Audiation is one of the most powerful ways to develop your musicality – but what if you find you really struggle with it?

In this clip from the archive of live member Q&A calls at Musical U we share some practical tips to help you audiate. Enjoy!

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So, I wanted to dive in to a meaty one to begin with because as you all know, if you’ve been on these members Q&A calls before, we often struggle a bit to keep it to time, there’s always so much to talk about, but I thought we’d begin therefore with the meatiest one. So, the topic is audiation, and that may or may not be a familiar word to you.

It’s one that should really be a familiar word to any musician because it’s such a fundamental skill and such an important skill, but it’s one that a lot of musicians unfortunately neglect, and they find that it’s a relatively late discovery, that there is this whole skill of audiation that they can learn.

So, it’s one worth digging into a little bit and the question that came up this month was from Nathan Bowers, just recently. He’s one of our new joiners and definitely someone included in that shout out a moment ago, to members having great success. He’s been storming through the modules and I think really enjoying waking up his ears and polishing up his listening skills.

So, he was taking the Score to Sound with Solfa Module, and if you’re not familiar, this is a module that helps you look at printed music. So, the kind of sheet music you might play from piano or in a choir, and it helps you use the skill of Sulfur that are in your system, I talked about before, to look at that music and know how it should sound and be able to sing it directly.

So, this is particularly important for singers, but actually for any musician, you should be able ideally to look at a sheet of music and hear in your head how that music would sound if you were to play it. So, that’s what the Score to Sound Module is all about. And a key part of that process is audiation. So, when you look at the music, you figure out the notes, so in this case with Sulfur, you’d be figuring out, okay, that’s for example, do-mi-mi-so-re, and then you need to figure out what are those pictures?

So, because the whole point is to not have to pick up your instrument and play out the notes to hear how they should sound, what we’re really talking about is imagining them. So, what most musicians do is they imagine themselves singing it or humming it. You could imagine yourself playing it, but naturally, if you’re using the Sulfur system, it’s quite helpful to hear yourself singing the do-mi-mi-so-re, or whatever it may be.

So audiation, to put it simply, is just that process of imagining music in your mind. And this can be as simple as imagining yourself singing a short melody, or it can be as complicated as vividly recreating an entire Pink Floyd mix in your head of a song you wanted. So it’s, as you can imagine, a really powerful skill for musicians because we’re immersed in music because we learn it and play it and enjoy it, but to be able to internalize all of that and create it on demand in your mind is a really valuable skill.

So, Nathan was working on this module and digging into this idea of audiation and he said, “I’ve discovered that I have a problem with audiation, imagining in your head. Any suggestions?” And that’s all he said. So, I wasn’t sure quite what point he’d reached with it, whether he was having a problem just getting started or there was some level of advanced audiation ability that he wanted to have, and wasn’t quite there with.

But in any case, it was a good excuse on this call to just talk about the different levels of audiation and how you can develop each of them. So, the first thing to say is that audiation connects with so many different areas of your musicality. As I said before, it’s very powerful for sight reading music, because you want to look at it, imagine it, and then sing it.

It’s also really powerful for your sense of relative pitch, because when your ear is trying to figure out the distances between notes, a lot of what you end up doing is mental gymnastics and imagining, “Oh, is it this interval or that interval.” Or, “Is that this note from the scale or that type of chord.” And the, excuse me, the better you’re able to imagine those things and play around with different possibilities, the easier it’s going to be to get to the right answer.

So, it’s fundamental to those two areas, but the other one, which is what brings us to our first level of audiation is musical memory. And this isn’t something we talk about a lot inside Musical U because for most musicians, it comes up, to be honest, it comes up just in the exam context and that’s unfortunate, but it’s true. For me, for example, I know that when I was learning instruments back at school, I didn’t really need to think much about memory because I was always playing with the sheet music in front of me, and if I was memorizing a piece, we were really talking about longterm memories.

So, really storing something in your memory forever, more or less, so that you can memorize it this week and in three weeks time, stand up on stage and perform it without needing the sheet music, but actually what we’re talking about in the context of audiation is your short term musical memory. And this is where it comes up in exams, because I don’t know if you might have taken one of the ABRSM instrument exams, for example, but certainly early on, they have this exercise where the examiner will play a little melody on the piano and then ask you to sing it back.

