I just had a discussion with my friend who is a professional pianist. We talked about when one performed from memory, what did he actually "see"? Here are the answers to the question that my friend has gathered over the years:

1) The mental images of the actual scores: certain musicians are blessed with, or trained to develop photographic memories- either of whole scores or some tricky passages. Therefore, they just play the scores as they see them from their minds.

2) The mental images of the hands on the keyboard: for this group, what they remember are the images of the finger configurations on the keyboard.

3) Somethings more abstract: fewer musicians who are familiar with music theory remember the scores as a sequence of numbers (chords, intervals) and then translate them to the physical movements.

4) Don't actually see anything and just play: some musicians, especially those with perfect pitch or good relative pitch, hum the pieces in their heads and then translate them into physical movements.

How about you, what do you see when you perform? I wonder if there have been good interdisciplinary studies about this topic (between musical performance and cognitive science)

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    Much as this is a really interesting question, the way you've phrased it right now (how about you, what do you see?) isn't the type of question that works with this sites format, which is about concrete, answerable questions rather than subjects for general discussion. Take a look here for more info music.stackexchange.com/tour – Some_Guy Sep 24 '17 at 23:06
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    What do you "see" when you sing a song from memory? – Mark Lutton Sep 24 '17 at 23:12
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    None of the above - just whatever is visible in the real world situation. But I once had a very weird "out of body experience" where I was watching myself playing, from somewhere in the middle of the auditorium. (No chemical substances involved, unless someone had put something in the coffee!) I distinctly remember wondering how this was going to end, while it was going on - but in fact I have no memory at all of how it did end, though (presumably!) nothing happened that affected the actual performance of the music. Either that, or everyone was too polite to make any comments about it! – user19146 Sep 24 '17 at 23:23
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    I'm focused on my ears and my audiation (hearing the music in my mind) and as far as I know my visual cortex is on standby and/or being totally ignored. I'm kind of "blind" in a way. I usually don't remember what the audience looks like after a gig. Obviously bright lights are part of that, but my mind just is lost in the music in a non-visual way. – Todd Wilcox Sep 25 '17 at 0:18
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    @alephzero - I've described that sort of phenomenon to some students, and yes, it has happened. I can only put it down to being so contained in the music, that one's mind can afford to go absent for a bit. Weird, but true! – Tim Sep 25 '17 at 17:11

I think this would be a difficult to one to nail down, as most people essentially experience the world completely differently, whether within music or not. Even if the response of the brain is the same for the different people who use the same types of memorization techniques or report having the same visual experience, it's hard to say that they're all having the same experience. How do I know that you and I experience the same thing when we look at the color blue? We may both see the same object and respond to it saying it is blue but for all we know, my brain is perceiving the colors differently. So I think this answer would be different for everyone but I imagine there are some common experiences.

What I can speak to is what a friend of mine who is completing his doctorate in piano performance has told me. One of his teachers had taught him good practices for memorization that involved a few steps. One was to memorize what the sheet music looks like and be able to recall it well enough to write out the notes again, so he could see the score in his head while he played. Another way was to just memorize the music itself, being able to sing the melody in your head and audiate/conceptualize the rest of the music (since you can't really sing chords). Another is to memorize the physical movements, ie, which keys you press when and with which fingers, when to shift positions, etc. All of this comes together to form the overall memory but can also be used as a crutch if the player becomes unsure of what to do next, so if they can't remember, they can visualize or audiate any aspect of the music or performance to get back to confidence. So they might visualize the score or physical motions, or they may just audiate it with no visualization.

The thing that really comes to mind for me though is that I've heard many people, as well as having experienced it myself, report that they are performing but actually thinking about something completely non-musical, such as what they have to do the next day or how beautiful the girl in the front row is. This is particularly interesting for people who are singing, especially if they play an instrument while they do so. The singer in my band has related to me how she has been playing guitar and singing through the verse or chorus and had the realization that she has no idea what is happening next in the music, then racking her brain trying to figure it out. Next thing she knows, she's playing and singing the next part without having even realized it. All of this speaks to what most refer to as muscle memory but is really called procedural memory. So with enough practice, no thought is even required, let alone visualization. This is also exemplified by someone who is blackout drunk pretty well (which I've done a couple times when I was younger and strongly discourage), though a little different.

I would also think that this varies greatly depending on the experience of the player, the difficulty of the music and the style of music. A beginner is almost certainly thinking about how to execute each note or chord, with the only visual stimuli being them staring at the instrument. Someone playing Jazz may be visualizing the chord changes as they improvise. Someone playing the most difficult music you can imagine might be visualizing the score. Some people just don't "see" anything.

Beyond all this, there is also synesthesia, which is basically when a person's senses cross, the most commonly discussed of which seems to be seeing colors when hearing notes or music. These people are clearly seeing something entirely different than those that are not synesthetes. Research shows that the visual stimulation that is experienced is entirely subjective, ie, there is no reliably common visual representation of the music from different synesthetes.

So I think it's ultimately different for everyone, even when it's reportedly the same. With that in mind, unless someone has an answer based on research with references to experiments or surveys, this question is a bit outside the domain of this forum, which is kind of a shame, as it is an interesting topic, but I understand and agree with the reasoning.

  • Well written but does repeat what I answered. – Carl Witthoft Sep 25 '17 at 18:59
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    @CarlWitthoft - I suppose there is a decent amount of material in here that you covered but I did add a few extra things as well, so it wouldn't really be just a repeat of your answer... – Basstickler Sep 25 '17 at 19:01

I've had serious discussions with my teachers about this. There are several mechanisms possible, and roughly speaking you've properly memorized a piece when you can use all or none of them.

In my case, the first mechanism is that I "see" the sheet music sort of rolling past my eyes as I play. The second is total muscle memory, where my fingers/hands (cellist here) "just do it." The third, and most difficult for me, is knowing the music as a pitch/meter sequence and playing to that.
There are probably others, but those are the most common three so far as I know.

  • I find the 3rd one way easier than the first one. I listen to lots of music, so when I know how it sounds, I can often play it. Obviously, harder things have to be in muscle memory, but I never memorize then sheet – Mafii Sep 26 '17 at 7:06

I, being raised on a classical background and transitioning to jazz and other, tend to see music in 3 parts. Chords, melody, and fills in between. This works well with classical music too. If you can't memorize something perfect, play the same chord and most of the audience won't even know.

Chords - this is mostly to memorize. There is some intuition involved too (ex. II-V-I, popular progressions such as i-VI-III-VII)

Melody - my perfect pitch helps here. This is the part of the song our brains remember anyway.

Fills - specific and unique to each song. Often they fit the same pattern and you can remember them all in one go.


I know how the song goes, and I know how to play the sounds that make it. I don't "see" anything, and I don't have relative/perfect pitch. I just know how the song goes in my ear, and I know which note to play. I strongly believe this is because I learned with the Suzuki method, in which, before you learn to read music, memorization is basically the only technique offered for learning songs. I'm better at memorizing than most people at my level (repertoire-wise), and it isn't any particular "trick" I learned, it's just what naturally happens to me after I've heard the song a certain number of times.


For most songs, I memorise the motion and positions of the song. I don't actually remember the sheet music because I learn songs by ear. I don't really have a synaesthesia thing aiding me. Just the motions.


Music is, at least for me, mostly about the emotion when playing. I for one don't see anything, but feel everything.

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