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.

Successful Sight-Reading: It’s All in the Preparation

In most sight-reading exams, students are given a few moments (from 30 seconds to a couple of minutes) to look over a piece before playing it. How they prepare themselves in that short time can determine whether their subsequent reading is successful or not. But it is how we, their teachers, prepare them for this moment that ultimately determines their success in this task.

At the beginning of the school year, when I ask students in my sight-reading class at Peabody to look over a piece they are about to sight-read, their hands usually fly to the keyboard, where they start to fidget in a rapid, chaotic manner. We then talk about how the fingers are just the servants of the mind, and can only transmit what the eyes have first seized, and the inner ear heard. But asked to simply sit and look at the music, they seem not to know what to look for. Their eyes glaze over and stare at the opening measures, not looking ahead to see what is coming; their bodies remain inert, not moving or swaying to an imagined beat. When asked what they are thinking, they are often unable to say.

So in the first weeks of my class, I spend a lot of time trying to draw my students out about what they see in the score, prodding them to see more, and prodding even harder to get them to exteriorize the music in some way other than playing (singing, conducting, counting). One can never take for granted that the clefs, key, and meter have been observed, but even before that, the title and composer of the piece yield important information about style and interpretation. After that, a fairly rapid scan through the score will quickly uncover dangers of different kinds: changes of key, meter, or tempo, unfamiliar chords, clusters of accidentals, tricky rhythms, technical obstacles, repeat signs, etc. Most of these are easily visible to the eye, but it is not enough for students to see these difficulties, they must resolve them before playing. Rhythm and tempo must be felt and expressed with singing and conducting before they can be played accurately. Chords are easier to play if they have been identified (root and quality are sufficient). Technical issues can be fingered silently on the keyboard or tapped on the closed lid of the piano beforehand. Repeats (including first and second endings, da capos, etc.) should be practiced with the eyes. As the students’ knowledge of the musical language grows, they begin also to see phrase divisions, formal sections, modulations, sequences and other patterns.

A quick scan of an innocent-looking Andante by Diabelli (see below) reveals an unexpected challenge in measure 8. This leap needs to be not only spotted, but also touched on the keyboard before starting. A more in-depth look at this score would take in the 4-bar phrase structure, cadences, and modulations, all of which help the student to give a more musical first reading.

A preliminary preview of Beyer’s Allegretto (also below) would show that the left hand has only three different chords. A closer look would reveal that whenever the right hand has a G on the downbeat, the left hand has an E, and vice versa, making it almost unnecessary to look at the lower staff while playing, particularly for a student who has some experience with melody harmonization.

Clearly, it is time-consuming to find all of these difficulties and resolve them before playing, and teachers are understandably reluctant to spend precious lesson time talking rather than playing. On the other hand, it is a valuable opportunity to find out what our students see and hear in a score, and what they still need help with. Sight-reading is a multi-faceted activity, and we teach it not only by making sure our students practice it, but by working on all the skills that feed into it: ear-training, keyboard harmony, analysis, style, and technique. These skills are of course also an integral part of repertoire study, and students who learn to practice their music mentally, to analyze it, sing and conduct it, are practicing skills that will also serve them well when they sight-read.

As our attentive readers will have noticed, I have not mentioned the most important thing to be determined before starting to sight-read a piece – choosing a good tempo. That will be the subject of our next post.

— Ken Johansen

Previous Post: The Joy of Sight Reading

Next Post: How to Find the Tempo When Sight-reading: Rocking, Swinging, and Flowing with the Beat

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andante    allegretto

Read Ahead

Read Ahead  a sight-reading curriculum for piano on the iPad based on cognitive science research.

Developed by faculty at The Peabody Conservatory


Sight-reading can be hard to teach.

“Although 86% of piano teachers polled rated sight-reading as the most important or a highly important skill, only 7% of them said they address it systematically.”

We’ve designed Read Ahead to fill this gap. Find out more about this skill by reading the  wikipedia article quoted above.