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Sight reading

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Sight reading is the reading and performing of a work—typically, a piece of music, but sometimes also linguistic texts like drama—without having seen it before.

The ability to sight-read partly depends on a strong short-term musical memory. An experiment on sight reading using an eye tracker indicates that highly skilled musicians tend to look ahead further in the music, storing and processing the notes until they are played; this is referred to as the eye–hand span.

Storage of notational information in working memory can be expressed in terms of the amount of information (load) and the time for which it must be held before being played (latency). The relationship between load and latency changes according to tempo, such that t = x/y, where t is the change in tempo, x is the change in load, and y is the change in latency. Some teachers and researchers have proposed that the eye–hand span can be trained to be larger than it would otherwise be under normal conditions, leading to more robust sight-reading ability.

Human memory can be divided into three broad categories: Long-term Memory, Sensory Memory, and Short-term (Working) Memory. According to the formal definition, working memory is “A system for temporarily storing and managing the information required to carry out complex cognitive tasks such as learning, reasoning, and comprehension.” The paramount feature that distinguishes the working memory from both the long-term and sensory memory is this system’s ability to simultaneously process and store information. The knowledge has what is called a “Limited Capacity”, meaning there is only a certain amount of information that can be stored and it is only easily accessible for a small window of time after it has been processed, with a recall time block of roughly fifteen seconds to one minute. Experiments dealing with “Memory Span” have been conducted by George Miller in 1956 that indicated that the “Most common number of items that can be stored in the working memory is five plus or minus two.” However, if this information is not retained and stored (“consolidated”) in one’s long-term memory, it will fade quickly.


Research indicates that the main area of the brain associated with the working memory is the Prefrontal Cortex. The prefrontal cortex is located in the frontal lobe of the brain. This area deals with cognition and contains two major neural “loops” or pathways that are central to processing tasks via the working memory: the “visual loop,” which is necessary for the visual component of the task and the “phonological loop,” which deals with the linguistic aspects of the task (i.e. repeating the word or phrase). Although the Hippocampus, located in the temporal lobe, is the brain structure most frequently paired with memories, studies have indicated that its role is more vital for consolidation of the short-term memories into long-term ones than the ability to process, carry out, and briefly recall certain tasks. This type of memory has specifically come into focus when discussing “Sight Reading” since the process of looking at musical notes for the first time and deciphering them while playing an instrument can undoubtedly be considered a “complex task of comprehension.” The main conclusion in terms of this idea is that, “Working memory and short-term memory capacity and mental speed are three important predictors for sight reading achievement.” Although none of the studies discredit the correlation between the amount of time one spends practicing and musical ability, specifically, sight-reading proficiency, more studies are pointing to the level at which one’s working memory functions as the key factor in sight-reading abilities. As stated in one such study, “Working memory capacity made a statistically significant contribution as well (about 7 percent, a medium-size effect). In other words, if you took two pianists with the same amount of practice, but different levels of working memory capacity, it’s likely that the one higher in working memory capacity would have performed considerably better on the sight-reading task.” Based on the research and opinions of multiple musicians and scientists, the take home message about one’s sight-reading ability and working memory capacity seems to be that “The best sight-readers combined strong working memories with tens of thousands of hours of practice.”

Sight-reading also depends on familiarity with the musical idiom being performed; this permits the reader to recognize and process frequently occurring patterns of notes as a single unit, rather than individual notes, thus achieving greater efficiency. This phenomenon, which also applies to the reading of language, is referred to as chunking. Errors in sight-reading tend to occur in places where the music contains unexpected or unusual sequences; these defeat the strategy of "reading by expectation" that sight-readers typically employ.


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