I cannot emphasise what a useful skill sight-singing is. Sadly, over the years, it’s got a bit of a bad press as it continues to be tested as part of the aural element of exams, notably with ABRSM. But I want to think about sight-singing in a much broader context.
Whether you’re a teacher, a student or even someone who sings in a choir, there are lots of things you can do to improve your sight-singing. All of those things will also improve your general musical awareness too. As Paul Harris says:
‘If you go about learning to sight-sing logically, taking each step carefully and making sure all is understood along the way, then it will be as easy as reading’Harris, P. (2017). Improve Your Sight-Singing! Grades 1-3. Harlow: Faber Music. p. 4.
So, which skills do we need to sight-singing effectively? Here are a few:
- A sense of pulse, metre and rhythm
- The ability to read the music on the page
- Recognition of patterns, both rhythmic and melodic
- Aural awareness and the ability to hear the music on the page in our heads
- An understanding of harmony, scales and keys
- An appreciation of pitch, how pitches relate to each other and intervals
There are, of course many others!
In this blog post, I wanted to share four of the resources which I’ve found most useful when helping students to improve their sight-singing. There are of course, many such resources out there, and if you have any favourites, do share them in the comments below.
1. Improve Your Sight-Singing
Many of you will be familiar with Paul’s excellent series of books for both piano and other instruments, Improve Your Sight-Reading. This series, Improve Your Sight-Singing, currently comprises of two books, Grades 1-3 and Grades 4-5. Please note, these are new editions which are very different to the previous versions bearing the same name.
Paul’s work on simultaneous learning transfers effectively into these books as he seeks to connect a variety of musical elements, all of which culminate in a series of exercises. Divided into stages, each introduces a new concept whilst revising the previous. For example, Stage 1 introduces three-note patterns in 4/4 time, whilst Stage 3 introduces five-note patterns and dynamics. By the end of the second book, students will also have covered major and minor key signatures, 6/8 and intervals up to a perfect 5th.
These are an accessible set of books which can be used both in and outside of lessons. There are numerous exercises, both rhythmic and melodic, as well as example tests as might be encountered in singing exams up to Grade 5. Whilst these books are clearly aimed at those working towards exams, the advice and materials apply much more generally.
2. Ear Without Fear (and Rhythm Without the Blues)
These are actually two individual series of books, with three volumes in each, and I think they are very effective when used together. They were originally published as part of the Hal Leonard Student Piano Library; however, they seem in no way limited to pianists.
Sight-singing skills are introduced through three distinct, but connected approaches:
Initially, students are encouraged to recognise melodic patterns by ear. The book introduces a form of directional shorthand which enables students to notate these patterns, as well as recognising them from the given notation. Tonic sol-fa (movable ‘do’) is introduced as a means to explore these patterns further. Students are encouraged to be able to both sing melodic patterns, and eventually to notate them by ear. These books can be particularly effective for anyone preparing for ABRSM Aural Tests at Grades 4 and 5 (Test B).
These are comprehensive books and by the end of the third volume, students are covering key signatures, major and minor triads, and alto and tenor clef. A CD (or download) is included, and is an integral part of the programme. Answers are given in the back so the series can be used very effectively for self-study or outside of lessons. One limitation, hence the recommendation of the companion series, Rhythm Without the Blues, is that these books cover only melodic patterns, not melodies with rhythm. Most of these patterns are notated as semibreves (whole notes).
The companion series is very similar in its approach making use of shorthand and rhythm names (‘ta’, ‘ti ti’ etc.). By the end of the third volume, students will be clapping and notating rhythms using triplets and dotted notes. They will have covered syncopation, rests and time signatures up to 2/2.
Both these series are closely aligned with elements of the Kodály approach; however, they do not style themselves as such, and rather draw on a variety of different sources. I think these series are only effective when used together; however, they offer a very effective and several-pronged approach to sight-singing.
3. Sound at Sight: Singing
The Sound at Sight series comprises of three books and is aimed at those preparing for Trinity singing exams. I don’t think they are as effective as the two mentioned above; however, I include them here as they contain many practice examples. In that sense, they are a useful series to use alongside other books. There is some explanation given about how to approach sight-singing, but these are fundamentally books of examples, both accompanied and unaccompanied.
I note there is now a second series of these books, at least for Book 3; however, I have not been able to establish whether they are additional books or revisions of the previous.
4. The Novello Guide to Sight-Singing
This book published in 2017 has perhaps not received the attention due to it. Whilst it is primarily aimed at choral singers, there is no reason why the content cannot apply equally to soloists too.
Divided into eight stages with an associated app, this is a comprehensive volume covering everything from basic notation and rhythm, through to awkward intervals such as tritones. It is very accessibly presented and clear. Many examples are given and there is much sound advice interwoven. A good amount of music theory is also covered, particularly that most relevant to choral singing. A huge amount is packed into this book and it is well worth exploring. Don’t be put off by the price: it’s worth every penny.
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