I. Fundamentals

The Basics of Sight-Singing and Dictation

Kris Shaffer; Chelsey Hamm; and Samuel Brady

Key Takeaways

  • means to sing at sight, having never before heard or seen what you are singing. is counting a rhythm you have never before heard or seen.
  • Always practice sight-singing with the rhythmic and melodic systems your instructor taught you. The more you practice, the easier solmization will be!
  • Practice sight-singing and sight-counting while conducting when possible. If you’re having trouble, practice at a slower tempo.
  • involves translating rhythms, melodies, chord progressions, or other aural sounds that you’ve never before seen, played, or sung into staff notation.
  • Strategies for rhythmic dictation include , , and . Conducting and/or tapping while taking dictation can also help.
  • Strategies for melodic dictation include , writing down solmization syllables, and . Conducting and/or tapping while taking dictation can also help.

Regardless of whether you are a vocalist or instrumentalist (or both!), you will likely study . Sight-singing means to sing at sight, having never before heard or seen what you are singing. A related skill is , which is counting a rhythm you have never before heard or seen. There are many strategies that will help you learn how to sight-sing and sight-count.

Strategies for Sight-Singing and Sight-Counting

If you are learning to sight-sing and sight-count in a classroom, then you are likely going to practice these skills sitting down. When you sight-sing or sight-count, it is important to make sure you have good posture. You will want to sit up straight, at the edge of your chair, with your thighs parallel to the ground. Breathe from your diaphragm (not your chest!) and articulate your singing and counting syllables as clearly as possible.

Example 1 demonstrates proper singing posture while sitting down:

Example 1. Proper singing posture sitting down.

When sight-counting, it is helpful to use a rhythmic system. Open Music Theory prioritizes American standard counting, but there are many other great counting systems available. Here are some other strategies for sight-counting:

  • Do not write your counts on your music. This will save you time and will help you to learn to count at sight.
  • When you first look at a rhythm to sight-count, note the time signature. How many beats are in each measure, and what note value gets the beat?
  • Conduct while you sight-count. This will help you to keep a steady tempo and to remember which beat you are counting.
  • If you are not conducting, try tapping a steady beat while sight-counting. This will help you to keep a steady tempo.
  • If you are still having trouble keeping a steady tempo, practice with a metronome app.
  • If you’re having trouble with a rhythm or with solmization syllables, practice at a slower tempo or break the rhythm down into smaller chunks.

When sight-singing, it is extremely helpful to use a melodic system, such as or (see both Major Scales, Scale Degrees, and Key Signatures and Minor Scales, Scale Degrees, and Key Signatures.) Both systems are valid; what is important is that you practice consistently, as solmization will become easier the more you practice it. Here are some other strategies for sight-singing:

  • Do not write your solfège or scale degrees on your music. This will save you time and will help you to learn to sing at sight.
  • When you first look at a melody to sight-sing, note the clef, time signature, and key signature. What is the clef? How many beats are in each measure, and what note value gets the beat? What key is the work in?
  • Notice the contour of the melody you are about to sight-sing. Singing the correct direction (up, down, or the same note) is half the battle!
  • Conduct while you sight-sing. This will help you to keep a steady tempo and to remember which beat your singing.
  • If you are not conducting, try tapping a steady beat while sight-singing. This will help you to keep a steady tempo.
  • If you are having trouble sight-singing with a steady tempo, practice with a metronome app.
  • If you’re having trouble with a melody, practice at a slower tempo or break the melody down into smaller chunks.
  • If you’re having trouble with rhythm, take the pitches out and just practice the rhythm.
  • If you’re having trouble with pitches, take the rhythm out and sing the pitches on a singular rhythm.

Learning to sight-sing and to sight-count is rewarding, but it takes many years to master these skills. This is why many undergraduate music curricula have four full classes dedicated to these skills (often called “Aural Skills”). Remember to be patient with yourself and to meet with your instructor for help early on if you are struggling.

Strategies for Dictation

is another important topic that musicians study. Your instructor will likely play rhythms, melodies, chord progressions, or other aural sounds that you’ve never before seen, played, or sung. You will then translate those aural sounds into staff notation. There are many strategies that will help you with dictation.

Rhythmic Dictation


Example 2. A rhythm for dictation.

Listen to Example 2, which is a recording of a rhythm for dictation. One strategy for taking rhythmic dictation is to construct a . A dot grid is a series of dots that represent beats and measures. Example 3 shows a dot grid for four measures in common time:

Four groups of four dots are shown
Example 3. A dot grid for four measures in common time.

Once a dot grid is constructed, you can place slashes to indicate where you hear articulations, dashes (horizontal lines) to indicate sustained notes, and circles to indicate rests. This is called . Next, you will want to translate your slash notation to staff notation. Example 4 shows slash notation, followed by staff notation.

Example 4. Slash notation and staff notation of Example 2.

