Time for a tricky question.

Audiation appears to be the practice of playing music in your head. I found an answer referring to what audiation is in https://music.stackexchange.com/questions/9621/to-sing-is-good-for-ear-training-but-is-it-crucial, and I'm intrigued!

A quick search also found Audiation, Mental hearing, Composing/Reading scores without sound reference.

I imagine that creating a simple melody in your head, and then using knowledge of relative intervals and rhythm could be used to practice.

I'm also imagining playing a scale in your head while visualizing the sheet music, and in the past I've learned chord patterns on the guitar in my head to help with memorizing the shapes, but I've never really considered the practice of in your head practice before!

So let's start simple:

How can you practice Audiation?

and then get more heavy

What are the benefits of practicing Audiation?

I've heard that some composers can create entire symphonies in their head, and I myself am capable of hearing 2-3 simple instrument voices in my head while composing. It's something that applies to any instrument and potentially allows for some pretty amazing feats! So I think this topic needs some exploration!

I look forward to seeing these answers

  • Imagining sound isn't music performance; there is no external evidence of any music.
    – Kaz
    Commented Aug 15, 2013 at 21:03
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    @Kaz - that is correct, however, audiation falls into the category of musical pedagogical practice, which applies to this site. Commented Aug 15, 2013 at 23:59
  • If it's pedagogic, can I be graded on an exam that tests how well I ... audiate?
    – Kaz
    Commented Aug 16, 2013 at 0:21
  • 4
    @Kaz - yes, because audiation technique determines your intonation and your ability to produce correct intervals. If we were in a sight-singing test and you hadn't practiced your audiation, you would sing out of tune and I would give you a bad grade. :) Commented Aug 16, 2013 at 15:03
  • It is impossible to conclude whether or not someone practiced audiation from whether or not they failed a music performance test. Audiation cannot be directly observed. This question cannot be answered. "How do you practice audiation" is akin to "how do you imagine", "how do you feel" or "how do you go about thinking".
    – Kaz
    Commented Aug 16, 2013 at 18:17

1 Answer 1


I explain audiation to my students like this:

Audiation is just like transcribing a given external melody or rhythm, only it happens internally.

When you compose music, you are constantly audiating - your "inner ear" "hears" something, you write it down, you check it, and if it matches, you move on, if it doesn't, then you modify your understand of what it is you're hearing until you're satisfied.

You practice audiation the same way you practice your other aural skills, because it is one in the same. I almost think the real question here is How can you develop the inner-ear?

In my experience, I have found that there are two effective ways that yield dramatic results with diligent practice. (Note here that I am not discounting other methods, but am simply describing two that I have found to be effective.)

They are as follows:

  • Transcription

And I don't mean writing down a dumb melody in ear-training class. But transcribing pieces of music - especially "non-classical" music to be precise. Often this type of music is in simple or basic duple meter, uses popular chord progressions and intervals, and is transparent in its architecture. Such material is great to work with when transcribing since it does not clutter the aural dictive process.

I recommend that students transcribe songs from their favorite bands - not rap artists as the harmonic language is too sparse, however, it is good for rhythmic training. Transcribing one song in its entirety (voice, guitars, drums, bass, etc,) is equivalent to approximately one year of aural skills at the collegiate level.

  • Singing

Singing is vitally important to developing the ears, though, oddly enough, many vocalists are very poor at sight-singing (that is the subject for another time.) As opposed to transcription, I recommend to my students not to sing popular music for many reasons (not listed here.) Instead, I have them sight-sing using fixed and movable solfege systems through melodic etudes that require them to alter specific pitches within each etude. The alterations are simple at first, eventually graduating to more difficult alterations, modal mixture, and finally atonality or pantonality.

I highly encourage all instrumentalists to sing, and all vocalists to learn rudiments of one melodic instrument. Pairing audiation with kinesthetic coordination creates more neurological connections in the brain, therefore further reinforcing the learned concept.

This is why children's brains are the most active when they play music and why it is such a terrible idea for schools to cut arts funding. But I digress.

Audiation is beneficial for many reasons, some of which are listed below:

  • Improves overall musicianship - by practicing audiation, other shortcomings will be improved as well. For example, let's say you're having a hard time slurring some intervals on the trumpet. Your problem could be one of audiation and not actually physical lip technique.
  • Reduces Learning Time - you don't need to spend as long learning the notes because you already know the notes and can focus on expressivity.
  • Reduces Composition Time - as a composer, this is a big one for me. The better my ears get the less time I spend figuring out what I want, which means I can write or music or do other stuff that I want to do.
  • It helps you appreciate music more deeply - think about how much more awesome that Beethoven Sonata or that Radiohead song sounds because you can identify the augmented sixth chords.
  • Increases musical memory - you can retain more sounds in your head more accurately for a longer period of time, thus helping you appreciate music more deeply / remember cool things that you want to steal and put in your own music.
  • Opens up more opportunities - say you and some friends wanted to do some impromptu barbershop singing at a pub (like me recently) but you can't join in because you can't hear the intervals you're supposed to sing from memory. That makes everyone sad. Incidentally, we sounded great.
  • Improves ensemble playing - by being able to hear intervals ahead of time, you are better able to not only compensate for your instrument, but also compensate for the group as well, thus resulting in a better overall sound.

Some composers hear everything instantaneously (Mozart, Mendelssohn) while some labor agonizingly (Beethoven, Brahms, Joan Tower, most people) and some can even work very steadily (Britten, Stravinsky.) One way isn't better than any other way, and it doesn't make the music any more incredible or the composer any more worthwhile. As you can see, I mentioned a bunch of famous composers with wildly different working aesthetics.

What's important is to develop our shortcomings so that we may improve at whatever and however we do what we do - whether it is playing, singing, composing, or just listening.

Hope that helps.

  • 1
    I read an article that Opera singers who go deaf stop being able to sing certain notes in key, not because the voice can't do it, but because their ear can no longer hear the note. Would that be a side-effect of lost audiation/the loss of being able to mentally hold a note? Commented Aug 15, 2013 at 19:46
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    @AlexanderTroup - there are also articles about musicians with absolute pitch losing their ear after learning to play the violin - all of the microtonal adjustments blurred their understanding of the pitches. It is hard to say why an operatic vocalist would lose pitch as there are many factors involved - age, improper training, hearing damage, and poor nutrition could all be contributing factors. There are many others, but I have only mentioned a few here. Commented Aug 16, 2013 at 0:03
  • What instruments do you play jj? I'm guessing you play the trumpet, anything else?
    – Anthony
    Commented Aug 16, 2013 at 8:41
  • You mentioned some exercises using the solfege technique, is there any perticular book or books of sheet music you would reccommend for that? I have Bona's rhythmical articulation which i've heard they sing at college sometimes. Commented Aug 16, 2013 at 9:32
  • 1
    @AlexanderTroup The inability to sing in key due to deafness is the simple consequence of the control loop being open. It is not possible to apply the exactly right amount of muscle tension in the vocal cords to produce an exact note, without monitoring the result to make corrections.
    – Kaz
    Commented Aug 19, 2013 at 3:44

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