Inner World of Music (and other sounds)

Andrea Halpern is Professor of Psychology at Bucknell University. Her research interests include how people's minds and brains perceive, remember, and respond to music and art, in young adults and also in healthy aging as well as in neurodegenerative disorders. She has recently been studying bad singing, although she herself is a good singer.

Andrea Halpern is Professor of Psychology at Bucknell University. Her research interests include how people's minds and brains perceive, remember, and respond to music and art, in young adults and also in healthy aging as well as in neurodegenerative disorders. She has recently been studying bad singing, although she herself is a good singer.

A post by Andrea Halpern.

In a famous anecdote, the 14-year old Mozart is said to have accurately transcribed a complex piece (Miserere by Allergri) he had heard only once (and whose score was a secret closely guarded by the Vatican). Presumably at least part of that feat was accomplished by him “hearing” the piece inside his head. But is that skill confined to certified musical prodigy-geniuses? Not at all.  You may wish to think of a favorite tune right now (or a beloved line of poetry… or the sound of fingernails screeching on a blackboard. Sorry.).

I want to distinguish this kind of voluntary auditory imagery from two other types of sounds in the head. Auditory hallucinations are also imagined sounds, often of voices but sometimes of other sounds, that occur in various pathologies like schizophrenia or tinnitus.  However, these occurrences are not only unbidden, but are indistinguishable from real percepts.  Even though the patient can sometimes objectively say the source is his or her own mind, the phenomenology of an external source remains.  Psychologists have also recently been studying unbidden internal and repetitive auditory experiences, usually music, which are called “earworms” (e.g, Williamson et al. 2012). These may be distracting or unpleasant, although surprisingly often, people report they enjoy these involuntary mental playlists, as the music typically comprises pieces they like and that have been recently heard.

When psychologists like Stephen Kosslyn and Ronald Finke began the scientific study of mental imagery decades ago (Finke, 1980; Kosslyn et al, 1979) the term “mental imagery” was usually taken to mean visual imagery -- and this visuo-centric bias can be seen even in textbooks today. When reading some of that literature as a relatively new researcher, I thought auditory imagery could be equally interesting to study.  So early in my career I began developing tasks that tapped into auditory imagery and allowed me to measure some aspects of it. For instance, a task I’ve used for a long time is to ask people to mentally compare the pitches associated with two lyrics in a familiar song and measure how long it takes them to answer. Try this:  without singing aloud, think of the first line of the Beatles song “Yesterday” (“Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away”). Question: is the pitch on “far” higher or lower than the first syllable of the song “Yes” (ter-day)? If people take longer to answer for lyrics that are farther apart in the actual song (and they typically do), then I’m pretty sure they are imagining and mentally scanning the song (Halpern, 1988a).

In addition to pitch (both relative and absolute), I’ve found that auditory images capture timing (people can consistently tell you the tempo of their image of “Yesterday”; Halpern 1988b), timbre (people rate the similarity in sound of two instruments pretty much the same, whether the sounds are heard or imagined; Halpern, Zatorre, Bouffard, & Johnson, 2004), and even the emotion the piece is conveying: If while actually listening to a piece they rate a musical moment at time t as conveying a certain level of happiness or sadness, they tend to give the same rating at the same relative time when only imagining that piece...which also shows how accurate the internal tempo can be (Lucas, Schubert, & Halpern, 2010).

We even know something about what the brain is doing during some of these tasks. You might guess that the brain acts somewhat similarly during imagining sound as when it is actually receiving sound, and you would be right. For instance, some parts of the auditory processing areas are active during auditory imagery. But as we know that imagery is only somewhat like real perception (excepting the case of hallucinations) and indeed the brain on the one hand does not activate “primary” auditory cortex during imagery and even the active auditory areas are less active in imagery than hearing (Herholz, Halpern, & Zatorre, 2012).  But on the other hand, the brain often shows activity in circuits associated with memory and attention. Even doing the little demonstrations in this blog post, I suspect you found that mental imagery tasks require internal attention, and contributions from working memory (keeping the first pitch in mind) and long-term memory (how does “Yesterday” go?)

