For a long time I have wondered how musicians have been able to create music internally without the use of an instrument i.e improvising physically or in some other real way.

I think the idea that sounds formulate in the mind into musical ideas is a very feasible skill to have and can be developed, however this idea seems to gathered a rather elusive perspective; in so much that musicians/artists have some kind of "sporadic moments" of inspiration that magically give them ideas, particularly in regards to songs.

Although it happens and it is what I mostly hear about; I am curious how someone can to some degree consciously create music in the minds, improvising with sounds they have heard (or not) into a direction of something new or free-form.

For myself I have had moments where I have captured and assimilated different sounds though contemplation, meaningful experiences, recollections and in dreams. Although I don't fully understand how exactly these are developed in neurological terms I honestly think they are not by chance, and can be harnessed in some strategically creative way.

Lastly I have viewed the similar titled question;

Mental approach to improvisation

and is not the same as what I am talking about here.

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    This seems like a duplicate of music.stackexchange.com/questions/81681/…, both seem to be about a "pure" inner ear concept instead of physical patterns on instruments. – Michael Curtis Apr 10 at 19:43
  • I don't think it is. Although the inner ear is certainly part of it and that inspiration is a large factor - the question referred is focused on ideas derived from other musicians and "physical patterns" and not more so the internalization of creative ideas from one's self. – GZD Apr 10 at 19:55
  • You may need to clarify your question. It seems like you might mean "where does creative inspiration come from?" – Michael Curtis Apr 10 at 20:07
  • it's too vague and i'm guessing someone has already asked that. Plus it is not directly to do with inspiration as such but rather reformulating sound within yourself. – GZD Apr 10 at 22:08
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    Does singing count as "without the use of an instrument"? – Dekkadeci Apr 10 at 23:47

I can only tell you how it happens to me:

Yes, it really happens to you,

like you wrote that the mind is playing - in a dream or unconciously - with motives you have achieved also only by listening to music.

  1. there is a catchy tune or an ear worm as we say e.g. the theme of the River Kwai Marchenter image description here

What happens when you are caught by a an ear worm? The tune is following me the whole day, you can't stop thinking of it. (I never forget when I was pushing my bicycle up to the hill on my schoolpath as a little boy and this tune was turning in my head. And I couldn't get rid of it but suddenly I was there and the time passed very quickly.

  1. Your mind starts to play with the elements also unconsciosly, transforming the theme in variations, by changing the ryhthm and the time (6/8 or triplets) or adding passing notes and change notes. This happened to me often when I was minding (mental training) a Euphonium Solo or a Beethoven Sonata or a Bach prelude. The results are sometimes astonishing: I hear or have "invented" instead of a Euphonium Solo a Cornet Trio, instead of a Beethoven Sonata a "Swing March" or the Bach prelude in D is another Ave Maria, and the Allemande of an English Suite in Eb is becoming a new "Hosanna" a Cantata for Choir. (You can imagine how great the disapointement will be when you realize sometimes years later that the source of your new composition is the piece you had been practicing at the time when you wrote it.)

  2. This all happens to me more or less unconsciously... but of course I can then use this medium in purpose to recreate a new piece. So most music we know are reconstructions of already known elements that are in our subconscousness and stored in somewhere in our mind and maybe we never realized that when we did adapt it. (So I have composed once a Quartet for Brass Instruments THE OLD RUGGED CROSS and the arrangement and harmonisation of the traditional tune had been quite obvious been influenced by a Trombone Solo of Erik Leidzen! And I was sure that I didn't had heard it before. But I knew the music language of Erik Leidzen very well.

  3. Now the same happens to a musician when he is improvising:

He doesn't really improvise, it is improvising in him.

Of course he has also a repertoire of licks, patterns, riffs, fill-ins which are adaptable to most any chord progressions. He even doesn't have to mind the chords, the scales and chord tones he is playing with - or that are playing with him - are stored less or more unconscious in his mind as habits, as conditioned reflexes and are available like our language or thoughts. And the same way he is able to transpose this licks and improvisation into any key.

  1. And like our tongue doesn't have to think what to do when we are speaking: the lips, the tongue, the fingers of e.g. a trumpetist are doing their job.

