Sight Reading on an Instrument

Everything that you have already learned in the above sections, including eye movement habits, audiation/internal auditory imagery, and chunking, is relevant to sight reading on a non-voice instrument. There are some additional challenges and helpful hints, however, that apply to instrumental sight reading. Some of these are instrument-specific: for example, pianists often focus on reading harmonies and patterns rather than taking in each note, while brass players need to consider the combination of embouchure, fingering, and adjustment for better tuning. These are skills best practiced in private lessons.

We’ll work on a more universally-helpful process here: specifically, making sure your ear (or, more accurately, your internal auditory imagery) is involved in the playing of your instrument.

Many instrumentalists have done a good job of building connections between notation and fingerings/embouchures on their instruments. This is helpful, but sometimes bypasses our internal images of sound. By intentionally giving yourself specific goals while reading, it is possible to rewire the brain and put the ear in control of physical gestures. This is not to say that all musical ideas originate in the ear, but for purposes of getting started, we’ll focus on giving the ear primary control over physical gestures.

In the activities below, let your ear guide your playing as much as possible. In some exercises, you will intentionally use your ear to focus on specific notes (e.g. the sounds on consecutive downbeats); in others, you will continue to strive toward audiating all sounds in advance but at a slower tempo.

Activity: Bringing the ear into instrumental sight reading

Goal: Promote the ear’s control over all physical gestures while reading music

Before you start: You’ll need a non-voice instrument that you’re comfortable with and a piece of music for that instrument that is technically well within your grasp.


  1. Determine the key and meter, and set these up as appropriate. You are encouraged to set/conduct a slow tempo, so you have time to concentrate on your process.
  2. Begin reading the music, but allow your audiation to regulate your bodily movements. Relax your body as completely as possible (torso, arms, hands, face, back, legs), and commit to not moving any part of your body until your ear has internally “heard” the following note(s) in the passage.

As you read, be (hyper-)self-reflective regarding whether your body is moving to the next note before you have audiated this note. If your playing mechanism is operating at any point independently from the prompting of sounds in your inner ear, slow down, relax, and return to step 2 to try again.

Activity: Incorporating the ear at faster tempos

Goal: Apply internal hearing skills to music performed at a faster tempo (i.e. music that is too fast to audiate/process every single note or “chunk”).

Before you start: You’ll need a non-voice instrument that you’re comfortable with, and a piece of music for that instrument that is technically well within your grasp. This time, it’s ok if it’s a little faster or more complicated than in the previous exercise, or if it features some faster passagework; we just don’t want your technique to be distracting you from the task at hand.

Note: this activity is based on the piano pedagogy of Abby Whiteside.


  1. Determine the key and meter and set them up as appropriate. Try to keep the tempo close to performance tempo.
  2. Practice reading the music by playing only the notes found on the downbeats. Even though you are leaving out a majority of the notes, play the downbeats as musically as possible. Use your torso and other physical gestures to “connect” the downbeats, and try to hear them internally before they sound.
  3. Play through the passage again, and continue audiating and focusing on the downbeat arrivals. This time, begin observing the other notes in each measure and focus on how they fit into the space between each downbeat. Draw on skills developed in the previous activities (audiating, chunking) as you take in this intermediate information.
  4. Depending on the piece, repeat steps 2 and 3 by playing the music on beats 1 and 3, always focusing on audiating those notes and creating gestural arcs that connect each downbeat. (Try to “tuck” the third beat note into that arc on the way to the next downbeat.)
  5. Finally, play through the entire passage as notated, but keep your ears focused on audiating the goal notes on each downbeat. Any attention given to notes within the measure should utilize and apply the audiation/chunking skills developed above, but not in a manner that distracts you from following your gestural arcs (and audiation) to the following downbeat goal.



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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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