Sight Reading: internal dialogue

Edited: February 20, 2018, 11:09 PM · I was hungrier in my youth to learn meat than the potatos in music. My reading skills always lacked as a result of the neglect and lack of proper training.

I can sight read decently effective up to 30 bpm, 45 to 50 if it's an etude or technical excercise that has a specific direction because that's how fast I can literally read it to myself in my head.

I always had this idea I should be verbally saying the notes to myself. Of course, when I speed up the exercises, because I'm ready or just to spice up the session and push my limits, the dialogue has to stop and a certain "feeling" sets in but this "feeling" doesn't always snag the notes correctly if there is a dynamic shift away from a set pattern.

Should I be fostering an internal voice? Is it something useful in the learning phases or that I should dispense of because it will hinder me down the road?

In fact, forget my question and let me know what happens in your brain when you sight read. Thanks a lot guys.

Replies (25)

February 20, 2018, 11:14 PM · I don't think about the note name when I'm sight reading unless I consciously decide to.

For me it's all relationship between where finger 1 is and where finger 3 needs to get to to play the next note. I can finger a given note substantially faster than I can name it.

I find that your method is usually the first step with my guitar students, and I try and foster that. 'say the note as you play it'. This lets them learn the note names on the staff and make corrections when they get it wrong. Eventually they organically move away from it and just play the notes on the page.

I guess a good analogy would be sounding out the words as you read. Once you know the words pretty well you don't have to sound them out anymore.

Edited: February 21, 2018, 2:56 AM · There are two types of people, one who thinks in words, the other who thinks in images. If i say "a ball" - some people will hear an internal voice saying the word in their heads, but some will get a picture of rubber ball with a number of certain characteristics. For the second type of people new languages are not a problem, they can switch easily in diaologs between languages if needed etc. For the first type of people translation in their heads would be constant, until they switche to a new language in their head to think in that language, and as i see in my students in the weekend school, the first language goes down.

The notes- is a new language. You see a sign, you translate it first to your language (do, re,mi etc), that translation is associated in your head with a sound, which then is translated into fingerening. You need to get to the point, when there is no translation anymore: you see a sign you get a sound in you head and you know what finger to use on what string. To do so you need to sing the notes you are reading and tap the finger you would use at the same time. And practice- practice- practice.

For the second type of people, it is not a problem - each note has visual characteristics, such as mapping, colour, fingerering, combined already. So they do not spent time on translation. In the begining they stugle a bit more to get all the images on place, but then only fingering is a limited step.

February 21, 2018, 1:06 AM · When you get used to sight-reading, it's a combination of an internal voice and pattern recognition. What I mean by pattern recognition is: you see patterns that you've played before in scales, arpeggios, etudes, or other pieces, and skip straight to fingering them without even thinking about what they sound like. If it's a scale or arpeggio, an experienced musician thinks of it as an entire block -- instead of thinking of individual notes in a run, the internal dialogue might say something like "1 octave major scale in one beat."

Naming notes is the last thing on my mind when I'm sight-reading. I can sight-read on viola much faster than I can sight-sing, and I can sight-sing somewhat faster than I can name the notes. But when starting to learn to sight-read, you start by naming the notes, and then work on developing both the internal voice and the pattern recognition.

February 21, 2018, 5:49 AM · Internal voice is an overhead. You will have additional process interfering with what Andrew described. Reading music is somewhat similar to reading a book - one does not name a letter or letters, coma, dot, etc... one reads words and sentences, sometimes skipping and looking for new information ahead.
All of this, unless one reads a philosophy book and has to go back to the top of the page not understanding a single word!
Edited: February 21, 2018, 8:23 AM · "Should I be fostering an internal voice?" Normally you should hear the note in advance to play in tune, just as you would if you were sight reading as a singer. As Mr Milankov said above, you cannot be talking to yourself while reading or playing. It would be a distraction. Just keep practicing sight reading as well as everything else.

Practicing reading the notes on the stave can be done on a keyboard, which gives you one less thing to think about compared with playing violin at the same time. A little keyboard or piano skill never goes amiss anyway.

