Memory and Speed


One very important aspect of becoming a strong sight-reader is how effectively you use your working memory and how much you can store and recall. Working memory is defined as the temporary memory area where we store, process, and manipulate information. George Miller first referenced this in his seminal work from 1956: “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information.” Psychological Review. He introduced the concept that the average person can hold around 7 things in working memory which starts to fade after several seconds without some sort of reenforcement (like repetition). This is one of the reasons license plates and phone numbers tend to be 6 or 7 digits long. They stay in memory just long enough for us to write them down or repeat them. As Miller’s title suggests, people have a varying capacity of 5-9 items and the length of time varies as well. Not surprisingly, musicians with larger working memories have shown to be better at sight-reading.
For a long time, working memory had been considered a fixed attribute determined by genetics and not something that can be enlarged or lengthened. That belief is currently being challenged and while domain specific training has been proven to work, the jury is still out as to whether training produces results which transfer from one domain to another. In other words, spending time training your working memory may not reliably help you remember where you left your keys. And while you can train yourself to rapidly memorize and recall longer sequences of numbers, that doesn’t lead to a corresponding ability to remember long sequences of images or notes. However, evidence does indicate that musicians tend to have a larger working memory capacity than non-musicians, particularly when it comes to verbal memory and training our memory for music notation processing and recall will improve our ability to recall music.
There are a number of things one can do to increase the amount of information one can hold and process in working memory. We have already published an article on the most important technique: chunking, the ability to recall a group of things as one. Some people can correctly repeat a random list of numbers 80 digits long by associating chunks of memorized numbers (such as an extensive knowledge of racing times associated with sports) with the numbers in the random sequence. Musicians can do this by memorizing chords and rhythmic patterns.
Interestingly, we have a slightly smaller capacity for chunked items in working memory. We may store 5 random words on average while we would store 7 letters, and longer words tend to decrease the number of chunks we can hold. Chunking can be hierarchical too. Notes, then chords, and then harmonic progressions for example can each be chunked. Practicing chunking definitely improves our ability to memorize. If you are interested in a fascinating read about memory, I highly recommend Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer.


Being able to identify something quickly tends to be an indicator of how well we know it. In order to sight-read a score fluently, one should be be able to identify and produce the rhythms, notes and chords that make up the music without hesitation.

Our total reaction time to a visual stimulus takes around 250ms (we are quicker at responding to sound taking around 170ms). You can test your reaction time at  It takes us a very short amount of time to identify something we already know, as little as 120ms and according to Joan Vicker’s research. Vickers has discovered “The Quiet Eye” phenomena and observed that elite athletes hold their head and eyes steadier than amateurs (yet another reason not to look down while playing!). As a result, they able to process and react more quickly and accurately.

Knowing this, we can test our knowledge by briefly flashing images on the screen.
Try it with the videos below by calling out the words when they flash on the screen.  Every 2 seconds a word will flash on the screen for a Quiet Eye Period.
Were you able to identify the last combination of letters? If not, it is because the 9 letters are in an unfamiliar order and you haven’t created a memory chunk for that combination.
Now try it with notes. The notes will only flash on the top staff.
Finally, try it with chords (and inversions) which will also only flash on the top staff.
If you can identify the chords as easily as the notes then you have successfully stored those chunks in your long term memory. If you didn’t get them all, try it again until you can name all of them. It might be interesting to try with your students as well.
One good way to train the whole memory processing system is to practice memorizing and then playing from memory short sections of music. Processing multiple chunks of notation and performing them is a complicated task and identifying notes, chords, and rhythm is only the first step in the process. Below are a couple of  memory training exercises which you can try at the piano.
These exercises are call and response based. When you press play, you will hear a 2 measure metronome count-off and then the cycle begins with the first measure of music flashing on the screen for one measure’s time. On the downbeat of the next measure the music will disappear and you play the measure back from memory (If you read the music more quickly one measures time, wait for next downbeat before playing. This see-play cycle repeats until the end of the phrase.
Example 1  Start with both hands an octave apart in C position with your right hand thumb on middle C.

Example 2
Start with your hands an octave apart in G position (up a fifth from the previous exercise)
If you would like to try more exercises like this, we invite you to download our free Read Ahead Hybrid phone app from iTunes or the Googleplay store. All of the memory training exercises are available on the different days at different levels. Additionally you can change the visual duration of the flash and the tempo of the exercise. Regular training of your memory will result in an improvement of your sight-reading skills and make you a more confident musician.
Special thanks to Pablo R. Perillan M.D., Ph.D. for providing us guidance on the subject of Quiet Eye research.

