I’ve self studied my way through harmony, counterpoint (strict and free), free composition, can improvise at the piano in most styles without much thought, but I’m finding when I try to compose straight on paper I have to sing (moveable do) each individual line and hope they sound good even if I know the harmony is grammatically correct.

Is there a method of learning how to hear chords in your head by reading a score that anyone is aware of? Normally I just try to sing the arpeggio of the chord but that method doesn’t seem to be feasible for some larger spanned chords.

  • I'm always wary when a question starts with the poster saying "I'm really good at this, this, and this, oh and also that." You should find someone who seems to be able to do what you want to do and ask them. Some people are just wired differently. When Zappa composed The Black Page he probably wasn't sitting at the drumkit. Apr 21, 2022 at 12:37
  • I understand that historically, composing straight on paper was considered the "correct" way. Is there a reason you feel you must be able to do it now?
    – Theodore
    Apr 21, 2022 at 13:48

3 Answers 3


To, essentially, expand on ttw's answer: Most musical abilities are learned abilities, and most are built gradually through frequent repetition. I doubt that you could build the skill of audiation ("imagining music" in "your mind's ear," so to speak), especially for chords, simply by singing on your own: the human voice can't produce chords. You could perhaps build it by regularly singing in a choir and staying aware of the vertical harmonies being created by the multiple parts at each moment, but you say you're proficient at piano. A much easier way would be to work on linking your practical ability (to play chords) with an awareness of them in writing. Many, many, many composers have always written at the keyboard (even when writing for other instrumentations). The more often you "put your brain" in between the printed page and the sounded chord, the more you'll build the ability to imagine the one when provided only the other (to mentally transcribe played chords, or to mentally hear written chords).


Mostly, it just takes practice (like everything else.) You can listen to recordings of pieces that you have the scores to. There are even scrolling scores on youtube.

  • It unclear from your answer, is this how you learned to do it?
    – Aaron
    Apr 21, 2022 at 2:41
  • I learned from listening to LPs with scores. For songs off the radio, I learned (on Patti Page's "Tennessee Waltz") when it came out. I liked the song and my mom taught me how to pick songs off the radio. Most pop songs (country, Latin, etc.) have a simple enough structure that one can figure out the structure. Then I tried "hearing" what I saw written. The idea (from Mom) was to learn a piece by muscle memory, sight memory (score), and memory of the sound. It took some practice but I started when about 4 or 5. Needless to say, I've probably forgot most by now.
    – ttw
    Apr 21, 2022 at 3:27
  • Makes sense, but I'm still a little unclear. Given a score that is new to you, you're able (or were able) to "hear" it at sight?
    – Aaron
    Apr 21, 2022 at 3:34
  • 1
    I can get a pretty good idea of what the score sounds like. I don't really hear it like some people with perfect pitch have told me that they can. (Not everyone with PP can though, some just aren't musical; they can match frequencies though.) I'm much better reading a country two-step and knowing how to play it than I am with something like Brahms' Clarinet Quintet or the like. It's not much different from reading a play and knowing how the dialogue should sound.
    – ttw
    Apr 21, 2022 at 4:35

There seems to be a disconnect between "improvise in most styles" and "harmony is grammatically correct." If your improvisations are stylistically good, are you aware of what you are playing in the sense of harmonic grammar? Can you imagine an improvisation idea, and then play it? That's audiation. You could try to audiate, then write the idea down first. Play it after to sort of "test" yourself. Or you could try a mix of improve that you then transcribe along with audiate (hear it in your head) then transcribe that. You could use one mode to correct/adjust the other. Improve at the keyboard would then become improve on paper.

Is there a method of learning how to hear chords in your head by reading a score that anyone is aware of?

I would say the reading method to do that is sight reading. But I think it would be better to describe it as "hearing chord changes" rather than "hear chords".

When sight reading you look for relative changes, and those relative changes should be read for both execution, basically fingering and position changes, and aural changes, how it will sound.

Think about this: if you didn't have an idea of how the music you sight read should sound, how would you know if you are playing it right? You have an instinctive sense of it sounding right, but you want to cultivate that into a deeper sense of understanding. For example, you're reading something and playing the tonic chord, a part of the music moves from the tone SOL up a step to LA, your harmony studies tell you it's moving to the subdominant, repeated sight reading and listening will eventually allow you to hear it in your head before you play it.

After you have done a lot of sight reading, when you write something on paper (in the style of whatever you've been sight reading), you should be able to know what it will sound like before playing it, what it sounds like as you write it.

You want three things to eventually become linked the eye for reading, the hand for executing, and the ear for hearing. Composing to paper directly, without actually performing, essentially becomes the reading part extended through a creative impulse. With enough training in the style of the writing, your trained hands and ears will have a good idea how the writing should be played and sound before actually playing the music.

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