Edited: February 21, 2018, 9:36 AM · Gabriel there are two distinct aspects to sight reading. The first is just about reading music and has nothing to do with violin. I think it is beneficial to develop the ability to look at written music and internally be able to hear or sing it. In solfeggio classes for children this is actually trained from a young age by making kids sing written music. Then the second aspect is actually playing it on your violin. Funnily enough, for some violinists the second aspects is almost disjoint from the first. They see note shapes and automatically attach them to finger positions and strings. Typically this works only in a few familiar positions like first position and third position. With me it is quite different, probably because of my solfeggio training. What I see are really notes, like do, re, mi, etc, in various octaves, and I try to play these on my violin.
February 21, 2018, 10:00 AM · Thank you for weighing in everyone. This is one I'd meant to ask for years. Now I can adjust appropriately.
February 21, 2018, 10:32 AM · I wonder if not having learned to read music as a child is perhaps an even larger barrier for an adult beginner than violin technique itself. Research has shown that talking and reading need to happen by certain ages to be natural, and after those times they never will be. With the physical aspects of playing, on at least has body experience to build on from childhood. Reading music, though, could be a complete absence in the mind.
Edited: February 21, 2018, 10:37 AM · I am a strictly staff-to-fingerboard man! If the instrument is under my chin I sight read from staff to finger position on violin in one step - typically up to 16th notes at 120 bpm in the odd- number positions (even-number positions I have to think a bit).

If the instrument is between my legs (i.e., cello) my translation method and speed is about the same (as for violin) for all 3 clefs but without such strict position limitations. I was really quite proficient playing cello without actually ever thinking about note names (to the level of Haydn D major concerto) until I started to tinker with playing the piano. I do think note names when playing cello music in treble clef range.

My actual sight reading speed limit will depend on the genre of the music. Many more recent compositions (and some older ones too) may have less familiar interval patterns in fast passages that do not "read" as easily.

I am newer to sight-reading on viola and while I don't usually think note names in alto clef I do sometimes slip into violin-brain mode when sight reading and play the wrong note.

I use long notes and rests to look ahead. When i was younger I think I had no trouble reading about a measure ahead - but not any longer.

I have no idea why I skip the eye-to-note-name step since I certainly learned all the note names in treble clef as i was learning to play the violin. But there is certainly no time for that step when sight reading for "real."

I pretty much built this level sight reading ability from my early teens when I used to try to sight read violin and cello concertos. Before that I guess I was doing reading the music the first time I saw it (for my violin lessons), but the music was never tough to translate to fingers - even if I didn't play it all that well. I did not face any really tough orchestra/ensemble sight reading until my late 20s.

Edited: February 21, 2018, 11:26 AM · Jason, interesting speculation. My idea on it would be it's like learning a new language as an adult versus as a child. Just takes a little more adament application and one may or may not reach full fluency. If I didn't have the technical aspects and some knowledge of where the notes exist, I wouldn't be able to sight read at all with my violin or I would be doing it very, very poorly. Spending a significant amount of time studying the scales and scale patterns has been a tremendous help.

I discredit myself a bit, I started sight reading about two weeks ago slower than I could set the metronome and have progressed to a more common range of 40bpm working out of Sevcik's violin technique book 1, depending on the difficulty but that's about where I've steadied out.

Andrew, thank you for all that personal insight. That's valuable as a gauge. That's why I like hearing peoples personal experiences instead of asking them isolate something they may not have thought the mechanics through and would have to create new language patterns to try and describe, which always just complicates the whole thing. Unless they're a teacher, of course.

When learning to speed read, you start out at your maximum reading level, then push it up ridiculously, slow it down to slightly above your best, reduce it slower and so on. Example: wpm 550-750-600-550-400-600, etc.
I think I will attempt the same principal.

February 21, 2018, 11:41 AM · In my previous life as a professional on another instrument, I would get a lot of gigs simply because I earned a reputation as being good at sight reading. And now that I'm a beginner on violin, I've found that the same skills seem to carry over. When I'm assigned something new in my lesson, if it's within my technical capabilities I can play it first time - not polished at all, not the ideal fingerings or bowings, but the right notes and rhythms and dynamics, etc. My teacher can tell what I need to work on simply by the things I stumble on when I'm sight reading.

It's pretty much as Rocky said - it's like reading a book. It's more a matter of absorbing what's on the page than thinking about the technical details of reading. It's just something that comes along naturally. Obviously, if you're so new to reading music that you don't immediately recognize where C is on the staff, you'll need more experience before you can sight read effectively. But otherwise, it's just a matter of doing it without being so tied up in thinking about what you're doing. Just play what you see.

February 21, 2018, 12:09 PM · Madeye, I've had a simple Sight Reading app on my android for a few years now that I use off and on and I have gotten pretty proficient at. Not perfect but well enough to recognize the notes in their position, above and below. I only studied treble clef, though.

When I went to sight read with the violin, my brain went, "Well, this is a different thing," and it *almost felt like starting from scratch. It was a different process in application than just recognition. I hadn't even thought of the lay over to other instruments.

February 21, 2018, 12:17 PM · That sounds really cool. The spontaniety required to perform sight reading must have made a lot of worthwhile memories, some embarassing mixed in with some really epic. You ever have an experience that was epic but you couldn't repeat twice but the memory is one to relish?
February 21, 2018, 12:23 PM · I think of learning to play our instruments as as much an athletic endeavor as a mental one. I think you have to get all beginners to accept that they are in training and will not reason their way into success. As with any athletic activity, their ability will grow with the proper exercises that will also help build their mental connections.