Reduction Techniques


Keeping it Simple: Reduction Techniques in Sight-reading


The fundamental requirement in sight-reading is to play in tempo and keep going. As we discussed in our previous blog, the ability to keep going, come what may, is dependent on three factors: a strong sense of pulse, an acceptance that mistakes will happen, and especially a willingness and ability to reduce or simplify the music when necessary. I say willingness because many students seem to feel honor-bound to try and play all the notes. But it is not cheating to leave out notes when we sight-read; on the contrary, it’s a sign of good musicianship.

As for the ability, that is something that must be practiced before we can call upon it in times of need. We can’t expect to simplify difficult passages on the spot if we don’t first have a few techniques up our sleeves. Fortunately, we have ample opportunity to practice simplifying: reducing, outlining, and blocking in our daily repertoire practice. I would not hesitate to call this the single-most important practice method for pianists: it helps us to feel hand positions, to think harmonically, to hear the longer melodic line, to memorize more effectively, to know what is structural and what is ornamental, and therefore to make interpretive decisions.

Harmonic Blocking:

Chord blocking is probably the most familiar kind of reduction technique. Reducing an arpeggiated or broken chord to a block chord makes the mind chunk notes together, helps the eyes to read ahead, and allows the hands to feel voice-leading better. In the simple little piece below, playing all the notes of each measure together at the same time makes us read in one-bar units rather than note by note. As we hold each chord for 4 beats (reductions should always be played in tempo), our eyes look ahead and begin to decode the next measure. As we move from bar to bar, we feel the contrary motion in the voice-leading and the corresponding fingering of the two hands. In this kind of reduction, non-chord tones such as those in bar 7 are best left out. Most students quickly intuit which notes don’t belong.



In the lesson, the teacher can play the piece as written in the upper register of the piano while the student plays the reduction. At home, the student should play the reduction first, imagining the intervening rhythms, then play the piece as written.

Melodic Outlining:

Pieces of a more melodic nature such as the Hook Minuet below can be simplified using an outlining technique. A good way to start teaching students outlining is to have them play only the notes on the downbeats while the teacher plays all the notes on another piano. This forces them to count, look ahead, and simplify all at the same time. The next step is to play the left hand as written and only the notes in the right hand that coincide with the left hand. “Only play the notes that come together” is an injunction I frequently make in my sight-reading class, and it usually produces a good outline. When the students finally play the piece as written, they do so with a new sense of the structural skeleton underneath the surface detail.



In pieces with 4 beats to the bar, like the Reinagle Promenade below, playing only the notes on beats 1 and 3 usually works well.  But sometimes the notes that come together rhythmically don’t belong together harmonically. In this example, it is the second note of each group of 4 8th notes that is the main harmonic note, not the first. As students learn about consonance and dissonance, they can start to make more accurate outlines, as shown below the example. Incidentally, writing down outlines like this is a very useful way to study and memorize a piece. Students can go back and forth between playing the outline from the original, and the original from the outline.



Outlining and Blocking combined:

Many reductions will use both chord blocking and melodic outlining, and the rhythm of the reduction will change according to the harmonic rhythm of the piece. Try making a simple outline in half notes and quarter notes of this movement from a Sonatina by Thomas Attwood. When you take the repeats, play the right hand as written while still blocking the left. Finally, play it a third time with all the notes, being aware of the reduction underneath. You’ll probably find that your eyes are reading ahead of where you are playing. That is an ability that all fluent sight-readers possess, and one that we will discuss further in a future blog.


As always, the pieces are available in the linked pdf.


–Ken Johansen

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Continuity in Sight-Reading: What Keeps Us Going, and What Holds Us Back

In our two previous posts, we discussed what to do before starting to sight-read a piece. Now we’re ready to talk about what happens while we sight-read. There are three things teachers commonly tell their students to do when they play a piece at sight: keep going without stopping, try not to look down at your hands, and try to read ahead. These are all correct and excellent, but often quite difficult to do. So in the next several posts, we will address each of these individually, starting with the exhortation to keep going and not stop.

The ability to keep going while sight-reading is dependent on three factors: a strong sense of pulse, an acceptance that wrong notes and other mistakes will occur, and a willingness to simplify when necessary. Difficulty with any one of these can hold us back; ease with all of them allows us to move forward.

Paradoxically, a rhythmic sense of pulse does not seem to be innate in everyone, even though we all carry a constant pulse within us. Like so many musical attributes (harmonic sensitivity, aural acuity, musicality in general), this is not an inborn talent, but a faculty that must be cultivated from the earliest lessons. We hear again and again that students should count out loud while sight-reading, but this is futile if they are in the habit of practicing out of time. We are the way we practice. I believe that many pianists have poor rhythm because they play alone most of the time, and study pieces that are too hard for them, forcing them to play out of time. Students who have grown up practicing their music in time, playing piano duets, and doing rhythmic work away from the piano, will not need to use a metronome or count out loud in order to maintain a constant pulse when sight-reading. The idea of a regular beat will already be an imperative in their musical consciousness.

