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"Sight-Reading Tips (Part 2)"
by Richard Middleton

First published in Victory Review, July 2002.

Last month (Part 1), we tried some new approaches to reading pitches in music notation; this time, we'll focus on rhythm. The techniques described work best if you have at least a little experience with reading music; at the very least, you should know the basics of rhythmic notation. These techniques are not meant to replace traditional approaches, but rather to help you read rhythms more quickly and accurately.

The first technique is simply to read ahead of where you are in the music. Beginners tend to read one note at a time, their eyes scanning the music at the same pace as they play it in real time. Learn to separate reading and playing; that is, once you know what you're supposed to be doing now, scan ahead to see what comes next. This suggestion may seem obvious, but many musicians resist doing this, perhaps because they feel they need to "see what they're doing."

As you learn to scan ahead, you'll find that you're seeing the music in larger and larger "units." Work your way from smaller units to larger ones; start with a beat a time, then a half a measure, then an entire measure at once. When I say, "an entire measure at once," I don't mean that you'll always know exactly what you're going to play before you play it (though this will happen), but you will be far more prepared for what's coming.

Once you can see larger spans of musical time, you may find it useful to try a technique I call "reading backwards." To illustrate this approach, let's look at Figure 1.

Figure 1

Where does the eighth note fall rhythmically? If you were reading note by note, you wouldn't even see the eighth note until you got there, and the dotted quarter rest might have already confused you. Even if you could scan ahead, you might be unsure where the eighth note falls.

However, if you think "backwards" for a moment, you know immediately where it is — it's on the "and-of-4." There's nothing else it could be, because it's the last eighth note before the bar line. Similarly, if that note were a quarter note instead, it would be on beat 4, because there's no "room" for it to be anything else; if it were a half note, it would be on beat 3.

In Figure 1, we're reading back from a bar line. You can also read back from another note, a specific beat, or any other landmark that you're sure of. For example, look at Figure 2.

Figure 2

Now the "questionable" eighth note falls in a different place. Reading "backwards" again, we know that the half note falls on beat 3, and therefore the eighth note must fall on the and-of-2.

One very important skill is to be able to feel the pulse in your body as you play, even if (especially if) the notes you're playing fall in between the pulses, as with off-beats and syncopation. In these situations, it can be extremely helpful to make a point of somehow "marking" the beats you're not playing, so that you can still feel them and thereby avoid rushing or dragging the tempo. For example, look at Figure 3:

Figure 3

To play this rhythm accurately, it's important that you feel beats 3 and 4; if you don't, chances are that you'll rush the tempo. Read Figure 3 over and over in a loop, and keep time by tapping your foot, nodding your head, or swaying your body. On beats 3 and 4, make a point of exaggerating what you're doing (i.e. stamp louder, nod or sway farther, or grunt out loud), so that you can feel those beats "hiding" in the spaces between the notes. If you do this correctly, you will notice that your playing becomes much steadier and more confident.

This "feeling the silent pulse" approach brings up an important point about syncopation, which is that it often creates the effect that we've arrived somewhere earlier than we expected. For example, in Figure 3, the effect of the offbeat notes is that the music is anticipating beats 3 and 4 by hitting just ahead of them. It's as if the music were making a little "joke" on those beats by getting to them early.

However, this is only an illusion. Even though the music hits before the beats, the beats themselves occur right on time. In order to play Figure 3 correctly, you must be absolutely sure where the pulses are, because the "joke" only works if they don't move, no matter how syncopated the music is. If you shift the pulses over, suddenly the structural framework of the music fails, and the "joke" falls flat.

The single most helpful "technique" for improving your skill at reading rhythm is simply to practice doing it. When you do, forget pitch for the moment and focus on reading and recognizing rhythmic patterns as little "modules" in themselves. If you learn to recognize these modules, reading becomes infinitely easier, because they are simply reused over and over again in different songs.

It's much like reading English. When you started out, you had to sound out each new word you encountered, but now the words are all so familiar you hardly notice them. Music is the same. At first, you must sound out the rhythms, but soon the patterns become so familiar that they function much like musical words, and you simply read them grouped together into phrases.

Give these techniques a try, work on your reading every day, and watch your skills improve. 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).