And once you get past the hurdle for some musicians of just being able to sing back the melody, as you progress through the exams, that melody gets longer and longer, and soon you find that you can remember the first bit, but by the time they finish playing it, actually you’ve forgotten the first bit. And so this is where musicians, butt up against the idea of having a short term musical memory.

And it can be as simple as clapping back a rhythm. I remember that’s another exam exercise where the examiner claps a rhythm for you, and you have to clap it back. And when the rhythm is one or two bars long, that’s easy enough, but when it becomes eight bars long, that becomes a bit trickier. And a bit like audiation itself, this is a skill that’s unfortunately neglected because when you’re always relying on sheet music or longterm memorization, you don’t really need to polish up the short term memorization, but when you do, it has a powerful knock-on effect on everything else.

So, concrete example, when you get good at remembering that rhythmic pattern over eight bars, what you’ve done to be able to do that is create new constructs in your mind, new blocks of ideas about rhythm so that it’s not just trying to remember, “Okay, that was crotchet, crotchet, quaver, quaver, quaver.” You build up a pattern and you just imagine that whole sequence as that pattern of two crotchets followed by four quavers, and now you have just one thing to memorize instead of the whole note by note sequence.

So, excuse me, practicing that kind of short term musical memory is valuable because it builds up that ability to imagine bigger and bigger blocks, more and more meaningful blocks of music. And this is where it comes into audiation. So, the first level of audiation really is just about remembering music you’ve heard in a very simple way. So, if you take that clap back a rhythm example, when we say, “Can you remember it to clap it back?”

Really what we’re saying is, “Can you imagine it again in your mind?” And only on a short term basis, but they’re going to play it or you’re going to hear it, then you’re going to have to imagine it and store it somewhere in your mind temporarily, and then you’re going to clap it back to yourself, at which point you’re probably imagining it as you clap it to plan out what you clap, or in the singing example, what notes you sing.

So, that short term musical memory is, in some sense, reliant on audiation. If you want people to imagine music at all in your head, there isn’t really a meaning to saying, “Can you remember it?” Because you’re not going to be able to create it in your mind to clap it back or sing it back. So, when it comes to learning audiation that’s really the first level to crack because if you can’t remember a short melody or a short rhythmic pattern, the other stuff we’re going to talk about in a moment, you’ve got no chance.

Fortunately for most musicians, this isn’t a big problem. Most people who have been playing an instrument for a year or two willfully find they can memorize a bar or two. So, we’re talking about, 5 to 10 seconds of music fairly easily, and they can remember it for a minute or so, and you can then practice and extend that memory period, and like we talked about with the exam, so that now you can remember an eight bar pattern easily enough. But don’t worry too much about that.

The main thing to say is just, if someone says they have trouble with audiation, the first thing to check is, well, can you even remember what you’re trying to audiate or are you struggling with the memory side of it? So, they might, for example, be fine audiating 1 bar, but when it becomes 16 bars, they struggle and really that’s more of a problem of musical memory than it is audiation.

So, that would be the first level, is your musical memory up to the task of audiating. It’s the enabler for the other two things we’re going to talk about. Once you’ve got that basic musical memory working for you, the second level of audiation, which is where we really get into audiating is a simple melody. So, at the exam situation of, “Can you sing back this melody I just played in piano?” Or the sight reading example we talked about with the Score to Sound Module, where you’re looking at maybe some choir music and you’re trying to audiate it before you sing it out loud.

We’re talking about just a single note by note melody. Nothing more complex than that, we’re not worrying about what instrument it is, or the chords underneath, or the details of the recording. We’re really just thinking about what is the sequence of notes in that melody. And this is really the crux of audiation for most musicians, if you nail this, you’re winning. So, the suggestion I had for Nathan if he was getting stuck at this stage is, there’s a really simple exercise you can use to build up this ability bit-by-bit.

And it’s a very natural exercise. It’s an easy one to explain, compared with some of the more intricate training we have inside the modules at Musical U, this is something that any musician can do with any music they’re learning. And it’s simply this. You skip bars. So, supposing you’re playing a piece that’s, for the sake of example, say it’s eight bars long, and you can play this piece on your clarinet and you’re fairly comfortable playing it.

The exercise is next time, try skipping bar four. So, you play bar one through three, well, easy enough. And when you get to bar four, instead of playing it, you just imagine playing it in your head and then you come right back in on bar five through to eight. So, you’re just replacing one of the eight bars with imagining it instead of playing it out loud. And what you’ll probably find is, if you’re familiar with the piece and if you’re used to playing it, this is really easy to do because your fingers are used to doing it, your mind is so used to hearing it, actually switching from playing it out loud, to imagining playing it is very easy, and the slight challenge is can you keep time accurately?

