Sight Reading for Singers – Tips and Resources

When preparing to sing in a choir, knowledge of basic sight reading skills is a must. Here is a guide to the very basics of sight singing as well as some practice resources.

There are 3 factors to think about when sight reading:

  • Rhythms
  • Pitches
  • Words

*If you are a beginner, it is important to start working on each of these elements individually.


Step 1: Understand note (and rest) lengths

Note: dots beside the note ADD half the original note value onto it.

Step 2: Understand basic time signatures

Understanding time signatures is an important aspect of sight reading and directly impacts how a singer understands the rhythmic makeup of a song.

Therefor a 4/4 time signature is four quarter note beats per measure, a 3/4 time signature is worth three quarter note beats per measure, 6/8 is six eighth note beats per measure, 2/2 is two half note beats per measure, and so on.

Note: A measure is the space between two bar lines (It can also be called a bar.

Step 3: Understand where the beats fall in a measure

Step 4: Clap out the rhythms while counting the beats

Note: The numbers underneath the staff indicate counting whereas the x’s (which line up directly with the notes) indicate where the clapping falls.

Try it for yourself!

(Go slowly – aim for accuracy, not speed)


Step 1: Understand pitch frequencies

Pitch is how high or low a note sounds to the human ear. High pitches have sound waves that are closer together whereas low pitches have soundwaves that are further apart.

The top wave is a low pitch and the bottom wave is a high pitch.

Step 2: Get familiar with the staffs and their pitches

The Treble Clef is for higher voices in choral music (Soprano and Alto)
The pitches on the lines are EGBDF and the pitches on the spaces are FACE. You can make an acrostic such as Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge to memorize the note positions.

The Bass Clef is for lower voices in choral music (Tenor and Bass)
The pitches on the lines are GBDFA and the pitches on the spaces are ACEG. You can make an acrostic such as Good Boys Deserve Fudge Always and All Cows Eat Grass to memorize the note positions.

Step 3: Understand key signatures

A key signature is a set of sharps or flats placed on a staff that indicate the key of a piece of music. Each key signature represents two possible keys: a major key, or its relative minor, which has the same key signature (ex. C major and A natural minor). A sharp (#) placed on a line or space will raise the corresponding note by a semitone (the shortest possible step between two notes), a flat (b) placed on a line or space will lower the corresponding note by a semitone.

Each key is associated with a group of sharps or flats (the key signature):

Note: A minor key that shares the same key signature as a major key is called the Relative Minor.

Step 4: Understand basic musical scales

A scale is a set of notes ordered by pitch. The pattern of the intervals (distance between two notes) in a scale determines the type of scale.

Major Scale: W-W-H-W-W-W-H (W=Whole step, H=Half step)

The ascending C Major scale. Note: C4 = Middle C

This pattern of whole steps and half steps is the same for every Major key scale.

The ascending E Major scale

Natural Minor Scale: W-H-W-W-H-W-W

The ascending A minor scale.

Step 5: Sing in solfege

In solfege, each note in a scale is assigned a syllable. Since the major and minor scales have seven notes, there are seven syllables to assign.

Starting with the first note of the scale (tonic) and ascending, the syllables of a Major scale go:

Try singing a major scale ascending and descending using solfege syllables

The syllables of a minor scale begin on the La syllable:

Try singing a minor scale ascending and descending using solfege syllables

Try it for yourself!

Try singing the following exercises using solfege syllables. Remember to go for accuracy, not speed!

Starting note: Do

Try something a little trickier with no syllables written in to help you.

Now try one in a minor key. (Listen to and A minor scale in section 4 above to hear what a minor scale sounds like)

Try this one on your own!

Note: Using the same syllables for every key is common in Western countries. This system is called “Moveable Do.”

Step 6: Put the rhythms and the notes together

The next step in sight singing is to put notes and rhythms together. When you do this, keep using the solfege symbols until you feel comfortable with the tune.

Sing the excerpt below from the song The Water is Wide while tapping or clapping the steady beat (the numbers below)

* Remember to go as slowly as you need to for accuracy

The Water is Wide in the key of A Major

Sing the excerpt below from the song Scarborough Fair without using a guide, while tapping or clapping the steady beat

Step 7: Add in the words

Once you have mastered the notes and rhythms (on their own and together), you can start to add in the words of the piece.
Generally speaking, the creator of a piece of music lines up the words with the notes pretty perfectly making it easy to get rhythms and words to work together.
If you’re having trouble with notes and rhythms, go back to the basics again and add in the words when you are feeling more confident!

These are the basic building blocks to reading music! Daily practice will solidify these skills. Below is a list of resources and exercises to help you further practice your sight reading skills.

The practice room is a website that has multiple sight singing exercise including rhythm exercises, interval training, and note reading.

Musi101 has multiple exercises for sight singers to practice with.

Sound Advice Theory was created to help students advance their sight singing and ear training skills. On their website, they have PDF games and resources to help elevate theory skills. Sound Advice also has excellent workbooks that you can purchase and work through.

The Music Theory website is another amazing resources for working on your theory and sight reading skills.

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