This article is a guest post by Christopher Sutton, founder of EasyEarTraining.com and Musical U. These are excellent sites for developing your ability to play by ear, as well as other aspects of your musicianship. Christopher shares with us below about how to literally use your imagination to improve your sight reading with a powerful skill known as “audiation”. –Evan, SightReadingMastery Founder
Did you know there’s a musical skill which is rarely taught but can have an enormous positive impact on your sight reading? It’s no exaggeration to say that this skill can let you eliminate mistakes and dramatically increase the musicality of every sight reading performance.
This skill is called audiation.
Most musicians have never heard of it, and even those few who do know what it is have often overlooked just how helpful it could be for their sight reading and their overall musicianship.
If you’ve been looking for a way to improve your sight reading faster and be more polished and impressive every time you perform, audiation might just be the key.
What is audiation?
Audiation is the the process of hearing music in your head. It’s also known as “auralising”.
Sometimes this happens unintentionally, like when a pop song from the radio gets stuck in your head all day. However the word is normally used to mean doing it intentionally: deciding you want to hear particular music and then imagining it in detail in your mind’s ear.
When you first encounter the concept of audiation it can seem like a very advanced musical skill. The kind of thing that Mozart could do, imagining whole symphonies in his head. Or perhaps you’ve met and been impressed by “gifted” musicians who could glance at a piece of sheet music and immediately know exactly how it would sound.
Audiation actually isn’t exclusively available to a few musical superstars. It is a learnable skill and it is surprisingly easy to get started with. Later in this article I’ll provide some concrete steps you can take to start developing your own audiation skills.
First though, let’s look at two of the practical benefits which audiation can bring to your sight reading.
Two reasons to audiate when sight reading
1. Play it right
Put simply: audiation helps you to make fewer mistakes when sight reading. It’s a way to get a “free” practice run at your performance and identify any places where you may have misinterpreted the written music.
When you go directly from notation to performance any mistakes you’ve made in your analysis come out through your instrument. Audiation puts a buffer in between these two so that mistakes in your analysis only get as far as your audiated performance and you can fix them before the real thing.
Here’s a simple example. Suppose you were asked to sight read this melody:
Here’s how it should sound:
You might analyse it and misread the key signature, thinking the second note was E natural and so the first pitch leap was a major third instead of a minor third:
With audiation you could hear your interpretation and notice that the beginning really didn’t sound right! Checking your analysis would reveal your mistake and you could quickly correct it.
This is especially important for singers who don’t have the luxury of knowing that if they identify the notes correctly then their fingers can bring out the right pitches! However audiation is valuable for all types of musician as it gives you a chance to check your sight reading without playing a single note out loud.
This example may seem simple, but throw in a few accidentals or ledger lines, or a complex rhythm to distract you from the pitches and things could quickly get a lot trickier…
Even if you didn’t make any mistakes in your analysis there’s another big reason to audiate:
2. Play it your way (with expression)
When musicians learn to sight read it is often a purely systematic approach, using rules and music theory to work out how to play the written music. This is an effective way to sight read but it rarely produces truly musical performances.
Sight reading in a purely systematic way is a little bit like painting by numbers. You increase your chances of producing a decent result, but you’re never going to create a masterpiece.
What tends to be missing is musical expression. We’re so caught up in getting the notes right and not making mistakes that our sight reading performance tends to come out quite robotic and rigid. Your inner musician doesn’t have a chance to add your own expressive flair to the performance, and it’s all too easy to forget dynamics and other performance markings while you focus on the notes.
This is particularly an issue with rhythm, where musicians can normally inject humanity and liveliness to a piece by slightly playing around with the timing of notes. Depending on your instrument this can be true of pitch too, where a subtle pitch bend or vibrato can make a world of difference to your performance.
Audiating allows you to practice your performance and introduce these personal touches without ever playing a note out loud, so that when you come to the actual performance it’s not just a series of notes played robotically – it’s truly music which comes out.
How to start audiating
As I mentioned in the introduction, audiation may strike you as an intimidatingly advanced musical skill but it is actually quite learnable. Remember back when score notation and sight reading seemed like a foreign world beyond your capabilities? Just as you did with those, you can break down audiation into simple manageable tasks and gradually develop your abilities.
