Sight readers are often incredibly worried about accuracy. That’s normal! We want what we do to sound and feel good. But this can go too far: when we’re so focused on getting each note absolutely perfect, we might miss that they can be perceived in small (and, sometimes, large) groups. Seeing those groups actually facilitates greater accuracy, since a three-note group requires less processing power per note than three individual notes. It also facilitates greater musicality, since this “chunking” helps us see the larger picture: not just each note in and of itself, but where it has come from, where it is going, and perhaps why. So ironically, focusing on the perfection of each note often actually distracts from each note’s true “perfection.”
We covered chunking in detail in the chapter on Memory. You may wish to revisit that chapter. Now, we just need to put it into practice!
Our chunking abilities probably improve over time merely by learning, reading, and performing a lot of music. But to make our learning more efficient and quicker, we’ll pair that intuitive, unconscious learning with a conscious effort.
One way to focus on chunking is to choose a common chunk type, then scan some actual music, identifying that chunk type wherever you can find it as quickly as you can. Particularly common types of chunks include arpeggios, neighbor tones, and rhythmic motives (repeating rhythmic patterns).
Another way is to look at a new piece of music and, given a short amount of time, simply describe it in as few words as possible. This forces us to think about how we might group the notes together.
A certain number of chunks are common across many styles, and we’ve tried to focus on those. However, any given repertoire (based on composer, genre, historical style, ensemble type, etc.) will likely have its own characteristic chunks. As you learn more and more music in any given style, you will internalize more and more of its characteristic chunks, improving your ability to work with it efficiently. Don’t forget to note those chunks consciously as you learn, to strengthen whatever intuitive learning might be happening.
Goal: Develop the habit of seeing notated music in 3-to-5-note units (chunking).
Before you start: This can be a group activity or an individual activity. If working in a group, do step 2 individually and then discuss together to compare the ways different members of the group found to chunk the melody.
- The list below includes links to several melodies. Choose one, open the link, and then click the notated first note to show the full notation.
- Scan over the melody, looking for ways to group the notes together. Be sure to put these into words: for example, “tonic triad arpeggio followed by a repeated rhythmic motive on scale degree 7.” As you get comfortable with this skill, you may wish to give yourself a 20- or 30-second timer and see how many ways of grouping/chunking you can find in this amount of time.
- Optionally, try to sing the melody, and then use the embedded recording to check your performance. (Use the “starting pitch” sound file to make sure you’re in the same key as the recording.
- Repeat steps 1–3 as necessary.
Excerpts for activity:
Goal: Learn different approaches to chunking, including based on rhythm and meter, repetition/motives, melodic contour, and harmony.
Before you start: Choose a manageable piece or excerpt of music (likely 4–12 measures). You may wish to select an excerpt from a sight-singing anthology or to use some music for your primary instrument.
- Take about 30–45 seconds to look through the music, describing the relationship between rhythm and meter. For example, you might say, “Short pickup leading into long note on the downbeat; then short notes on beat 4 leading into another long note on the downbeat; then rhythm in beats 1–2 repeated in beats 3–4.”
- Take about 30–45 seconds to look through the music, describing any repeated musical ideas (“motives”). These often feature exact rhythmic and/or melodic repetition, but there may also be some more “hidden” repetition, such as similar rhythms on different beats of the measure or pitch patterns repeated at different levels of transposition.
- Take about 30–45 seconds to look through the music, describing any common melodic gestures you notice. It may be particularly useful to note scalar passages (e.g., “scale from 1 up to 5”), suspensions, and neighbor or double-neighbor tones.
- Look through the music one more time for 30–45 seconds, considering how the melody relates to underlying chords. This is most obvious when the melody is an arpeggio, but you might also notice that (for example) an authentic cadence is implied at the end of an excerpt despite some non-chord tones.
- Think back through what you’ve noticed about the music. Which ways of describing it seem most useful in understanding it in small groups?
- Optionally, sight-read your way through the music vocally or instrumentally.
Goal: Develop the habit of seeing chunks when reading music on your primary instrument
Before you start: Choose a piece of music written for your primary instrument that you are not yet familiar with. It could be completely new to you, such as an excerpt from a sight-singing anthology or it could be something (or a section of something) you are just starting to learn. Choose a manageable excerpt (likely 4–16 measures). You may wish to use your primary instrument or to sing.
- Scan through the excerpt, looking for chunks. Remember to look at rhythm and meter, melodic contour, repetition of any kind, and relationship to chords/harmony. It may help to describe these out loud to make sure you have a clear idea of what groups them together.
- Sight-read through the excerpt.
- Evaluate how your sight reading went. If there were sections that gave you difficulty, be sure to look at those sections again, rethinking how you might chunk them. You might also consider how you’d play each chunk, imagining or practicing the physical motions associated with them.
- Repeat steps 3–4 as appropriate.
- If you wish to repeat steps 1–5, you might choose a new piece or simply move to another section of the same piece. As you learn the piece, you may find that noticing the ways it tends to be “chunkable” comes more and more easily as you get to know it.