So, for one bar, that’s probably fine, but the next step of the exercise is to try skipping two bars. So, maybe you stopped after bar two and you imagine playing bars three and four in your mind before continuing, and at that point, you start needing to worry a little bit more about timekeeping, and you might want to do this with a metronome to help you at first, because otherwise when you come in on bar five or wherever it is, particularly if you’re playing along with an accompaniment, you’ll find you’re a bit out of time.

But keeping things simple, really the heart of the exercise is just that. Take this piece really well, play it as normal, but then pick certain bars or certain lines or entire sections and instead of playing them, imagine them. Audiate them in your mind. It’s very easy to get started with, it quite quickly becomes more challenging, but the better you know the piece, the easier it will be.

And really the important thing to say is, don’t just roughly think, bah-boo-doo-bah-ba-ba-ba-ba, in your mind, try to really recreate precisely note-by-note bah-bah-bah-bah-bah-bah-bah-bah-bah, or whatever the melody might be and be precise with your rhythm and be precise with your pitching and really imagine as vividly as you can, yourself playing that. So, that’s the simple exercise. You can do it for an instrument, or you can do it with singing and the more you do it, the easier it will be.

So, one recommendation I have is just slot it in as part of your normal instrument practice. Every time you’re learning a piece, make a habit of skipping bars like that at the end of your practice session, or at some point in your practice session, when you’ve nailed a section, try pulling out a bar or two and just imagining it instead.

The other thing I wanted to explain on this point is, you can actually get a lot of value from this very quickly by not just treating it as a way to practice audiation, but actually as a way to use audiation to practice your instrument. This is something I unfortunately discovered very late in my musical career, was the power of imagined practice for learning music and for becoming more fluid. We often think it’s only time spent at your instrument that counts as practice, but actually what you’ll find if you try out this audiation idea is, your brain can’t really tell the difference to a large extent.

So, if for example, you have a tricky chromatic run in the middle of a piece, and you’re struggling with the fingering, or there’s a bit of the piece where there’s an accidental that always throws you off and you play the natural when it’s meant to be a sharp, if you practice those with audiation, you’ll find that actually that works just as effectively, sometimes even more effectively than practicing it with your instrument, and the beautiful thing is, you can practice this anytime anywhere.

So take that bar with the accidental, for example, and just imagine yourself playing it and imagine yourself playing it correctly with your fingers on the instrument, hitting that accidental, the sharp, instead of the natural every time. You can practice that 50 or 100 times while waiting for the bus to come. Super easy, really surprisingly useful, and what I’ve found in my own experience was this was great in particular for piano.

So, when I was trying to integrate the left and right hand piano parts, I’d be playing hands separately and getting each of them fluid, but then when you came to play them together and you had to figure out how the notes fit together and how the timing fit together, it turned out audiation and mental practice was beautiful for this because I could do it any time, I could do it while listening to a recording of the piece, for example, just imagining myself playing it, and I found it really dramatically transformed the results, so that next time I sat down with the instrument practice, my brain had figured out all the wrinkly bits, and figured out how everything fit together and it all just flowed much more fluidly.

So, that’s one of my top tips for any instrument player is, use that mental play as a way to get extra practice time, and it works really well, and it’s a double win because you’re practicing your instrument, but of course, you’re also practicing up your audiation skills as we’ve been talking about. So, the more you use this as a tool in your toolkit for learning, the better you’ll get and the more benefit you’ll get from it. So, the final bit to talk about in the context of audiation is, once you’ve got very good at single melodies, there’s actually a whole other world of audiation that you can explore, which is audiating a whole piece of music.

And I don’t mean a whole piece in the sense of beginning to end, though that is useful too. I mean, a whole piece in the sense of the whole arrangement of a piece, the whole recording, not just the melody and this can be a slight danger if you try and take this on too soon, because it does rely on you having some basic audiation ability already. But the basic idea is, when you imagine, when you audiate a song, don’t just hear the melody, start trying to hear everything else in the song.