In modern performance, note accuracy is highly prized. It’s an admirable ideal, even if it is fueled by a standard set by highly edited recordings. But it also creates a fear of wrong notes that can undermine confidence and inhibit spontaneity. It’s always rather heart breaking to me that so many students feel they must say “sorry” after playing a wrong note. This guilt feeling makes them want to go back and immediately correct the wrong note, but that of course breaks the rhythmic flow, a habit which, with repetition, destabilizes their sense of pulse and, in some cases, creates a stutter that can be extremely difficult to correct. In repertoire practice, we can help students to avoid this tendency by having them practice always to the end of the phrase, only going back to fix any mistakes afterwards.

Perhaps the best way to overcome the fear of wrong notes is with improvisation. Good jazz musicians, piano bar players, harpsichord continuo players, and improvising church organists rarely seem to play wrong notes. No doubt this is mainly because they know their craft, but it must also come from the freedom of not being bound to a score for every note they play. Below are two improvisation activities you can use with your students. Many more can be found in books and online.

In sight-reading, we can minimize the temptation to go back and correct wrong notes by making sure that students play frequently in ensembles, and by giving them music to read that is within their means (the goal is 80% accuracy within 80% of full tempo, as I mentioned in a previous post). Most importantly, we must teach them methods for simplifying the music so that they can keep going even when they are not able to negotiate all the notes. This ability to simplify, reduce, or outline music is not only essential in sight-reading, but vitally important in learning repertoire. We will therefore devote a separate post to this issue.

–Ken Johansen

Link to PDF: improvisation-exercises

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Improvisation Exercises for Blog 4

The Joy of Sight-reading

Sight-reading an interesting piece of music is like meeting an interesting person. We enjoy the pleasure of a new encounter, sense perhaps a mutual affinity, and look forward to a deeper acquaintance. And just as a new acquaintance can introduce us to a whole new set of friends, so an encounter with a new piece of music can lead us to discover a whole new world of musical experience.

This sense of discovery is one of the primary joys of sight-reading, and of music study in general. Yet in the crush of learning scales and arpeggios, preparing for exams and juries, polishing pieces for recitals and competitions, it is a joy that is often forgotten or neglected.

In the earliest years of study, learning to read music is not separated from learning to play music. Children spell out the notes of the new piece they are learning the way they sound out the letters and words of a story they are reading. It is sometimes slow, and occasionally frustrating, but the pieces they learn are still within reach, and their relatively quick mastery of them gives them a sense of accomplishment and meaning.  They are eager to receive a star or sticker, and graduate to the next book.

But as our students move forward, the pieces become harder and take more time and concentrated effort to learn. This is when we start to teach all the practice methods that are a fixture of piano pedagogy: slow tempos, separate hands, small chunks, deliberate repetition, and so on. This kind of practice is time-consuming, leaving less time for sight-reading and other musicianship skills. In this way, the gap between what students can sight-read and what they can learn to play with patient practice begins to widen.

If this gap between what they can read and what they can learn widens far enough, our students may find themselves in the position of Dalcroze’s “Young Lady of the Conservatoire” (in his book, Rhythm, Music and Education), who is always busy learning difficult pieces for examinations, but in between has nothing to perform, and having neglected sight-reading, improvising, and accompaniment, has no other outlets for musical enjoyment and development. With such a limited musical horizon, her artistic life has become as dull as the social life of a hermit. On the rare occasions when she does encounter a new piece, she is unsure how to proceed, and the meeting is awkward.

Ironically, the focus on developing technique and polishing a small number of advanced pieces does not lead to technical security and mastery of this repertoire. Poor reading inhibits technical fluency, and a limited exposure to music hinders the development of a foundation for making stylistic and interpretive decisions. As Harold Taylor wrote in The Pianist’s Talent, “Technique and sight-reading should go hand in hand, so that the student chooses his performing repertoire from amongst a large number of works which he knows he can play — because he has already played them!”

The repertoire for solo piano is inconceivably vast, and interesting, little-known music exists at every level. If we add to this the piano duet, song, and chamber music repertoire, the possibilities for musical encounters are unlimited.  Piano teachers can be seen as guides through these realms of gold, introducing students to hidden (or well-known) gems, showing them what makes them beautiful, and how to make them shine. Such a broad and varied acquaintance creates curious, open-minded musical travelers, just as a wide exposure to people of different kinds forms tolerant, compassionate citizens of the world.

Below are links to two interesting pieces we think you’ll enjoy meeting.

Effective sight-reading is a complicated task that requires different sets of strategies and skills from repertoire practice. Over the next several months, we’ll be writing practical blog entries with exercises and music that you can use with your students to help them gain confidence in playing at sight, and strengthen their passion for playing the piano.

Ken Johansen

Travis Hardaway

nostalgic-mood     the-little-orphan

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