My son, Rowan, plays piano pretty well for a nine-year-old, but sight-reading is not one of his strengths. He can name notes with the best of them, and can read rhythms like all get-out, but actually sitting at the piano and sight-reading a piece of music? It's a little painful. I’ve been trying to figure out why that is. Turns out (not really surprisingly), sight-reading depends on a whole host of factors, and it’s not really clear what are the best methods to improve sight-reading. A recent paper by Jennifer Mishra at the University of Missouri noted that while there have been hundreds of research studies on trying to improve sight-reading, most of them show that the training doesn’t really help. Mishra ran a meta-analysis on studies, trying to pool together different types of sight-reading training to see if there are any overall take-homes from all these studies. She found that one of the best types of intervention might be to train how our eyes move when we’re reading music.
You might think that there is not much to know about eye movements in music reading. Surely we just sweep our eyes slowly across the page, taking in each note, one at a time. Right? While it sure seems like this is what we do, it is actually completely wrong. When we read music (or text), our eyes make a series of fixations and saccades. During a fixation, we focus our eyes on one place on the page, usually centred on one particular note. We stay focused on that note for about 250 ms. Then we make a saccade: we flick our eyes ahead in the music, skipping over a few notes. The saccade is very fast, less than 50 ms. We then make another fixation, then another saccade. Our whole reading experience consists of fixations and saccades. We can only take in information during the fixations; when our eyes are moving, we actually can’t really see anything, so there’s a little blip of time when we’re not taking in any visual information. We don’t notice this, though, because our brains fill in that gap.
For example, in the music above, we might start by focusing on the D, indicated by the first circle. The red line shows the saccade to the fourth note. We never actually focus on the E and F# in between; we just read them while we’re focusing on the D. But clearly there’s a limit to how far ahead we can read while keeping our eyes fixed on that D. That limit is called our perceptual span: how much we can see in one fixation. Studies have shown that we generally can perceive between two to four beats ahead of our focus.
However, beginners, especially children, probably read note-by-note, not perceiving further ahead in the music. So one approach to improving sight-reading is to improve students’ perceptual span.
Surprisingly, there has been very little published research on this topic. A doctoral dissertation by Robert Lemons in 1984 used the then-cutting-edge technology of a microcomputer to try to improve perceptual span in college music students. The students had to play the notes as they flashed for sub-second times onto a computer monitor. As the training went on, more notes were flashed at a time, forcing the students to read more notes at once. Lemons’s results showed that training the perceptual span caused a huge improvement in sight-reading compared to control students who did not have perceptual span training.
And while in the 80’s it was harder for people to lay their hands on the equipment and software to do this type of training, nowadays it’s straight-forward. It only took me a couple of minutes to set up an animation in powerpoint to flash notes onto my tablet PC screen. I’m experimenting on my son to see whether I can increase his perceptual span by this kind of training, and whether it helps his sight-reading. I’ll let you know what I turn up.
Lemons, R.M. (1984). The development and trial of microcomputer-assisted techniques to supplement traditional training in musical sight reading.
Madell, J., and Hébert, S. (2008). Eye Movements and Music Reading: Where Do We Look Next? Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal 26, 157–170.
Mishra, J. (2014). Improving sightreading accuracy: A meta-analysis. Psychology of Music 42, 131–156.