It is also helpful to conduct or tap while taking rhythmic dictation. Tapping allows you to hear if a note happens on a beat or not—or if there is a rest on a beat. Conducting can help you to identify which beats have articulations, sustains, and rests.

Melodic Dictation

Example 4. A melody with the same rhythm as Example 2.

Listen to Example 4, which adds pitches to the rhythmic dictation from Example 2 above. The first step for taking melodic dictation is to write down the melody’s rhythm (see the previous section on rhythmic dictation), then add pitch to your rhythm. There are several strategies for this. The first strategy is to use , which indicate whether a note moves up, down, or stays the same (Example 5). You can also use stars (or another symbol) to indicate where you hear a leap. Another strategy is to write down the syllables you hear using your melodic system (Example 6).

Contour lines and a star appear above the slash notation and dot grid from Example 2
Example 5. Contour lines have been added to the slash notation.

Example 6. Solfège has been added to the slash notation.

The next step is to translate your contour lines and solmization syllables into staff notation (Example 7).

Example 7. Examples 5–6 in staff notation.

It is also helpful to conduct or tap while taking melodic dictation, for the same reasons that it is helpful for rhythmic dictation.

Protonotation

is a basic system of musical notation that is drawn from the book Manual for Ear Training and Sight Singing by Gary Karpinski (2007, 1–28). This system can also be used to take rhythmic and melodic dictation, and many find it very helpful. Example 8 shows a melody in protonotation and in staff notation:

Example 8. A melody in protonotation and staff notation.

Protonotation does not contain information about beat duration or key. It only represents basic pitch and rhythmic elements (discussed further below).

Elements of Protonotation

Examples 9–11 shows blank protonotation grids for duple, triple, and quadruple meters:

In duple and triple meter, downbeats are represented by longer vertical lines, and non-accented beats are represented by shorter vertical lines. In quadruple meter, the third beat of each bar is of medium accent, so it is represented by a medium-length line.

In protonotation, notes are notated by using horizontal lines for rhythmic duration and moveable-do solfège syllables (although scale degrees can be substituted). Arrows are used to denote the direction of any melodic leaps. Rests are represented by the absence of a horizontal line in a given beat or part of a beat. It can also be helpful to use an X instead of a blank, so you can distinguish a rest you are sure about from a part of the protonotation you haven’t yet completed.

Converting Protonotation to Staff Notation

If you know 1) the clef, 2) the tonic pitch, and 3) either the beat duration or bottom number of the time signature, you can convert a melody in protonotation to staff notation easily.

  1. Write the basic information about the example:
    1. Draw the clef provided (or choose an appropriate one based on your perception of the register of the melody).
    2. Determine the key signature from the tonic provided and the mode (major or minor) that you heard or that was provided.
    3. Determine the time signature from the beat value / bottom number provided and from the meter reflected in your protonotation.
  2. Each of the long protonotation lines becomes a bar line in staff notation.
  3. Insert the notes into each bar:
    1. The register, solfège syllable, and tonic will determine the pitches.
    2. Use the time signature to determine how to translate the protonotated rhythms into specific note values. For example, a two-beat note in common time (quarter-note beat) is a half note (2 × 𝅘𝅥 ), while in cut time (half-note beat), it is a whole note (2 × 𝅗𝅥 ).

If the clef, tonic pitch, and/or time signature of the melody have not been specified, the same protonotation can be realized into staff notation in several different ways. Example 12 shows a melody in protonotation that is realized in two different clefs, compound meters, and key signatures. The first realization is in bass clef in the key of G major, and the bottom number of its time signature is 8. The second realization is in alto clef in the key of B♭ major, and the bottom number of its time signature is 4.

Example 12. Two different realizations of a melody in protonotation.

Example 13 shows a melody in protonotation that is realized in three different clefs, compound meters, and key signatures. The first realization is in treble clef in the key of E♭ major, and the bottom number of its time signature is 4. The second realization is in tenor clef in the key of C♯ major, and the bottom number of its time signature is 8. The third realization is in bass clef in the key of F major, and the bottom number of its time signature is 1.

Example 13. Three different realizations of a melody in protonotation.

Like sight-singing and sight-counting, rhythmic and melodic dictation take many years to master. If you are an undergraduate music major, you will likely practice these skills throughout many classes, over many years. Again, be patient with yourself and meet with your instructor for help early on if you are struggling.

Further Reading
  • Karpinsky, Gary. 2007. Manual for Ear Training and Sight Singing. New York: Norton.
Online Resources
Assignments from the Internet
  1. Writing Counts (.pdf)
  2. Writing Solfège or Scale Degrees (.pdf)
Assignments
  1. Solfège and Scale Degree Identification (.pdf, .docx)
  2. Solfège and Scale Degree Identification in a Melodic Context (.pdf, .docxWorksheet playlist

Media Attributions

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OPEN MUSIC THEORY by Kris Shaffer; Chelsey Hamm; and Samuel Brady is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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