Sheet music enables instrumental performers who are able to read music notation (a pianist, orchestral instrument players, a jazz band, etc.) or singers to perform a song or piece.

Presumably some performers are able to "hear" sheet music from reading prior to performance. Particularly music for a single (known) instrument, such as Beethoven's moonlight sonata.

To what extent do such people "hear" sheet music?

Can notated music be largely judged (by some) from the page, without literally hearing it?

EDIT - By judge I just meant the same way I would "judge" music upon listening. As in decide whether it is good or bad or worth listening to again, etc. And how similar it can elicit some emotional reaction, whether good or bad.

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    I've edited to hopefully explain what I mean.
    – Modal Nest
    Commented Jan 5, 2021 at 23:30
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    If it's helpful in finding literature, the term for this is "audiation."
    – Richard
    Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 1:42
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    Beethoven wrote about a third of his compositions after he became totally deaf. Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 7:26
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    I'm going to trot out my anecdote of the friend whilst holding the score and listening to a poor choir perform a brand new piece, went outside with the comment "I can either read this or listen to them. I can't do both at once."
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 7:56
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    The edit puts a lot of subjectivity into the question. I guess to be able to decide if it's 'good or bad', one must essentially be able to sight-read it internally at least, anyhow. And that's not a rare talent amongst musicians.
    – Tim
    Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 10:33

5 Answers 5


Training to be a singer includes what is called "ear training" which is the act of hearing the pitch in your "ear" (mind, really) before you phonate (sing) it. This ability keeps you in tune while you sing.

You also learn how to read music and, eventually, you learn how to "sight-read" it. This means you can pick up sheet music and sing the notes without ever having heard them before.

So, I can tell you that singers who can "sight-read" music do hear the pitch in their "ear" before they phonate it. In fact, being able to sight-reading music they've never seen before is a required skill for any singer wanting to perform in a choir.

  • The thing is, people who don't have absolute pitch apparently do need that initial instrumental intro/piano chord/etc. before they can truly sing the music in its correct key, which means that either they can hear the pitch in their mind's ear but are somehow unable to pitch-match it or they in fact cannot hear the pitch in their mind's ear, which contradicts your statement that "So, I can tell you that singers who can "sight-read" music do hear the pitch in their "ear" before they phonate it". (I personally don't have the greatest clue how sight-singing doesn't translate to absolute pitch.)
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 13:41
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    @Dekkadeci - Most of us (not just musicians) have a sort of absolute pitch. That is, if we play a popular tune in our heads, most of us usually hear it in the correct key. The term absolute pitch is usually reserved for people who can identify pitch outside of any context. But the ability to remember pitches in a context can help a lot for a singer to see sheet music and hear it in the right key. Of course, this would work best for music they've seen/heard/sung/played the most, and would be less help for a new piece. There is a reason they make pitch pipes. Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 14:51
  • As I'm sure the poster knows, ear training is valuable for musicians in general, not just vocalists. Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 14:55
  • @JeffLearman - Based on the question's "Can notated music be largely judged (by some) from the page, without literally hearing it? EDIT - By judge I just meant the same way I would "judge" music upon listening.", I assumed that the question is aimed at evaluating new music, not evaluating sheet music of already familiar pieces.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 15:25
  • @Dekkadeci I didn't mean to sound like I was contradicting you; sorry if I did. Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 15:32

With enough training and practice you can absolutely "hear" the music in your head as you read the sheet music. And you can judge what it should sound like but that doesn't mean you can judge it as a performance. Humans will inject some of their own "feeling" into it and that adds to the uniqueness of each rendition of the tune. I've heard of classical guitarists who can learn a piece by reading it without hold in the guitar. They can hear what it's supposed to sound like and can even feel it in the hand. It still needs to be practiced and polished but it can be learnt by that method.


The people most likely to be able to do this are composers and orchestral conductors. It is a mixture of inbuilt talent allied with plenty of practice.

You could argue that composers and conductors become good at this because they practise doing it. In my opinion, it is more likely the other way around. Because they can do it, they become composers and conductors!

Let's look first simply at the ability to hear music in one's head, quite apart from reading and writing it.

I'll speak for myself. I'm not blessed with the ability to do this at will but very often in a state between waking and sleeping, I can hear a full band/orchestra playing. I can pick out different instruments and even get them to play solos.

