Learning to play what you hear in your head is a great benefit of musical ear training.

Before doing ear training, many musicians feel like they can imagine amazing music – but then can not bring it out on their instrument.

To play the music you imagine on your instrument requires a combination of listening skills and instrument skills.

Ear training is about:

  • hearing more detail and
  • understanding what you hear

and both of these are essential for playing the music you hear in your head. There are three steps to follow if you want to be able to do this:

1. Hear in detail using Audiation

When we hear music in our head we are using our musical imagination. This skill is technically called audiation, and it is the starting point for being able to improvise music or create your own music.

You may feel like you are imagining music clearly—but unless you have spent time practising audiation, the chances are your musical imagination is actually quite blurry!

So step one in learning to play the music you hear in your head is to get better at really hearing that music clearly in your head. You must be able to “synthesize” the music accurately and in detail before you can hope to bring it out reliably using your instrument.

You can learn more about audiation in this article: “The Secret Music Practice Skill: Audiation”

2. Understand what you hear

In ear training we are often learning to attach names to the musical elements we hear. This helps our brain to create useful mental frameworks to really understand music.

At first it seems pointless to worry about whether an interval is a perfect fourth or a perfect fifth, for example. But it is only by learning to reliably distinguish the two that you can develop a useful sense of relative pitch and understand what notes you are hearing when you listen to music.

So step two in learning to play the music you hear in your head is to understand what you’re hearing. With a strong ability in audiation, you should be able to “play back” your imagined music in detail, and then use the skills developed through ear training to know what exactly you are hearing. For example, you might have practised solfège, and so be able to assign solfa names to each note you are imagining. Now you truly understand the music in your head, and it’s time to bring that understanding to your instrument.

3. Connect it to your instrument

Once you understand what you are hearing in your head, it is actually a small extra step to play it on your instrument.

It does take a bit of practice to bridge the gap between theoretical understanding (e.g. labelled intervals, solfa melodies, chord degrees and names) and actually putting your fingers on your instrument correctly. But if you are an able player and you have understood the theory, it will not take much practice to bridge this gap.

Of course, the details here depend on what instrument you play and what kind of music you are imagining. The process will be different for a drummer imagining a great beat than for a saxophonist imagining an amazing melody than for a guitar player imagining an innovative chord progression.

However, the overall process is the same: the musician must first hear the music clearly in their head, then use ear training skills to understand the music they are imagining, and finally use their instrument knowledge to bring that understood music out through their instrument.

How to play what you hear in your head

Spend time practising each of the three steps explained above and you will soon find you can:

  1. Imagine music more clearly and in more detail
  2. Understand the notes you are hearing
  3. Transfer that music onto your instrument

and so bring the music you hear in your head out through your instrument.

Similar questions answered on this page:

  • How do you play on your instrument what you hear?
  • What is musical imagination?
  • What’s the point of audiation?