Reading Music – The Importance of Sight Reading

Among musicians, a common discussion is whether the ability to read music is necessary. In a studio session setting, there is no question. To be successful, one has to read music and read it well. But as most of you know who have done studio work, there isn’t a magic bullet for sight reading in the studio. Sometimes charts have very little written out other than chord changes and some basic rhythms. The better ones may show some cues from other instruments. Most of the time, you have to scribble it in yourself. There is Nashville notation which is a combination of chord charts, tablature, and other things. As a side note to the notion that somehow tablature is a shortcut developed recently to avoid having to learn to read music, tablature precedes what we now refer to as written music. The original copies of the Renaissance lute literature were all written in tablature – different in some aspects but quite similar to modern day tablature.

Written music is the visual representation of music, notated in symbols that represent the sound of a musical part or composition. It is a very precise and flexible system for doing this. As in spoken language, it is still a representation. It can contain precise pitch, rhythm, dynamics, harmonic structure, etc. This allows someone to duplicate the concept which was the creative thought of the composer.

The discussion over the ability to read music often comes back to this:

Question “How is your reading?”Answer “Well, I read pretty well but I’m not a great sight reader.”

Bad answer!

Sight reading is the ability to read music put in front of you almost immediately. The argument that “I can read but don’t sight read too well” doesn’t hold water. Imagine if you were given a paragraph of words to repeat back – like an oath or pledge. Would you have to sound out each word, look up each in a dictionary, try to discern the meaning of everything, etc., before you repeated it back? Probably not. That analogy is very direct, as musical notation is the representation of the creative thought, just as written words are. Is this a lot to bite off and chew on? Yes, it is. But it can be done and more easily than you might think.

I’ve have met some exceptional sight readers over the years. My college conducting teacher, Dr. Peter Paul Fuchs, could read an entire orchestral score, forming the piano reduction, and transposing as he was reading. He was exceptional but it emphasizes the point.

After all the above, what is the most difficult thing about sight reading? For most proficient bass players, notes aren’t too much of a problem, chords aren’t too bad since we usually don’t deal with the extended harmony too much in the initial reading, basic structure isn’t bad – what is the slowdown?

It is generally reading the rhythms. The best way to learn anything is to reduce to its basic. The way to do that is practice sight reading drum and percussion parts. Pitch plays no part in this notation – rhythms are the point.


This is an example of basic bass drum, snare and hi-hat notation. Notice the clef is 2 vertical parallel lines. The bottom note is the bass drum, the middle is the snare and the top X is the hi-hat. Pick a line and just play the rhythm. Make sure you count each and every beat and it’s subdivisions.

example drum music 3
The above example is a little more complex. It is in 12/8 and shows how it can get more complex. Work through it.

The next example is from Police drummer Stewart Copeland:

This example gives a pretty good variety. Copeland’s style is very unique. Work through it.

How to proceed:

Get your hands on lots of drum music. It can be gotten from the internet, from a library and from a music store. Get a wide variance. Arrange them in a gradient progression from easy to complex as best you can. When you want to practice sight reading, grab the first one, start the metronome at a decent speed and read all the way through to the end without stopping. Then go back and work out any rhythms you missed. Make sure you count everything and get the mistakes worked out. Now put that one away and go to another one and handle it the same way.

Doing this will greatly improve your reading. There are even further extensions to this, especially for slap style. But this will help a great deal.


About Dwight Mabe

I've playing music since the age of 5...a really, really long time. I've been teaching bass guitar and double bass for over 30 years, writing about music and bass guitar for nearly as long.
This entry was posted in Basics, Music Theory and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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