Saturday, October 23, 2010

Sight-Reading Music: A Unique Window on the Mind

Source: Musica. “Sight-Reading Music: A Unique Window on the Mind”
Retrieved from:

Summary: This articles looks at the way research in music cognition and behaviour could bring forth new discoveries of the mind, instead of merely paralleling them to instances of other, better known subjects. Two studies show opposing points of view in regards to the mental processes and behaviours that occur when comparing sight-reading in music to language reading. In the first study, T. W. Goolsby demonstrates that the mind behaves differently when reading music than when reading language, thus dismissing the previous belief that the two activities evoke the same neurological response. He compared the vocalization of sight-reading (humming) to the reading of language, finding major differences: opposite pattern of eye movement (a good sight-reader makes more regressive eye movements than a poor sight-reader as they relate preceding patterns to succeeding ones; regressive eye movement in a language reader denotes hesitations), perceptual span: horizontal/vertical dimensions (wider in music reading than in language reading, as demanded by attention to the staves of music), attention to details (less attention to details in reading music, reading being based on expectations drawn from knowledge e.g, harmony in Western tonal music; reading of language is more detailed as its goal is extracting meaning, having nothing to do with expectations). In another study, Rayner and Pollatsek drew the commonalties between sight-reading, reading language and also typing. They found that all three activities require the eyes to be ahead of the motor action, because the information needs to be understood before translated in action. In the case of sight-reading, an extra step of decoding the music language take place in the brain. Their conclusion was that what limits the brain in all these activities is the limitation on the capacity of short term memory – if the eyes get too far ahead, an overflow of information may result, which can be detrimental to performance.

Response: From my own experiences, I believe reading music and reading language must have different neurological responses. For most of my life, I have been struggling with sight-reading, while I cannot claim the same about reading language, which always came natural to me. I believe one can practice being a better sight-reader, I also believe one can exercise their reading skills, but each of these activities, in turn, makes different demands on our brain. Sight-reading is a much more brain intensive activity because it involves visual encoding, interpretation, pattern recognition and then muscle activation (actually playing the right notes), whereas reading only involves the first two processes. Since one activity is more intensive than the other, it would be expected that the neurological response would be different. The two opposing studies show that the brain has its limitations, and a talent in one department (reading music) is not necessarily a reflection of a talent in another (reading language).


Leila said...

Thanks a lot for your post. Since I've always been struggling with sight reading, I found this article very interesting. But I faced some question when I read the results of the study. I am wondering if comparing language reading with music reading is an unbiased study?
If you agree, most of us have practiced language reading much more than music reading in our lives, which has made the language reading a much more effortless task to do comparing with music reading.
To have a fair comparison, don't you think one should have practiced language and music reading for an equal amount of time in their lives, so the researcher would be able to compare them without a confounder ( here, the different amount of practice in language and music reading) in his/her variables' results?

Lisa Tahara said...

Studies on Sight-Reading! This was really intriguing for me to read and has inspired me to do some further research on the science behind sight-reading. I always thought that although it could certainly be improved through extensive studies, the majority of the ability to sight-read was innate.. just as in the case of perfect pitch! There are some wonderful professional musicians I know who do not necessarily have amazing sight-reading skills.

I agree with Leila that the first study may be biased because it is difficult to measure the reading of language alongside the reading of music. I also find it difficult to be in complete agreement with the researchers in the second study done by Rayner and Pollatsek. While it is true that sight-reading and reading language require the eyes to be ahead of the motor action because the information needs to be understood before being translated, I feel as though typing does not require my visual capabilities. Although I certainly require thought-process to consciously type what I am thinking (unless I am simply typing out a dictation), I typically do not require my eyes to look ahead at what my fingers are doing in the typing process.

It is also quite interesting to me that the researchers concluded that the limitation on the brain in these activities is the limitation on the capacity of short-term memory. In my situation, although I feel that sight-reading, reading language and typing are all quite effortless tasks, I don't think that I have very good short-term memory.