Outside of blog demonstrations, people use auditory imagery in a variety of circumstances. Musicians can use auditory (and motor and visual) imagery to practice even when away from their instrument. This mental practice is useful not only for instruments where you can imagine the feel and sight of playing as well as the sound (as with mental piano practice) but even in instruments where auditory imagery is the primary mental feedback, such as singing.  And in fact, people with higher self-reported auditory imagery do have better pitch-matching skills (Pfordresher & Halpern, 2013).

Auditory imagery is part of more formal music pedagogy systems. Katie Overy and I have recently explored the incorporation of auditory imagery in pedagogy for an upcoming chapter in an edited volume about various aspects of imagination (Halpern & Overy, in preparation). Zoltán Kodály, Edward Gordon, and Nelly Ben-Or all incorporate auditory imagery training in their pedagogy programs, and the former two in particular hold that training this ability in childhood will have beneficial consequences in later music making.  While it is clear that musicians get better at mental skills like sight-singing with training, it actually hasn’t been established that auditory imagery can be “trained up” in the general population. A project currently in progress with Karen Wise is trying to do just that: adults who are not proficient singers are being asked to train themselves for two weeks on a version of the mental pitch comparison task described above. We want to see first if they do improve on the task (the trials get harder over the training period) and secondly, will their pitch-matching abilities get better after training, compared to a control group working on a nonmusical task?

Voluntarily imagining a favorite song can have consequences outside of improving related musical skills. It can help regulate both the body and mind. Many exercise devotees know that music, even imagined, can serve both as a motivator and as a regulator of the pace of exercise, and who hasn’t called favorite songs to mind during a boring meeting.  One vivid example comes from endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, interviewed after her record-setting swim from the US to Cuba. Referring to the classic Janis Joplin hit “Me and Bobby McGee”, she said:  “If I [silently] sing that 2,000 times in a row, the whole song, I will get through five hours and 15 minutes …. It’s kind of stupid....but it gets me through.” (NBC News August 2012).  And violinist Romel Joseph used auditory and motor imagery to get him through the almost unimaginable ordeal of being buried in the wreckage of his music school for 18 hours after the Haiti earthquake of 2010 destroyed the building: “For example, if I perform [in my head] the Franck sonata, which is [sic] 35 minutes long in my honors recital at Juilliard, then I would bring myself to that time. That allows me . . .  to mentally take myself out of the space where I was.” (NPR January 2010).  The power of inner music is not to be underestimated.


Finke, R. A. (1980). Levels of equivalence in imagery and perception. Psychological Review87, 113 -132

Halpern, A. R. (1988a).  Mental scanning in auditory imagery for tunes. Journal of Experimental Psychology:  Learning, Memory and Cognition, 14,  434-443.

Halpern, A. R. (1988b).  Perceived and imagined tempos of familiar songs.  Music Perception, 6, 193-202

Halpern, A. R., Zatorre, R. J., Bouffard, M. & Johnson, J. A. (2004).  Behavioral and neural correlates of perceived and imagined musical timbre.  Neuropsychologia, 42, 1281-1292.

Herholz, S. C., Halpern, A. R., & Zatorre, R. J.  (2012). Neuronal correlates of perception, imagery, and memory for familiar tunes.  Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 24,  1382-1397.

Kossyln, S. M., Pinker, S., Smith, G. E., & Shwartz, S. P. (1979). The how, what, and why of mental imagery. Behavioral and Brain Sciences2, 570-581.

Lucas, B.L., Schubert, E., & Halpern, A. R. (2010).  Perception of emotion in sounded and imagined music. Music Perception, 27, 399-412

Pfordresher, P. Q., & Halpern, A. R. (2013). Auditory imagery and the poor-pitch singer. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review20, 747-753.

Williamson, V. J., Jilka, S. R., Fry, J., Finkel, S., Müllensiefen, D., & Stewart, L. (2012). How do “earworms” start? Classifying the everyday circumstances of Involuntary Musical Imagery. Psychology of Music40, 259-284.