi," the melody is: do, mi, so, re, fa, do, ti, so, mi, fa, so, do, fa, la, so, ti.

In numbers, it's: 1, 3, 5, 2, 4, 1, 7, 5, 3, 4, 5, 1, 4, 6, 5, 7.

This technique is especially helpful for singers, who must rely completely on their ear training skills to figure out where they are. However, instrumentalists will find it very useful, too.

These alternative techniques aren't meant to replace note-naming, but to support it by using other cognitive modes, such as pattern recognition and ear training. In Part 2, we'll look at some alternative approaches to reading rhythms. Enjoy!

Copyright 2002 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.

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Richard Middleton is a songwriter, musician, teacher, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Reading Rhythm" (Countersine 2018).