Five of the greatest sight-reading musicians of all time

The violinists and pianists throughout history who have had the best memories and sight-reading techniques

Paganini Violin

Niccolò Paganini

A pioneer whose playing laid the foundations for modern violin technique, Paganini’s virtuosity lead some to claim he had a hidden extra string on his violin. As a stunt at the end of his concerts he invited audience members to hand him any piece they wanted him to play.

Felix Mendelssohn

Composer, pianist, poet, painter and draughtsman, Mendelssohn was an amazing intellect. Berlioz described his ability to read at sight as ‘incomparable’. He famously sight-read Robert Schumann’s fiendish Piano Quintet at its premiere after Clara fell ill.

Franz Liszt

One of history’s great composers and piano virtuosos, Liszt amazed Grieg by playing
his new piano concerto perfectly from the manuscript, then giving suggestions for improvement. Clara Schumann said that Liszt could ‘read at sight what we toil over and at the end get nowhere with’.

Erno Dohnányi

A champion of works by fellow Hungarians and the established concert repertoire, the composer and pianist Dohnányi was famous for his ability to sight-read and memorise new music. At a sight-reading contest in 1930, after surveying the score for the first time, he asked into what key the piece should be transposed – at which point his opponent resigned.

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John Ogdon

Described as shy, gentle and brilliant, Ogdon was renowned for his sight-reading ability. He sight-read Kaikhosru Sorabji’s Opus Clavicembalisticum, possibly the hardest solo piano piece of its time, after Sir Peter Maxwell Davies found a copy in a second-hand shop.

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