How to read a musical score

We can learn a lot about a piece of music, before playing a single note of it, if we read the score in depth. The composer always gives us some hints:

The title
Tempo marks
Descriptive words in the music, such as leggiero, marcato or con fuoco.
Overall dynamics. Where is the loudest part, the softest part? Is the piece mostly loud, mostly soft, or constantly changing?

You can ask yourself:

Rhythm questions

Which rhythm patterns does the composer use more than twice?
Is there a rhythm pattern that only happens once?
Is there a rhythm pattern that looks complicated? Write in the count. If that seems impossible, go to the simplest part of the measure—the first count, for example, or any long note. Write in the counts for that part; once you’ve done this, you can probably see where the remaining counts go.

Melody questions

Which hand plays the melody? If there is more than one line, or voice, played by one hand, which voice is more important?
Where else can you find this melody in the piece? How many times?
Does the melody move mostly by skips or by steps?
Does the melody use a scale that you know? A broken chord?
Is there any melody that happens only once?
Do both hands ever play the same thing?
What’s the highest melody note in the piece? The lowest?

Accompaniment questions

What is the first note in each measure? Look at the downbeats of four or more measures in a row. Do you see a pattern?
What interval is used most often? Least often?
Do you recognize any chords?
Does the accompaniment ever look like a melody?

Phrase questions

How many measures does each phrase contain?
What is the highest melody note in the phrase? The lowest?

Related Links

How to read a musical score

How to find the right fingering

How to become a good sightreader

How to sightread at home

More sightreading tips