What I think I learned about learning as children and adults from my own experiences of learning music and all the other stuff through high school college, grad school (n other fields) and a lifetime of learning as an adult (about everything) and teaching violin & cello to children and adults.

1. Children who succeed tend to do what you tell them to do and learn by doing in the same way I did. I found it easy to relate to what they are going through and feeling and adjust(ed) my approach accordingly.

2. Adults come to beginning playing and music reading with their "lifetime" of learning experiences. They know how they have learned in the past and expect to learn to play a musical instrument in the same way- predominantly by rational thought-not the way one typically learns to play a bowed string instrument well enough for anyone else to listen to it.
I even had adults come with a single goal (i.e., One wanted to learn to play "Amazing Grace." Another wanted to play "Ashokan Farewell.") It was clear to me in both these cases that a credible beginning could not start until I could get them past these goals. It turns out they are both easy pieces for beginners who already know the melodies and in both cases were under the beginners' "belts" in a few weeks. Both of these adults progressed quite well after their initial success.

I used the Suzuki books as the core of my teaching for about 30 years after a 10 years start with the methods and books I had been taught from. Really not much different the way I used them - at least not that I could see.

February 21, 2018, 12:40 PM · I learned more reading on piano than on violin. Playing through arrangements of Beethoven symphonies, badly.

Sight-reading can be a bit of a two-edged sword if you make a habit of relying on it. The alledeged tradition of the great Russian musicians of 100 years ago, that you don't touch the instrument until the piece is learned on paper, is beyond most of us these days, though some good musicians have working methods along those lines still. It is a skill I would value more than sight-reading.

February 21, 2018, 1:46 PM · I want to thank you for asking this question. In a lot of ways I find reading music (especially sight reading) difficult to teach because it is impossible to really know what is going on in a student's mind and I have to judge what might be happening based on what students tell me and what comes out of their instrument. It is very easy to think that everyone reads the same way you do. While most students eventually learn to read well, it is interesting to hear about how someone else may be processing what they read.
I personally find that when sight reading, I easily go straight from page to finger (even in multiple positions on both violin and viola) and it never really occurred to me that someone might be thinking note names while they read. I may have done that at some point, but I've been playing/reading so long I no longer remember too much about the process (although I do remember that I memorized the beginning Suzuki pieces by note names, so that must have been a part of my reading/playing process at some point).
An accompanying question to this is how do players sight-read rhythm? (an internal counting/subdividing dialogue or something else?)
February 21, 2018, 1:57 PM · I love sight-reading, although I cannot play as fast as Andrew can! 120bpm - wow!!!

I don't think of the note names or anything like that, I find myself (more often than not, even as an intermediate/advanced level student) going into a sort of flow where I can read one, two, and sometimes three, measures ahead - of course the flow is interrupted when my brain starts interfering with its own commentary. I think sight-reading is more of its own kind of meditation than playing scales, at least for me.

It's been so long since I learned how to read music, I don't remember what I used to do re: note names and the other internal dialogue that's mentioned. I think it all came with practice, time, and more practice.

Edited: February 21, 2018, 7:55 PM · When you read the word "instrument" do you think "i" "n" "s" "t" "r" "u" "m" "e" "n" "t"? I don"t think so and music is no different except you don't have a fixed vocabulary. When you read, your brain relies heavily on pattern recognition. Hence "intrmnt" is still recognizable (within a context), and if asked to type write the word down would still type "instrument" without even thinking about it. The same thing happens in sight reading music to a large extent, you just have to learn the words... a fraction of a second before you have to finger them. The more familiar the words (patterns) are, the faster you can sight read.
Edited: February 22, 2018, 7:14 AM · First, I'd like to acknowledge how much I really appreciate this community, all the valuable feedback I have been receiving and the wonderful attitude of you good folks giving me advice.

Andrew, thank you. I have been trying to approach learning the violin the way a child might. Here and there, I try to come up with little methods to possibly make the learning sink in a bit better and I know I would be making leaps under the instruction of a tutor who knows how these things go. I do plan to get instruction eventually. I am hopping between states right now for construction and family purposes so I haven't tried to land a steady instructor but I just had a pain in my left side jaw yesterday while chewing and I know this means there is an underlying issue that needs to be addressed before I create more problems for myself. I am planning to get the Suzuki book after reading so much about it on this site. The kindle version is very cheap, I wonder your advice on the value of getting the cd to go along?

John, I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I hadn't consciously differentiated in my mind sight reading and "learning" a piece. I will say, the idea behind practicing my sight reading is to improve my knowledge of the relationship between what is on the paper and playing, increase and become more comfortable in my reading skills and for technique purposes. I like the idea of the Russian method but I don't feel I could learn that way just yet. I don't hear notes or see positions when I read, I just read the 2D print so I'm trying to improve the correlation in my mind.

