The Mysteries of Auditory Imagery


I remember hearing an amazing story of Rubinstein in one of my history classes: he was on a train to a concert, and, either the programme had changed, or, he hadn’t had time to learn one of the pieces (César Franck’s Symphonic Variations, I think), so he ended up looking at the score on the train. He read the score over and by the time he reached the concert, he played it. Admittedly, he did have photographic memory, but this had to be coupled with an amazing ability to hear the music in his head—to practice it without a piano. As a pleasant anecdote, apparently, he would play Brahms’ symphonies in head over breakfast, too.

Anyways, all of this to say, musical or auditory imagery is important to all musicians, and is something that has not been studied with much success. We understand that auditory imagery is common, but we don’t know how auditory features are represented in the brain during imagery. Even doing a simple search throughout academic and non-academic search engines, I found articles and websites about guided imagery and meditation, and very little about the phenomenon of musical imagery in the lives of musicians.

According to an extensive Ph.D thesis by Bailes (2002), musical imagery has three difference manifestations: one, that it is unintentional and happens spontaneously, such as an earworm; second, that it is involuntary, but a result of musical activity; and third, that it is intentional through imagining a score, just as Rubinstein did.


Auditory imagery and perception share neural pathways, and from my understanding there is a difference between mental representations of music and the actual imagining of music. If one consciously tried to imagine a piece, note by note, bar by bar, it requires mental effort—give it a try. Pick a song you know very well or know how to play and imagine playing it, looking at the score and hearing the sound. It is very different than simply passively letting a song flow through your mind. This is the type of musical imagery looked at in the following study.

Martin et al. (2017) very recently completed a study that determined an interesting way of looking at auditory imagery that may actually provide a means to furthering our knowledge about it. It was a case study of a trained pianist who was getting brain scans for epilepsy. The authors recorded electrocorticograhic signals (ECoG) during two conditions: in one, the pianist would play two pieces on a keyboard (set up with MIDI) as per normal, but the second condition, the pianist would play the same piece without being able to hear auditory feedback. The pianist was told to imagine the pieces while playing them on a soundless keyboard. The keyboard still recorded MIDI for this second condition. Therefore, for both the perception and the imagery conditions, the ECoG of the neural activity and the recorded musical features could be compared and analyzed temporally.


For those of you who are interested in the more in-depth brain-focused information, I will let you peruse the article at your own will, but here I will mention only some of the findings. Overall, they found precise time locking between the neural activity, the music and the features of musical imagery, suggesting that there is shared representation between perception and imagery, as shown by the spectrotemporal representations of the perceptual data and the imagery data. With regards the brain activation, there was a strong relationship between musical temporal features and the superior temporal gyrus (which contains the primary auditory cortex), but this was dependent on the cortical location. They also found that, in both conditions, electrodes had the highest prediction accuracy in superior and middle temporal gyrus, pre-and post-centauditory-cortex-etc-i-fd4466953eae4a1f63c1ea0eebedefd6-wernicke-scienceblogsral gyrus and supramarginal gyrus. Furthermore, the perception and imagery conditions were correlated under this prediction model. Therefore, because the music perception condition and the musical imagery condition had the same stimulus, this provides support to the theory that perception and imagery use shared representation of spectrotemporal features of sound.

There were some limitations to their study: they only recorded the left temporal lobe, even though both hemispheres are important in musical processing, and it is nearly impossible to know that the task of imagining the piece was actually completed. There is no concrete method to determine if the pianist actually imagined the piece as he was supposed to, however, the MIDI recordings for both conditions are very similar, suggesting that the pianist “heard” the piece in both conditions.

Auditory imagery has still a ways to go in order to be understood, but I think that this study is a strong and beneficial step towards a deeper and more full understanding of a phenomenon so important to musicians of all levels.

–Megan Buchkowski


Bailes, F. A. (2002). Musical imagery: Hearing and imagining music. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Universit of Sheffield, Sheffield, England.

Martin, S. et al. (in press). Neural encoding of auditory features during music perception and imagery: Insight into the brain of a piano player. bioRxiv. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1101/106617.




  1. Nice post, Megan! This is really fascinating stuff.

    Do you think there’s a difference between auditory imagery in the case where we passively imagine music and the case where we make a concerted effort to do mental practice? I feel as though I can imagine how a piece sounds, but I can also imagine how my fingers would play while imagining how it sounds. I tried (a little bit…) to look for studies that investigate how this difference might be reflected in brain activity, but I couldn’t find any – did you come across anything in your research for this post?


    1. That is interesting Kendra. I did the little thought experiment, imagining playing music and then imaging passively, and I noticed that when I imagined playing I became more still. I thought that was kind of interesting….. maybe when you imagine playing music there is some kind of motor area activation associated with the movements you would make to play…. I felt like I had to stop and be still in order to imagine the movements involved.


    2. I think there is a difference between between a passive imagining and more effortful mental practice–I would imagine it would be similar to passively listening and really concentrated listening to a piece for analysis. Although I don’t know for sure, I think our brains might react different in passive action in comparison to active action. What you were saying about imagining what the piece sounds like might activate the auditory cortex, but imagining how your fingers would play it would probably also activate the motor cortex–another level of activation and complexity. I have not found anything comparing this, but as this is a difficult topic, the research on this is still fairly scarce.


  2. interesting topic! I think mental practice is a really useful way to prepare for a performance, as you can shape your interpretation and practice memorisation without tiring your body. I’ve come across a few studies that have looked quantitatively at the effects of mental practice, but I wonder if there have been any qualitative studies on the benefits of mental practice. For example, maybe when you free yourself from the technicalities of playing, you can gain a deeper understanding of the music. It also might be interesting to look at brain activity in musicians while they perform, comparing those who had practised mentally and those who had only practised physically.


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