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. Never write your rhythmic or melodic solmization syllables onto your music, unless specifically instructed to.
  • 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 that you 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-degress 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

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

Four groups of four dots are shown
Example 2. 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 a sustained note, and circles to indicate rests. This is called . Example 3 shows slash notation on the dot grid from Example 2, with a recording of a rhythm:


Slashes, dashes, and circles are shown above the dot grid to represent rhythms
Example 3. Slash notation can be used to represent sounds.

Next, you will want to translate your slash notation to staff notation. Example 4 shows Example 3 in staff notation in common time:

Example 4. Staff notation of Example 3.

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 on which beats are articulations, sustains, and rests.

Melodic Dictation

The first step for taking melodic dictation is to write down the melody’s rhythm (see the previous section on rhythmic dictation), then adding 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. You can also use stars (or another symbol) to indicate where you hear a leap. Example 5 shows a melody with the rhythm from Example 3 and contour lines, along with a recording:

Contour lines and a star appear above the slash notation and dot grid from Example 2
Example 5. Contour lines have been added to Example 3.

Another strategy is to write down the syllables you hear using your melodic solmization system (scale-degrees or solfège). Example 6 adds solfège syllables:

Example 6. Solfège has been added to Example 4.

The next step is to translate your contour lines and solmization syllables into staff notation. Example 7 shows Example 6 realized into staff notation:

Example 7. Example 5 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 which is drawn from the book Manual for Ear Training and Sight Singing by Gary Karpinski.[1] 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.

Elements of Protonotation

Example 9 shows blank protonotation grids for duple, triple, and quadruple meters:

Duple meter:
Duple meter.

Triple meter:
Triple meter.

Quadruple meter:

Quadruple meter.
Example 9. Protonotation grids for duple, triple, and quadruple meter.

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 lack of 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 music you may have initially left blank.

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.

First, draw the clef provided (or choose an appropriate one based on your perception of the register of the melody) and determine the key signature from the tonic provided and the mode (major or minor) that you heard or that was provided. Then, determine the time signature from the beat value/bottom number provided and from the meter reflected in your protonotation.

Next, each of the long protonotation lines become bar lines in staff notation.

Finally insert the notes into each bar. The register, solfège syllable, and tonic will determine the pitches. The rhythmic value will be determined by the duration of the note in beats and what the time signature implies about the duration of the beat. For example, a two-beat note in common time is a half note (2 x quarter-note beat), while in cut time is a whole note (2 x half-note beat).

Example 10 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 10. Two different realizations of a melody in protonotation.

Example 11 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 11. Three different realizations of a melody in protonotation.

Like sight-singing and sight-counting, rhythmic and melodic dictation takes 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.

Online Resources
Assignments from the Internet
  1. Writing Counts (.pdf.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


  1. See Gary S. Karpinsky, Manual for Ear Training and Sight Singing (New York: Norton, 2007), 1–28.

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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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