And again, this is one of those double wins because the better you get at audiating in more detail, the more aware you become in music, and the more you practice being aware in music, the better you get at that audiation. So, it’s a beautiful feedback cycle. And again, there’s a fairly basic exercise that any musician can do with any song, and in this case, it can be any song you like, not just a song you’re working on, on your instrument. And the basic idea is to practice active listening and to then practice audiation.

So, if you’ve been on previous Q&A calls, you’ll know the idea of active listening. What we mean is, you’re not just hearing music, you’re actually paying perfect attention and you’re really digging into what you’re hearing and you’re picking apart the music in your mind, and you’re dissecting it bit by bit. So this is dramatically different from how a lot of people experienced music. Your average person on the street, they hear a pop song on the radio, they just hear a blurry mix of sound, they hone in on the lyrics, maybe the melody, and the rest of it is just a blur to them that makes the song work.

But for you and I as musicians, we hear music in a slightly different way, and that’s an ability we can nurture and develop and extend, and the way we do that is through practicing active listening. So, here’s the basic exercise. You take a song you know and like, and you listen again and you pick something in particular to listen for. So, instead of just thinking, “Okay, I’m going to pay attention and listen really carefully.” You actually set yourself a little challenge like, “Okay, I’m going to listen entirely through the song and just pay attention as much as I can to the baseline.”

Or, “I’m going to just pay attention to that rhythm guitar part.” And it might be mixed off in the right hand channels, slightly in the background, so you have to really pay attention or it might come and go depending on the part or the section of the song it is, and you’ll find you have to really pay more attention than you’re used to paying to that song that you thought you knew really well. And of course you can do this with the different parts, so the vocals, the percussion, the harmony, or you can do it with, for example, the different rhythms being used.

So, really trying to hear, okay, the rhythmic pattern that each instrument is playing at each part of the song or the different harmonies being used, and when the chord progression changes, and whether it’s using major or minor tonality at different points. You can also listen to the instrument, so trying to hear, is this a standard drum, bass guitar and vocal rock band, or actually is there synthesizers and there’s the percussionist using a cow bell, or whatever it may be. Every song has a distinctive set of instruments that may change throughout and maybe very different or very similar to other songs you know.

So, that in itself can be a great one. And actually we had a good mini challenge recently on the website on a Beach Boys song. So, if you dig into the discussion boards and look at the mini challenges, that’s a great opportunity for you to put this into action in a concrete way and see what you can pick out in the instrumentation of that Beach Boys song. You can also pay attention, excuse me, to the lyrics and the way the singer is annunciating and delivering those lyrics with emotion, or if you’re into the audio production side of things, you can listen to the frequency mix or the audio effects being used.

So, those are half a dozen different aspects of a song you might choose to listen to, and of course you can do all of them one by one. So, each time you listen to the song, pick something new to listen out for and what you’re doing is, you’re building up your awareness of the rich detail in a music recording. And it doesn’t have to be an over the top Pink Floyd, as I mentioned before, I have some great mixes, or electronic music, often there’s just a lot going on.

It doesn’t have to be a song like that. You can pick a stripped down acoustic guitar, sing a song, write to type recording, and still you’ll be surprised how much there is to listen for once you really begin to dissect it in that way. This does take focus. It’s a lot like meditation in that you’ll find yourself getting distracted and you’ll find your attention wandering, and really the practice of it is to keep bringing your attention back, keep focusing back on the aspect of the music you’ve been trying to listen for and as you practice that, the better you’ll get the more stamina you’ll build up for paying attention.

And so you can do this again and again with the same song, and then you can introduce other songs, and over time you can start doing it with brand new songs, ones you don’t know well, and see the first time you listen to a song, how much can you be aware of? How many of these different aspects can you try and stay conscious of as you listen to the song? So, what does all of that have to do with audiation if you’re just listening?

Well, that’s step two really, is once you’re becoming more and more aware of the detail, you’re gradually nurturing that part of your musical brain that is able to imagine, and is able to vividly recreate all of this stuff you’ve been listening for, and so you can make it a concrete exercise by before or after doing that active listening, try audiating it. So, supposing it’s a song you know well, and you’ve just listened through doing active listening, pay attention to the baseline.

Once you’re finished with that spend 30 seconds trying to audiate that baseline, trying to audiate, what was it during the verse? What was it during the chorus? Did it change in the intro section or during the solos? And see how vividly you can recreate that one thing you’ve been paying attention to. Of course, you can do this before you practice the active listing. So, if you know the song really well, and you’re trying to actively listen for the instrumentation, well, take 30 seconds before hitting play and see if you can recreate that instrumental mix in some way in your brain.

