The Importance of Sight-Reading Well

A confident sight-reading ability opens up new worlds of music for the player and allows them to easily play with others.  Sight-reading, at its most elementary level, is a combination of (1) pattern recognition, and (2) concentration.

Pattern recognition

You can’t recognize a pattern if you haven’t seen it before.  To sight-read music confidently and accurately, it is essential to expose yourself to a wide variety of written music.  Practice passages that are unfamiliar, slowly at first to ensure accuracy, then gradually speed them up until they are at their normal speed, looking at the music every time.  The next time you see that pattern in a piece of music, it won’t take you by surprise.


Clear your mind of distractions around you (except for the conductor, if there is one).  If playing with others, listen to what they are playing to ensure the part you are playing fits in (there is no point sight-reading the music accurately if you are in the wrong place). Count rest bars diligently.

time signatures

If the rhythms look complicated, aim for the notes that fall on a beat and fit the other notes around them.  Count according to the length of the notes rather than trying to count according to which beat number you are currently playing, particularly if the time signature changes frequently. Watch the conductor for beat 1.

Read a bar or so ahead of where you are playing and aim for notes on important beats.

Before you play

When you see a piece of music for the first time, scan for the following;

  • The clef – especially for trombonists who may be called upon to read up to 4 different clefs.
  • The key signature – when flats or sharps are written in a key signature, they always appear in the same order.  Memorise the order of the flats and sharps. 
    • Flats:  B flat is always first, then E flat, and so on up to 7 flats.
  • Sharps: F sharp, then C sharp and so on (in the opposite direction to flats)

When you see a key signature with lots of sharps or flats, you will instantly know which notes are to be flattened in the music without having to study the key signature in detail.

  • Key “go to” markers in the music so you know ahead of time where you will need to jump to in the music.
musical symbols
  • The time signature – how many beats in each bar and which type of beat it is.
  • Dynamics and accents so you can play the music expressively.
  • Any tricky passages (‘play’ them in your head) especially any passages marked “Solo”.
Tip:  Practicing scales will allow you to play runs while on “automatic pilot”.

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