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Hiro's Jazz Theory

Sight Reading Tips

This seminar is focused on jazz music. It assumes the audience has adequate proficiency on their instrument. When you write a chart, you must always put yourself in the sight-reader’s chair. Consider the relevance and the relationship. Sight-reading skill is to translate brain to hand.  You must be able to handle your instrument without thinking about the fingerings, hand positions, etc. It is the same as book reading. You must be fluent in the language to be able to perform book reading in public.



The key to the successful sight-reading


  • Most of the sight-reading failure comes from pressure. You must calm yourself.

  • You need to relax but stay focused. Can’t be distracted. Relaxing and focusing are not 2 opposite things.
Reading ahead

  • The goal is to read 2 bars ahead.
  • You must be reading at least 2 beats ahead.

  • Draw imaginary lines per subdivision.

First things first

Read the time signature and time change ahead if any

  • Go through the entire piece and red-pencil in if necessary.
  • Make sure you notice the pulse changes if any, for example, the previous dotted quarter in 6/8 may become half in 4/4.
Read the key signature and key change ahead if any

  • Same as Time signature, make sure there’d be no surprises down the load.
Guess the phrasing groups

  • Most of the music is written in even numbered groups. An evenly dividable rule may not apply to modern music and Brazilian songs – watch out. Pencil divisions by phrases if necessary.
  • 32 bars standard > 16 bars x 2
  • 16 bars > 8 bars x 2
Subdividing 16 to 8
  • 8 bars > 4 bars x 2
Subdividing 8 to 4
  • 4 bars > 2 bars x 2
Subdividing 4 to 2
  • 2 bars > 1 bar x 2
    • 2 bars can be felt 4 pulses, which can be divided into 2 pulses each
Subdividing 2 to 1
  • 1 bar > 2 beats x 2
Subdividing 1 to half


Example 1

  1. This is an 8 bars phrase but is not printed in 4 bars each, which could trick you. It may be easier to pencil in a 4 bars marker.
  2. See drawing the line makes it easier to feel the phrases.
  3. Imagine or pencil in the pulse subdivisions by half note. Doing this, you can catch up after making a mistake or dropping out. Notice the benefit on bar 7.
  4. Sing the rest! Singing the rest is very important especially when the rhythm is off the beat. Use syllable “en” to be groovy.
    In this example, I sing only the 8th rest. Do not get confused with the pencil marked lines.
  5. Know the standard articulation when not clearly marked. Pay attention to bar 5. The quarter note is almost always short in this pattern.
Example 2

  • Complex time signatures
    • Assume the 8th note value is constant in this example below.
  • An example to feel the pulse as shown
    • There are a few different ways to see the pulse depending on the music presented. This is just one of them. In this particular example, 3/4 needs to be felt in 2
    • The red line on the 7/8 measure is indicating the 4th quarter beat which you make it half short.
    • When 3/4 is written this way, you need to feel a group of three 8th notes.


Sing the pitches along the lines and the spaces to memorize the position.
The same goes when the ledger lines. Sing up for above the stuff, and sing down for below the stuff.
Now the bass clef
And its ledger lines
Why Tenor Clef? Trombone range is up to B♭(or even 2nd D) above middle C, and tenor clef is used above G.
And the ledger lines for the Tenor Clef


This is the first 8 bars of one of my compositions called “Dan Dan Dan” (©2002 A-NO-NE Music). As you can see, finding the proper chord scales may not be easy on a sight-reading situation.

Dan-Dan-Dan by Hiroaki Honshuku ©2002 A-NO-NE Music, Cambridge, MA, USA

Let’s take a look at bar 9 and 10. Are all these minor chords Dorian? Is A♭7 Straight Mixo or Mixo #11 (Lyd♭7)? As the composer, I intended first 2 minor chords to be Dorian but F#-7 is Aeolian, and A♭7 to be Straight Mixo despite the fact it looks a subV, but you won’t know that since there is no theoretical basis for this.

Take a look at the F#-7 at the bar 10. Draw a keyboard up in the air. All these 4 notes are safe to play no matter what.
Let’s take a look at the following A♭7. Because it’s a dominant chord, many non-diatonic notes can be considered as altered tensions, while there are a few that cannot be a part of it. See the bad notes to be avoided. What is avoid note?

  • Don’t want to start with
  • Don’t want to hold with
  • Don’t want to stop with
  • Don’t want to jump to

Again, the following chord tones are always safe to play.

Let’s view this 4 chord progression in a sequence.

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Improvising with root (1), 2nd (or 9th), 3rd and 5th like Coltrane did often benefits in a few important points as follow:

  • Easy to play
  • Helps to memorize the changes
  • Your improvising line will sound chord changes to the audience, which you must be able to do so

Playing 1 – 2 – 3 – 5 is usually consistent throughout the majority of the modes. The exception is Phrygian, which is rare if not diatonic functioning iii.


For C instrument player to read B♭and E♭parts

Reading a B♭part

Add 2 flats and read everything 2nd below written. Note that adding 2 flats means 1 sharp becomes 1 flat.

And this is how it will be. This skill also helps you reading Tenor Clef.
Reading a E♭part

Add 3 flats and read everything as if the clef is a Bass Clef instead of a Treble Clef. Note that adding 3 flats means 1 sharp becomes 2 flats.

And add 3 flats. Notice the F# on the 3rd measure. Because one of the added flat matches that position, applying a natural to raise the pitch. This takes some practice to get used to.

Practice Practice Practice!

Book recommendations:

Reading exercises

Modus Vetus
Modus Vetus ISBN-10: 0846441578, ISBN-13: 978-0846441571

Buy at Amazon →


Great practice material

Charlie Parker Omni Book

Buy at Amazon →


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