How do you go about setting the tempo when sight reading?

When playing music you know, probably you use your memory of what it sounds like as a guide. But when sight reading, by definition you’ve never heard the music before. So what is there left to go by?

How about the tempo marking? Well yeah, we should try to observe the tempo marking. The problem here is that the composer only might have provided one. And even if they did, a marking like “Allegro” still has a lot of room for interpretation.

Here’s a hint: the most common tempo mistake made by inexperienced sight readers is to start playing too fast. The first few notes look easy, so they dive in at an ambitious tempo. Then as soon as they get to a more difficult passage, things go the way of a popular Chinua Achebe novel.

Cover of Things Fall Apart, the novel by Chinua Achebe

How can you save yourself from this fate? By basing your tempo around the most difficult passage in the first place. That’s the trick to successfully choosing a tempo when sight reading. Here’s how it’s done:

  1. While you’re looking over the music just before playing, find the passage that looks most difficult – it will have an intimidating run, large leap, complex rhythm or something else you find challenging to play
  2. Get a tempo in your mind that matches the tempo markings (if any are given), and finger through the difficult passage on your instrument at this tempo
  3. If you could have played it perfectly or with very few mistakes at this tempo, then you can use it as your tempo for the whole piece; otherwise, go back to step 2, slowing things down a bit

This method virtually guarantees that you won’t choose a tempo that’s too fast, because it eliminates through trial-and-error tempos that would have caused you to botch the most difficult passage.

Give it a try next time you’re sight reading, and please leave a comment below to let me know how it worked for you!

Related reading

4 Sight Reading Tips Liszt Wants You to Know
How to Recognize Ledger Line Notes Quickly

Evan R. Murphy

Evan is a musician, music teacher, software engineer and the founder of SightReadingMastery. Realizing how important sight reading is to unlocking opportunities in music, he started SightReadingMastery in 2011 to help musicians develop this valuable skill. He currently lives in Seattle, Washington with his wife Rebecca.

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