Audiation: Hearing Music in Your Head and How to Make Use of It

“Oh man, now I can’t get that @*&#&^ outta my head!!!”

Welcome to audiation.

Wikipedia gives a good definition of the word: a high-level thought process, involving mentally hearing and comprehending music, even when no physical sound is present. Musicians have experienced this most of their playing lives, but how many of us have really focused on developing it?

I want to suggest that as drummers, we begin to pay great attention to developing our ability to hear drum set and percussion sounds internally. It takes some work, but if there was ever an area where practice pays off, it’s here.

What’s the value? Well, for starters, the clearer you can conceive of a musical idea, the easy it becomes to execute it. I began doing this when I was 9, imagining drum solos and seeing them played on a kit. Over the years, I refined this ability by daydreaming about music endlessly, just like every other musician out there. I just didn’t realize that by doing so, I was helping myself become a better player.

I write a lot about polyrhythm and odd meters, and I use audiation to practice both quite a bit. Odd meters seemed to come naturally as a kid, but polyrhythms have taken a little more work. If you check out some of my previous posts about 5-and 7-note grouping practice methods, you’ll find some simple two-handed exercises that let you hear 5:2, 5:3, 5:4, and 7:2, 7:3, 7:4.

Using audiation, I can now more clearly conceive of these ratios and improvise in my mind using the drum set and cymbal tonalities. I can then sit down behind the kit and “realize” these sounds with some slow, focused practice. This approach is really nothing new to drummers, but now it has a more formalized name, and believe me, music researchers are fascinated by its potential.

Our instrument is slowly receiving more and more attention from the science world, and this is one esoteric area I believe deserves quite a bit of study. Researchers at The Neurosciences Institute in San Diego have technology that lets them map a picture of the brain as you perform. Imagine using audiation to create sounds in your mind and seeing a picture of where it occurs. What might this tell us about how music and language are related?

Point being… from here forward, science will be exploring music perception to a degree that’s light years ahead of what’s come before. If we adapt as drummers and learn more about how we perceive music, it can help us take things further as well.

Peter Erskine often speaks of the simplicity of playing just a quarter note. Here’s a simple exercise that if done correctly will demonstrate a practical application of audiation:

1. Play four measure of quarter notes on your ride cymbal, medium tempo.

2. Pretty boring, huh?

3. Now, close your eyes and play those same four measure in your head, and perfectly and precisely as you can. Focus on seeing the cymbal in your mind and watching the stick hit the surface. Make it perfect. Okay, eyes open.

4. Not so boring.

5. Close your eyes again. Play four perfect measures of time, and then let four more measures pass in silence.

I think you’ll find the results to be very interesting…

When I do this, two things happen: my mind begins to improvise in the silent four measures without effort, and I feel a stronger connection to all four limbs.

Give it a shot, and see what you hear.. literally.