Setting Up the Context

I vividly remember a time when I auditioned to be a music theory teaching assistant at a graduate school, and accidentally sight-read an entire long melody in the wrong clef.

Fortunately, not all applications of sight reading are high-stakes, with success based entirely on a first reading. But in any situation, sight reading confidence improves when we take the time to consciously set up the context for the notated melody. This means noting the clef, key, meter, and (if designated) tempo. It can help to speak these items out loud, at least at first, until we are more secure in this habit.

Note that while most of the symbols at the beginning of a score are relatively straightforward in their meaning, a key signature only defines a collection of notes, not a tonic. There’s a lot that goes into a determination of key, but we particularly recommend looking for emphasized notes a fifth or fourth apart that could be scale degree 1/do and 5/sol. These notes are likely to be particularly prominent in bass lines (if given) and at phrase/section/piece endings.

In some cases, and particularly when an individual is singing and/or when focusing on relationships within a key, it may be appropriate to perform a notated melody transposed to any comfortable key. In other cases, and particularly when performing on an instrument and/or when focusing on reading specific pitch names, it may be most appropriate to perform exactly the notated pitches. Make sure that you are clear on which of these is the priority for any given practice session or assessment.

Once we’ve noted this information, we need to set up the key, meter, and tempo as aural realities. Fortunately, we’ve worked on these skills before! Be sure that you can really “hear” the key and “feel” the meter before you start.


Major key:

Minor key:

While these procedures are particularly necessary when sight singing, setting up the key internally can be useful even when sight reading on an instrument. Our playing tends to be most musical and convincing when we have some idea of what sound is going to come out of the instrument even before it actually emerges. In addition, research suggests that we sight read with better accuracy when we can predict what might come next, and making the key an aural reality before we start can help with this.

Activity: Given a short melody, identify critical preparatory elements from the score necessary to begin sight reading.

Goal: Develop the habit of first identifying the clef, key, and meter of a musical excerpt.

Before you start: Find a sight-reading anthology containing melodies for singing. You may use any chapter/excerpt that has different keys, meters, and clefs.


  1. Randomly select an example melody and verbally identify the following notational symbols: clef, time signature, and key signature (i.e. the number of sharps or flats).
  2. Study the melody, especially its resting-point notes and any accidentals, to determine the key (i.e. tonic note and mode).
  3. Conduct the beats per measure, tap beat divisions, and verbally identify the durational value of the beat note and divisions.
  4. Repeat the above steps with multiple melodies until it becomes habituated. Throughout your day, apply these steps when you encounter scores in other areas of your study.


Activity: Setting the right tempo

Goal: Develop the musical- and self-awareness necessary to choose a tempo that enables an accurate and consistent performance.


  1. The focus of this activity is on developing the ear, not providing a finished performance. The work of the ear takes place between the notes, as the ear and mind work together to anticipate the sound and solfège of the following pitch in the sequence. (The duration of the following pitch is important too, but the rhythmic element of performance is processed differently, often in an embodied manner.)
  2. Study the melody and locate the passages with the shortest durations as well as any spots that present difficulties.
  3. Establish the key, and then sing through any fast passages at a tempo that allows you to audiate each following note while singing the previous note. Similarly, sing through any difficult passages, noting the general amount of time it takes for your ear and mind to navigate the tricky spots.
  4. Set a tempo based on the amount of time needed to handle the fast and difficult passages in a melody.
  5. Practice singing the melody at the selected tempo, focusing between every note on hearing the following sound before you sing it in performance. If this activity is going well, you will likely find that your performance seems incredibly slow, but that your ear and mind are working quite fast between each note to hear the following pitch.

Later activities and reading strategies in this chapter will help reinforce this process, enabling you to become a strong sight reader and laying the foundation for reading faster as you develop (without losing poise, control, accuracy, or expression). Ultimately, remember that there is no “default” tempo or “right” tempo that someone should always use. Rather, musicians need to learn how to set an appropriate tempo for the music they are reading to ensure a fluid, accurate, and consistent performance.



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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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