Here is a thread on the Young Composers website. It is clear from this that abilities to do this vary widely. https://www.youngcomposers.com/t30950/writing-music-in-your-head/ e.g.

Well, I write music in my head ALL the time. The thing is, in my head, the music never stops: See, it can be a piece of someone else's, a well known piece I'm thinking about, but about 50% of the time it's a piece of my own. When it is, I always think about some rhythms that I randomly tap out, then the melody, harmony, etc all come to me at the same time, all bunched in there. It's so natural for me, I never even thought about it being unusual. I mean, I also can get the idea anywhere, so I guess that's just me!

Schumann apparently had exactly the same going on in his head.

The Romantic composer Robert Schumann was said to have heard entire symphonies in his head from which he drew as inspiration for his music, but later in his life this phenomenon had diminished to just a note that played ceaselessly within his head. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musical_ear_syndrome

Nowadays, this is recognised as a mental (or perhaps rather brain) disorder that can be very distressing for some people.

Musical hallucinations are a form of auditory hallucinations, in which patients hear songs, instrumental music or tunes, even though no such music is actually playing. Most patients realize they are hallucinating, and find the music intrusive and occasionally unpleasant. There is no cure.

Musical ear syndrome (MES) describes a condition seen in people who have hearing loss and subsequently develop auditory hallucinations. "MES" has also been associated with musical hallucinations, which is a complex form of auditory hallucinations where an individual may experience music or sounds that are heard without an external source.[1] It is comparable to Charles Bonnet syndrome (visual hallucinations in visually impaired people) and some have suggested this phenomenon could be included under this diagnosis. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musical_ear_syndrome

Musical hallucinations usually occur in older people. Several conditions are possible causes or predisposing factors, including hearing impairment, brain damage, epilepsy, intoxications and psychiatric disorders such as depression, schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Hearing impairment is the most common predisposing condition, but is not by itself sufficient to cause hallucinations. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130820094420.htm

Mozart had the ability from a young age to hear an entire piece of music at a concert, then go home and write it out as sheet music. He composed this way too. Sometimes he would be lazy and only write out the sheet music the night before a concert.

Here is a thread discussing the topic of hearing scores in one's head just by reading them. https://www.talkclassical.com/67924-those-you-who-can.html


The ability to hear a full orchestral score in one's head from reading the score is what makes a great orchestral conductor. The main job of such a conductor is the get real musicians to play what the conductor already hears in their head!


In response to a comment by @Internet Chord Database, I should make it clear that I don't intend to say that only conductors and composers have this ability. Other musicians do too. Also, for any kinds of musician, abilities will vary from being able hear a single part in your head, all the way up to imagining a whole orchestra.

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    I'd say singers are equally as likely to have this ability as composers and orchestral conductors. But I do agree that instrumentalists are less likely to have this skill. Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 17:11
  • @Internet Chord Database Good point. I'll add to my answer. Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 17:53

It depends on the skill of the musician and the complexity of the sheet music, but yes, musicians do totally hear in their heads the music they are reading and about to play. It is a skill that is learned, much the way that we learn to read text.

The skill comes in particularly useful when transposing at sight. It's often much easier to hear the music in your head as you read it and then play what you 'hear' in a different key, than it is to transpose by 'mechanically' working out the intervals from the printed dots. (I suspect this doesn't work if you have perfect pitch though!)


Music is a language that can learnt (understood and spoken by almost everyone if it would be trained like our mother language. If you are taught by eartraining and sight reading and you practice it everyday it becomes a part of you like a learnt foreign language. You start to think and combine motifs, chords, chord progressions and are able to right any rhythmic and melodic motif like you are able to sing it.

Of course there are individual differences of talents and flairs but we could all reach much more in this branch of capability if we were more interested and better trained from youth.

This assumption refers at least to the common practice music, but it can be extended by learning to the language of Wagner, Bruckner, Debussy and modern music. (All modern music has to be learnt like a new language, but this is possible, if you have been trained as a little child to speak one language and you have been trained in grammar and reading.)

Not all musicians need to train this ability, some just play their instrument without awareness of what they are doing. And as it is not necessary for their business they don't develop their capacity.

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