Sight Reading and Working Memory Capacity

The ability to sight read a piece of music accurately is an important skill for any musician, and is absolutely essential for a working professional musician.  Most musicians work very hard at improving their sight reading by doing a lot of sight reading.  Of course, if you want to get better at something you need to practice doing it, but some new cognitive psychology research may force us to adjust our thinking on sight reading practice.

According to researchers Elizabeth Meinz of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and David Hambrick of Michigan State University in East Lansing, practicing sight reading for thousands of hours will make you good, but individuals with good “working memory capacity” have an advantage.

Working memory theories and may also have implications on practice for other musical tasks.  One thing that is clear is that the more distractions you have while working on something the harder it is to perform well on that task.  I’ve long been an advocate of working on a single thing at a time during practice, regardless of how simple that thing is (how I hold the trombone slide, the feeling of the air moving past my lips as I inhale, placing the mouthpiece on the same place, etc.).  For sight reading practice this can be broken down into component parts (practicing sight reading rhythms only, notes only, gradually add dynamics, articulations, etc.).

One final point I feel compelled to make is that sight reading music is much like reading text aloud.  When you’re a child and just learning to read this is very difficult, you need to “sound out” the words in order to figure out what they mean (i.e., “you-nee-ver-sit-tee, oh the word is ‘university'”).  After reading that word a few thousand times you begin to recognize it at sight and no longer need to phoneticize.

Musical notation is similar.  By knowing your scales and chords very well you will immediately recognize those patterns when you see them in music.  Rhythmic notation similarly relies on patterns that are common to particular idioms.  After reading and playing those rhythms correctly several thousand times, you will form the association between the visual patterns and the rhythms you already know how to play. You know longer need to work out the pattern of notes and rhythms, you’ve played them before and recognize what they look like instantly.  Psychologists sometimes refer to this type mental association as a “schema.”

Try practicing the above piece in all 12 keys.  When you can do this accurately you don’t need to practice sight reading any longer.

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