Ingrid, a little history on me: I am blessed in that I won the cosmic lottery on natural ability with musical instruments, although it's also a curse because one can pick things up with much less discipline than is required to build the skills of a virtuoso in the face of which talent counts for nothing. I knew I wanted to play violin from a young age but my parents couldn't afford it so I got a haphazard guitar education from a neighbor. My parents stuck me in band, which I hated but that's neither here nor there. I didn't like any of the instruments so I went with percussion. I was a bit bratty in that I wasn't playing the instrument I wanted so I learned only the minimum necessary but it gave me a more natural idea of reading rythym than the relationship I currently have with reading, "C D E F... ". I can't see the notes ahead and have a problem with my eyes getting behind but with rythym, I register it before hand and maybe get an occasional "uh", "ump" or "e-and-uh" if it starts getting real technically challenging but it's much more organic and background noise.

Roger, despite you having primed my brain to read instrument in your abbreviation, I read "intermittent" and had to stare at it and go back over what you wrote to get what it was meant to say, lol.

Thank you all for your time, advice and opinions on the matter. It is all heard and appreciated.

February 22, 2018, 6:48 AM · A practical tip for better sight reading: Just as in any reading, context is everything.

It becomes so automatic that most of us don't realize we're doing it, but for those who struggle with sight reading the first things to look at are the key, the time signature, and the tempo. If you see one flat, you're either in F major or d minor. Simply knowing that much will help you with fingerings and such. Knowing if you're in 3/4 or 2/2 or 6/8 helps you read the rhythms. And while you might not want to play the piece up to speed at first, an Adagio or Allegro gives you an idea of what sort of feeling the piece will have.

All that information is very easy to process up front, and makes playing the notes easier. Ignoring this context is like reading and ignoring punctuation and paragraphs. With experience most of us don't even realize that we're doing this. But I imagine from the way you describe your sight reading, you're simply looking at the notes.

February 22, 2018, 7:21 AM · Just some observations - hope somebody can add to this.
I notice in beginning students that reading falls into 3 categories: by finger, by note or by interval.
By finger - the student associates the written note with a finger.
By note - there is conscious naming of the note and is associated with the place on the fingerboard.
By interval - there is recognition of the interval gap and its corresponding shape on the fingerboard.
Any others?


By finger doesn't seem a bad place to start but has limitations later on when position changing is introduced. By note is fine at first but fluency should not be encumbered by note labelling. By interval is the more advanced method and can work in any position or even transposition. Ideally the intervals are heard as well as felt in the finger patterns. I guess pattern recognition falls into intervals - at least as far as notes is concerned. Rhythm is another matter and shouldn't be neglected.

February 22, 2018, 7:26 AM · Pamela, I agree sight reading is very meditative and that's another reason I have picked it up. As a form of practice, I enjoy it very much. It tends to take my mind away from things I may be obsessing about and allows me to find a flow.

Madeye, I am still familiarizing myself with all the key signatures, using a reference chart here and there to figure out what signature a piece is in but I do have a basic knowledge of time signatures and the such. My understanding of all the terminologies is also a work in progress. I enrolled into a music theory class on Coursera.com as a brush up on the old and exploration into things I simply missed or ignored growing up.

February 22, 2018, 7:31 AM · Gabriel - I think the Suzuki CDs can be very helpful for beginning learners.
Edited: February 22, 2018, 8:22 AM · Christopher, really interesting break down and you make a good point about intervals. In the same line of thought, a haphazard education on guitar sometimes meant I was laying or even straining my fingers in awkward positions for peices that involved finger picking only to realize later they were actually notes, like Dm that were being individually strummed.

I am trying to avoid the dangers of a half education on violin so my progress is slower than it could be concerning building any kind of repertoire and it's for reasons like that, which drive home the need for instruction. I already built and can effectively play a 3 octave GM scale and areppegio, only to realize later I was apparently not shifting at the traditional points of the GM 3 octave scale.

Thank you for making that point. Another good reason for the suzuki book because I know they even go into what finger you should be using for certain notes.

February 22, 2018, 11:32 AM · In the beginning you can tell yourself what the notes are. But ideally, sight-reading is a result of having a library of patterns in your subconscious. The more patterns you've internalized, the more automatically you can play. Most of what we need to play, at least till you get to the late 19th century, is based on very common patterns. At a certain point, one shouldn't be using an inner voice to do everything, no matter the activity. You'd tie yourself up in knots.

Once you do get to more chromatic and atonal music, you must have intuitive and automatic (not theoretical "give me 5 minutes to think about it..") knowledge of intervals.

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