Audiation – thinking in sound


Audiation is the process of both mentally hearing and understanding music, even when no music is present. In essence, audiation is thinking in music or thinking about music in a way that brain is able to give meaning to the sounds. You could compare this to a skill that many of us possess – that of thinking in words! The reason we can think in words is because our language education and experience has taught us this skill. Similarly, well educated musicians have the ability to audiate.

“Audiation is to music what thought is to language” (Gordon, 1999: 42).

Music psychologist, Edwin Gordon invented the term audiation and has published on it extensively.  However, Hungarians were using a similar term “inner hearing” well before Gordon published in this field.

Audiation takes place when we hear or imagine music that is no longer or may never have been present. You can audiate when listening to music, performing from sheet music, playing “by ear,” improvising, composing, or writing down music. When you listen to someone speak, you have to retain in your memory their vocal sounds long enough to recognize and give meaning to the words and sounds. In the same way, when we listen to music, we are at any given moment organising through audiation tghe sounds that were recently heard. If you’re listening actively, your brain will also be be trying to predict, based on your familiarity with various tonal and rhythmic patterns , what might come next.

In his writings, Gordon views audiation as the foundation of musicianship and he is critical of music teaching that does not take into account audiation. According to Gordon, Audiation ability forms the basis for all of the processes connected with music and this skill is the very foundation upon which all real engagement with music rests. Through development of audiation, people learn to think in the language of music – pitch, rhythm and harmony.

Gordon’s research has enormous implications as it suggests that an internalised sense of the sounds of music is critical to the development of an ongoing ability to engage with music. It also has particular relevance to way music reading is taught. If you are able to hear what you see in music notation before it is performed or as you write it, you are engaging in notational audiation. Through development of this kind of audiation, people learn to understand music notation deeply and this understanding is the foundation of music appreciation.

In my own musical education, I learned scales, intervals, harmony and even melody-writing from Music Theory workbooks, without having the skills to hear what I was writing and usually without any musical reference. Even though I really enjoyed what I was doing and was quite good at it, my learningI did not represent best practice in music education! What I was doing was formulaic or mathematical, but more importantly, it was unmusical because audiation was not being developed alongside my theoretical understanding.

“A musician who can audiate is able to bring musical meaning to notation. A musician who cannot audiate can only take theoretical meaning from notation” (Gordon, 1997: 8).

If you want to improve your ear and improve your skills in audiation then singing is the all important key! To sing a tone your brain has to first conceive it. The famous singer, Pete Seeger put it well when he said, “Music teachers sometimes overemphasis the importance of learning to read music early. Would you teach a baby to read before it could talk? Should a teenager study dance notation before learning to dance? Musicians need in the beginning, to train their ears, their vocal chords, or their hands, and to develop the sense of music that tells them when to sing what”

Singing is not just for the singers! All musicians should sing whether they see themselves as an instrumentalist of vocalist.

Ideally, instrumentalists should learn to sing through their instruments in order to play musically. The goal is to play the instrument as an extension of the mind’s inner audiation instrument


Gordon, E. (1997) Learning Sequences in Music Education, Chicago: GIA Publications
Gordon, E, (1999) “All about Audiation and Music Aptitudes” in Music Educators Journal v86 n2 p41-44 Sep 1999

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