Sight Reading Music Vs. Reading Music

I’m writing this article because of a debate that recently occurred in a piano forum I participate in. The argument was on the proper use of the words when describing reading music, specifically the term “sight reading”. If you are sight reading a piece of music, is it the very first time you are playing it or have you played it before, and therefore are only reading music and no longer sight reading it? Some in the forum felt that the use of the term “sight reading” didn’t accurately describe the process I was talking about at the time. I hadn’t realized there were such strong thoughts around the way we describe playing sheet music, but I learned quickly that there are more than a few people with varying opinions on the use of words. I’ll share both sides of the argument and offer up my own thoughts on the subject.

Many in the music community view the term “sight reading” to mean “reading music on first sight”. This may be your definition as well, and is often the end goal for anyone trying to read music. Many sites and forums are dedicated to the ability to play music at first sight, a skill that is very difficult to master, and can be frustrating, especially for the beginner piano student. Most piano players need to play through a piece of music numerous times before being able to play it straight through. So this definition would lead many to believe that sight reading is an impossible task for the beginner. I personally don’t like this limited view and therefore I tend to agree with the more general definition.

The other side of the argument is more where I stand. The term “sight reading” to me simply means “playing music by what you see” as opposed to playing by ear or by rote (mimicking another player, like on YouTube). I don’t make a determination as to whether it is the first reading or the hundredth. In fact, I would define one’s sight reading ability not only by the difficulty of the pieces they can play, but also by how many times it takes them to play it before the mistakes are minimal. Even for a seasoned pro, every additional time reading through a piece of music usually results in more accuracy. If you could be able to play a piece of music by spending 5-10 minutes with it, playing it through a few times and then able to play it flawlessly, wouldn’t that be an accomplishment of your ability to read music by sight? There are advanced techniques to improve the skills to minimize mistakes on first read, but I don’t want to diminish someone’s skill level just because it takes them a few more times playing through to really get it.

One more point on my side of the argument. As someone who has been called on to read music at first glance often (for example, playing for musical theater auditions) I can honestly say that I rarely, if ever, play the music without reading through it first. I read through the piece I’m about to play, looking for difficult sections, analyzing the various notes and patterns. So I could argue that my first time playing the music is actually my SECOND time reading through it. So would that mean that by definition I’m simply reading the music now and not actually sight reading it? I wouldn’t make that distinction. It would be like reading through a speech before giving it. Even if you are reading off your cards and giving that speech for the first time, it’s not technically the first read-through.

That is how I define sight reading, in the broader definition. I understand how some put a stricter meaning to the word, but in the end, aren’t we all trying to learn and do the same thing? We want to be able to look at a piece of music and play it with as little mistakes as possible, whether it’s the first time through, or the millionth.