For sight-reading music, practice doesn't make perfect

A basic type of recall may limit the benefits of experience

10:36am, June 17, 2010

Here’s a harsh piano lesson: Years of tickling the ivories go only so far for those who want to sight-read sheet music fluently, a new study suggests. Aside from those painstaking hours of practice, a memory skill that pianists have little control over may orchestrate their performance.

Sight-reading is the ability to play sheet music on an instrument with little or no preparation. Any piano player who practices sight-reading for thousands of hours will get pretty good at it, say study coauthors Elizabeth Meinz of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and David Hambrick of Michigan State University in East Lansing. But having a strong ability to keep different pieces of relevant information in mind while performing a task — known as working memory capacity — aids sight-reading regardless of how much someone has practiced, the psychologists report in a paper published online June 9 in Psychological Science.

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