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What are the benefits of sight-reading?

Learning to sight-read helps you to develop quick recognition of keys and tonality, rhythm and common patterns of beats. It also helps you to learn to keep going even when you make mistakes, and work music out for yourself – which makes learning new pieces quicker and easier.

Being able to sight-read is a valuable skill. It enables you to explore new pieces with increased confidence. Good sight-reading skills offer the satisfaction of independent musical discovery, as notation on the page is more readily transformed into sound.

Video: Grade 6 Guitar sight-reading

What happens in the exam?

In the sight-reading test, the examiner will give you a piece of music that you haven't previously seen. You'll be given up to half a minute in which to look through the music and, if you wish, try out any part of the test before you perform it for assessment. Details of specific sight-reading tests for each grade can be found in the syllabus for your instrument.

When working towards this test, you should look slightly ahead, keep going at a manageable speed, ignore any slips and keep your nerve. It can be helpful to know that examiners rarely hear perfect attempts at these tests but will always appreciate evidence of the right approach, plus an awareness of key and time values that gradually increases with the grades.

Supporting resources

Specimen Sight-Reading Tests books are available for every instrument at every grade, which you might find useful when preparing. However, the example you'll be given in the exam will be a confidential test that you won’t have seen before.

Our Joining the Dots series improves skills and builds confidence in sight-reading/sight-singing. You can purchase these from our online shop or from your local retailer. For Piano exams Grades 1–5, see our Sight-Reading Trainer app.

Marking

Download the marking criteria for sight-reading.

Marking principles

In each element of the exam, ABRSM operates the principle of marking from the required pass mark positively or negatively, rather than awarding marks by deduction from the maximum or addition from zero.

All instruments (Grades 1–8):

Mark

Sight-reading / sight-singing*

Distinction
19–21

  • Fluent, rhythmically accurate
  • Accurate notes/pitch/key
  • Musical detail realised
  • Confident presentation

Merit
17–18

  • Adequate tempo, usually steady pulse
  • Mainly correct rhythm
  • Largely correct notes/pitch/key
  • Largely secure presentation

Pass
14-16

  • Continuity generally maintained
  • Note values mostly realised
  • Pitch outlines in place, despite errors
  • Cautious presentation

Below Pass
11-13

  • Lacking overall continuity
  • Incorrect note values
  • Very approximate notes/pitch/key
  • Insecure presentation

7-10

  • No continuity or incomplete
  • Note values unrealised
  • Pitch outlines absent
  • Very uncertain presentation

0

  • No work offered

* Includes transposition for Horn, Trumpet and Organ (Grades 6–8) and figured bass realisation for Harpsichord (Grades 4–8). In these cases, of the total 21 marks, 12 are allocated to sight-reading and 9 to transposition (or figured bass realisation), and one combined mark is recorded.

 

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