The Secrets of Sight Reading Music

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Thursday, October 9, 1913:  About the same as other days.

Source: The Etude (March, 1914)
Source: The Etude (March, 1914)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Grandma was still husking corn using a hand-held corn peg.  She’d been husking corn since September 25.

In the past Grandma often struggled to practice her piano lessons.—even when she didn’t seem particularly busy.  On the days when she “worked for wages” and had lots to do, did she somehow still manage to find time to practice the piano?


I can remember taking piano lessons for six years when I was a child—and I didn’t like practicing much either. But my goal was to be able to sight read music, so that I could just play songs that my friends might ask me to play.

I never reached that goal and ended up seldom playing the piano once I quit taking lessons.

Did Grandma also want to sight read music? I can’t remember her ever playing the piano, so my guess is that she also never reached that point.

I recently was looking at an old issue of The Etude magazine and came across these tips for sight reading music. Some parts of it really resonated with me and  I thought you might also enjoy it:

The Secrets of Sight Reading

Far too much attention seems to be paid to technique these days, and far too little to musicianship. There are scores of young pianists who can play the Liszt Second Rhapsody with much dash and seeming brilliance, but who cannot read a fourth grade piece at sight.

The fact is a musician is not a musician until he can read.

A knowledge of harmony is not essential to good sight reading, but it unquestionably helps very frequently a work that is peppered with accidentals will absolutely fog a student who has no knowledge of harmony, while one who has will go sailing along with the utmost abandon.

A good sight reader reads music phrase by phrase, not note by note.

There is a tendency these days among publishers and editors to avoid putting in too many signs of expression. The less gifted musician needs some signs, but too many fluster him and he ignores them altogether. Nevertheless, it is essential when reading at sight to be careful to observe all fortes and pianos, crescendos, diminuendos, rallentandos, etc. Music which has not variety of expression has no life.

Playing wrong notes is a crime in a piece that has been studied, but in sight-reading a wrong note now and then can scarcely be avoided. If you play a wrong note, however, do not stop, and do not let it get you “rattled.” Go on as if nothing had happened.

The Etude (March, 1914)

Sign. . . I wish I’d somehow learned those lessons about sight reading when I was young.