What Is Sight-Singing? - Definition & Purpose

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Vocalists need to perfect many different skills to achieve the highest level of performance. In this lesson, we're going to talk about sight-singing and see how this can help refine many skills at once.

Singing by Sight

Look at the excerpt of sheet music from Puccini's opera Turandot. Did you find it? Okay, now sing it. While it may seem ludicrous to ask you to simply pick up a sheet of music and sing it, this is actually something that is commonly expected of professional singers. The ability to read and sing a piece of sheet music without being previously familiar with it is called sight-singing. It's also sometimes called prima vista, Italian for ''first glance.'' It's an important skill for a vocalist to have. Sight-singing takes lots of practice, but with time you can find yourself singing along with a composition as easily as you are reading this lesson.

Turandot by Puccini
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Purpose

The concept of picking up a random piece of sheet music and being able to sing it flawlessly sounds really cool, and would undoubtedly make for a great bar trick, but what's really the point? Sight-singing is actually a crucial skill for vocalists. Think of your favorite song. You know it really well, so you can probably sing along with it pretty easily. But now imagine that you had never heard that song, and you were asked to perform it. As a professional vocalist, you're also expected to take this melody and make it your own. You could achieve this by listening to the instrumentalists play the harmonies and figure out how you fit it, but that's not very efficient. A professional vocalist needs to be able to hear the piece as they read it to understand what their role is. What are the notes? What is the tempo, the rhythm, the volume? A vocalist needs to understand all of this.

That's what sight-singing is all about. The goal is to build up the skills necessary to hear a melody simply by reading the sheet music, which means that there are actually three things you are working on simultaneously. Obviously, you're working on improving your voice and understanding what pitch you need to hit before even opening your mouth. However, this also means training your ears to hear and recognize pitches and how they interact. Finally, you must train your mind. In sight-singing, the ability to hear a specific pitch in your mind is called inner hearing or audiation. That's the first step to being able to produce the correct pitch every time. Sight-singing helps vocalists refine all of these aspects simultaneously.

Mastering vocal performance requires practice in sight-singing
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Techniques for Practicing Sight-Singing

Sight-singing requires lots of practice to master, and a variety of techniques as well. The most basic techniques involve pitch-matching, or listening to a pitch, seeing where it appears in sheet music, and producing that pitch. Doing this can help create an automatic response: when your eyes see that note, your brain hears the pitch, your ears start listening for it, and your throat gets ready to produce it. Remember, sight-singing is about training your ears and mind as much as your voice. Eventually, you should be able to hear a pitch, and know exactly what note you are hearing and what it would look like in sheet music. This is known as aural training. It's an important part of this process as well.

Basic pitch-matching can start with a single note, but often will graduate to doing full sets of scales. Scales are, let's face it, boring. But they are necessary. Each scale is in a different key, and knowing what notes are in each key will help you anticipate them while singing.

Knowing your scales is an important key to sight-singing
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