See if you can kind of paint in, “Okay, there’s a base there, and I remember there’s an electric guitar playing a rhythm part, and the percussion is really symbol heavy. “And just try and recreate that in your mind’s ear as vividly as you can. So, you can do it before, you can do it after, and you can do it cumulatively. So, supposing today you listened to the song five times and you pick out five different things you’re listening for and you practice audiation after each one of those.

Finish up by trying to audiate the whole thing together. And this is what I mentioned to begin with. We talk about audiating an entire song, the entire arrangement. See if you can recreate as much detail as possible of the performance of the song, the recording of the song in your mind’s ear. And you can probably imagine doing it already and see how different this is from the simple kind of audiation we talked about to begin with.

So, going from a vocal sheet music and just trying to audiate, “What is the tenor part in this choir piece?” Compared with, “Can I recreate the breadth and complexity and rich detail of Michael Jackson’s Thriller in my mind’s ear without having to listen to it at all this week?” It’s a quite different ability, but of course they are both audiation, they’re both using your musical imagination to recreate music in your mind’s ear.

So, those are the three layers of audiation. First of all, just being able to remember in your short term memory, roughly how the music went. The second is being able to vividly recreate a melody in your mind’s ear, perhaps not having even heard it, just looking from the sheet music to begin with. And the third is recreating in rich, vivid detail, the entirety of a musical recording, or the entirety of an arrangement. And this, it pushes your rhythm skills, it pushes your harmonic abilities in terms of knowing the different notes present in a chord, it pushes your instrumental awareness and your audio production sophistication.

It extends you in all directions at once and as beautiful and varied as music is that’s as beautiful and varied does your audiation skill becomes. So, it’s great for stretching yourself as a musician. And the final thing I want to say on this is, it’s not worth doing just for the sake of it. When it comes to audiating a melody, the real reason for doing that is so that you can pick up sheet music and know how it should sound. It’s so that if someone at band practice sings a melody to you and says, “Hey, can you play that on your instrument?”

You know while at the very least you can remember it vividly for long enough to figure out on your instrument. It’s only useful for those practical purposes. So, it’s up to you to see how this fits in with your musical lives and where it would be useful. But the third layer, the rich, vivid detail, this is one that benefits you throughout your musical life because even if we’re talking just about listening to music and enjoying music, once you build up your audiation and the vividness of your musical imagination, the sophistication of your musical imagination, music comes to life in a new way so that Michael Jackson Thriller, for example, maybe before when you thought of that song and you tried to remember it, all you really heard was the, “Thriller, ba-ba-ba.”

Once you’ve been doing this kind of practice, actually what you start to hear in your head is akin to the recording. It’s the rich arrangement, it’s the rhythms, it’s the baseline pounding. You hear the song almost as if it’s playing. It also means when the song is playing, your brain can tune out all of the obvious stuff. It’s no longer just focused on the melody or the lyrics. It’s able to dive into the music and follow it from part to part and all of the different aspects we’ve just been talking about.

And what that means is you enjoy it a lot more, actually Thriller, that was a simple pop song before, you realize it actually is really, there’s a lot of rich detail there, and it brings so much more joy and awareness to your musical listing that, for me, that alone is worth the effort of practicing audiation and developing through active listening, that ability to have a vivid musical imagination. So in short, if you’re a musician, if you need to sometimes remember music or sight read music, or even if you’re just a music fan and you love music, and you enjoy listening to music, audiation is a skill not to be overlooked.

And I’m sorry to say, we don’t currently have a module about all of this inside Musical U is something that is on our development agenda, and we will be coming too soon. Unfortunately, it’s not top priority list for a lot of musicians, which is why it’s not top priority list for our development, but once we’ve got some of the new Solfa modules in place, and we’ve got the new songwriting and improvisation modules in place, audiation will certainly be getting to the top of that list because as hopefully I’ve made clear in this quite long answer to a short question, it’s a powerful skill.

It’s one that touches on all kinds of other things and it’s one that rewards you in all kinds of ways. So, I think Q&A call today has ended up being a little bit of a master class on audiation. I apologize if that wasn’t what you were expecting, but hopefully it’s been useful to you. I know it is a skill that could be useful to you, whatever instrument you play, whatever you’re working on at the moment. So, I don’t regret having spent the time on such an important topic.

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