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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
is a songwriter, musician, teacher, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of