  2. So improvising can be learnt and aquiered like learning the mother language. It is not quite the same like learning a new language. Don't forget how long it takes that a toddler starts brubbeling and later speaking, and how long it takes that he will have a concept of the words he is spelling.

    Finally I'd like to give an answer to your point

Although I don't fully understand how exactly these are developed in neurological terms I honestly think they are not by chance, and can be harnessed in some strategically creative way.

I am convinced that this function is similar to any neurotic process. And mind how useful this would be to someone who is scared by bad thoughts and can't sleep because of troubles in his everyday life and instead of rolling over his problems his mind is occupied with a lovely tune or a prelude of Bach. Mind the "Goldberg Variations" and their healing effect they had to the original listener). And yes, you are right I am speaking of my own experience.

  • very insightful, thanks – GZD Apr 11 at 18:09

One way to answer this question, or perhaps one way to think about this issue in general, is to consider that your inner ear, the faculty of imagining and playing sounds internally, within your mind -- that's also a musical instrument of sorts.

I call that instrument the "brain synth", because just like an electronic synth can produce and play all sorts of sounds, so does our brain, as is clearly demonstrated every time we hear speech or music in a dream.

And therefore, the issue of being able to compose or improvise music within our mind can be seen as the issue of learning to use our own "brain synth" to a sufficient degree.

Some people seem to have been born with some inborn skill in that area, but at the same time it's also evident that training and practice greatly expand this kind of ability.

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    +1 for "brain synth". A more scholarly term for hearing music in your head is audiation. – Todd Wilcox Apr 10 at 23:46
  • Another word I made up long ago was "auralization", to parallel "visualization", but among musicians "brain synth" or "inner synth" or "mind synth" seems more immediate. – MMazzon Apr 11 at 9:00
  • You can practice playing the brain synth. Imagine playing a short phrase, pressing the keys (or frets or valves or whatever) of the imaginary synth and sing out the imagined pitches that would come out. Then play the same phrase on an actual instrument. Did you sing correctly? Repeat this exercise with more and more complicated phrases, arpeggios, intervals, just like you would on an actual instrument. Repeat the exercise on top of backing tracks, just like you practice improvising on an actual instrument. It works on any instrument. Sometimes I practice my guitar skills like that. – piiperi Apr 11 at 10:06
  • Love this answer. What it's saying is that experiencing music creates an internal palette of music to paint with. – Randy Zeitman Apr 11 at 19:53

I would like to add a really interesting point (at least for me) to the already given answers:

Composing is not totally random, and so isn't improvising, not even when you do it in your mind. I, for example, could try to sing some totally random pitches with totally random timing/rhythm but it would probably not be pleasing to the listeners ear.

As you develop your ear, recognizing and singing effortlessly different intervals, scales, progressions and so on, you can mentally "think inside that models".

What I usually do for training my improvisation skill is to mentally pick some kind of scale, one or two keys (as an interval, I don't have perfect pitch) to modulate between and start randomly (or almost) playing with those models.

Another skill I use everyday is imitating styles from composers I know. That's why I find very useful to analyse compositions from many different composers, styles and eras. Music analysis teaches you not what the composers did but how they did it. Instead of learning licks, you learn methods, tricks and what those tricks communicate, those are all instrument that you can apply mentally to your own licks.

What I'm trying to say is that for me music theory is the foundation for meaningful improvisation. It unlocks your potential for going outside what you have already heard from others.


One can also just compose (partially) by pattern, sort of like doing algebra. For example, I was (no paper nor computer music program available) trying to think of several ways to harmonize the "lament" bass. It was pretty easy. Of course, I'm not quite good enough to know how it would sound; I do know how to avoid most elementary errors (parallels or the like; poor melody construction.) I did come up with a simple idea, but it didn't sound that good when I tried it, too repetitive: i-V6-VII-IV6-VI-V. The alternating pattern of root and first inversion chords is broken so that was a red flag; the discant most often used is based on parallel tenths with the bass so I didn't really get to do much. Anyway, both Purcell and Beethoven had more interesting harmonizations.

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