Inner Hearing — why audiation is key!

Inner Hearing — why audiation is key!

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As musicians we should aim to be able to read music just as easily as we read a book. When we read books, we hear the words in our mind rather than speaking them aloud. Just as we can hear the written word in our heads, it is important to learn how to hear written music in our heads.

Inner hearing (or audiation) is the process of thinking sound rather than externally making sound. It is an essential skill when trying to produce a quality musical sound.

In other words, inner hearing is the ability to “see what you hear” (i.e. be able to imagine music you hear written on the staff) as well as “hear what you see” (i.e. be able to “inner hear” the music you see written on a staff). Learn more about this key approach to the language of music here.

Inner hearing is the process of thinking sound rather than externally making sound.  It is difficult for a musician to produce a quality musical sound without first thinking that sound. This skill is demanded in aural tests requiring that all ‘workings out’ are completed in a student’s inner hearing (for example, you cannot hum or sing out loud during a VCE Aural and Written Exam!)

How does a student KNOW if they are playing in tune? Especially if no one else is playing the same notes with them at the same time? How does a composer/song writer know how music they are creating will sound if they do not have a fancy music software program, instrument or the ensemble or group they are composing for with them at all times?

By the time Beethoven wrote his 9th Symphony he was completely deaf – so how did he know what he was writing would sound like? His secret was inner hearing!  

What are the types of audiation?

Type 1: Listening to familiar or unfamiliar music
Type 2: Reading familiar or unfamiliar music
Type 3: Writing familiar or unfamiliar music from dictation
Type 4: Recalling and performing familiar music from memory
Type 5: Recalling and writing familiar music from memory
Type 6: Creating and improvising unfamiliar music while performing or in silence
Type 7: Creating and improvising unfamiliar music while reading
Type 8: Creating and improvising unfamiliar music while writing

How do we actually audiate?

Audiation works in six stages:

Stage 1: Momentary retention (memory) – of what we’re hearing
Stage 2: Initiating and audiating – we’re hearing tonal and rhythmic patterns, elements that will help us to the next stage…
Stage 3: Establishing objective or subjective tonality and metre – based on what we audiated, we’re able to apply our knowledge
Stage 4: Consciously retaining in audiation – remembering and also collecting and storing away those tonal patterns and rhythm patterns in our memory
Stage 5: Consciously recalling patterns – retrieving these patterns when we see them again in other musical pieces and contexts
Stage 6: Conscious prediction of patterns – because we’re thinking in the language of music, as well as retaining patterns over time, we’re able to make logical leaps about what might come next musically


  • using inner hearing, we can identify all sorts of important things in music including metre, tonality, chord progressions etc.
  • by using inner hearing, we are better able to spontaneously create (improvise), compose and arrange music
  • building inner hearing skills means we can identify and imitate rhythmic and tonal patterns in music – this is what helps us determine metre and tonality
  • we can use inner hearing to practice in our heads, in fact, if you can inner hear music then you will find practice time appearing everywhere!
  • another way to use inner hearing is in support of good tuning and intonation when we’re singing or playing instruments
  • inner hearing supercharges our sightreading skills

Important note:

The Rhythm Names and Solfa syllables you’re using are vital to increasing your inner hearing or audiation skills because ultimately, they help you understand what you’re hearing and the function of those elements in context.

Read on for more….

Audiation is a term created by Edwin Gordon, a fusion of “aud” (sound) and “ideate” (to think). It sits within Gordon’s broader music learning theory.

Audiation is the understanding and internalisation of music (or sound) when it is not otherwise present. Audiation – inner hearing – is different to the concepts of aural perception or aural imagery, which is normally related to notation. Audiation was a means to describe the phenomenon of learning language as it applies to the syntax of understanding music.

You can find more information here.

Happy inner hearing! – Deb


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