Step One – Develop your musical imagination
The best place to start when learning to audiate is with musical memory. You might have encountered this idea in an aural skills test (“Clap back this rhythm”, “Sing back this short melody”, etc.) which focuses on careful short-term remembering. Musical memory is in fact quite a natural and much broader skill than that.
Put simply: can you imagine a song in your head? Pick any song, perhaps your favourite song. Now close your eyes and try to hear the introduction, the verse, the chorus. If you don’t remember the words, don’t worry! Focus on the melody, try to fill in the harmony behind it and perhaps get the rhythmic backing in there too.
Depending on how often you tend to hear music in your head you might find this skill comes easily and the song immediately springs to full-colour life in your mind’s ear. Or you might find you have to work a little to remember each bit and “fill in” more and more of the imagined version.
Are you beginning to see how this relates to audiation? What begins as “musical memory” quickly becomes a task of “musical imagination”: the ability to hear a piece of music in vivid detail in your mind. It’s easiest to do this with music recordings you’ve heard repeatedly, but developing the skill of audiation actually allows you to begin to imagine music you’ve never heard before.
So the best place to start when learning audiation is to establish a strong foundation of musical imagination. You can do this by practicing imagining songs in your head whenever you have the opportunity, challenging yourself to hear them in as much detail as possible. You will find that practicing active listening helps considerably with this, by making you more aware of the detail in music to begin with.
Once you can easily conjure up a vivid musical memory in your mind’s ear, it’s time to move on to Step Two.
Step Two – Learn to hear music as you read it
The next step in learning to audiate involves learning to go from score notation to an imagined performance in your mind’s ear.
There are two ways to approach this. One approach is simple but slow to learn, the other requires more active effort to learn but produces much faster results.
The first approach is pure practice. Every time you go to sight read a piece of music, try to audiate it first. You’re already going through a process to figure out the timing of the rhythms and the distances between the notes. You might be working out where each note belongs in the scale or if you’re a singer you are probably doing some analysis of the intervals present.
Instead of going directly to attempting a performance on your instrument, use the analysis you’ve just done to try to imagine how the piece would sound.
You can make this easier for yourself by separating out pitch from rhythm and tackling each individually first before combining them. If you’re a pianist, try audiating each hand’s part individually first.
strong audiation doesn’t just help you play the right notes – it also helps you play the notes right, crafting a truly musical performance
The first few times you try it this will feel like a real struggle and you will feel very unsure of yourself. Don’t worry, this is normal! You will probably make mistakes, but remember you are learning a brand new skill and mistakes are inevitable on the path to success.
After spending a minute or two trying to audiate the music, play it on your instrument. Did you get it right? Identify any mistakes and ask yourself whether they came from your preparation analysis, your audiation, or your instrument playing.
What you should find as you practice is that:
- You get better and faster at audiating correctly.
- Audiating is easier than going straight to your instrument (because the instrument brings its own challenges) and audiating before going to your instrument makes the instrument playing much easier.
This is the first approach: simply incorporate audiation as a step between your analysis and performance of each sight reading exercise you do.
The second approach is to learn specific listening skills which let you know more accurately and reliably how the notes on the page should sound. This removes a lot of the guesswork and shortcuts the whole process of trial-and-error in learning to audiate.
This process is called ear training and it teaches your brain and ears to automatically recognise musical elements such as intervals and chords, and connect them with their written representation on the score. It enables you to easily play music by ear and improvise, but it is also invaluable for the task of sight reading as it brings a structure and precision to your audiation.
One example would be a singer trying to sight read a melody with large leaps in pitch between notes. Without audiation, the singer is very likely to mis-judge those distances which can result in them singing a very strange and unmusical melody! With the first approach to audiation they would have introduced an audiation step before opening their mouth and could have experimented with a few different guesses at the pitch leaps to find a version they were confident in. It might still be wrong but it would at least sound musical and they could perform it confidently. With the second approach, using ear training, the singer would be able to look at the notes on the page, know exactly which intervals were being used and how those intervals sound, and go directly to a correct audiation – and hence a correct sight reading performance.
Instrumentalists, don’t think that this doesn’t apply to you! Interval recognition is just one of many areas of ear training you can do which contribute to better sight reading performance. As discussed earlier in this tutorial, strong audiation doesn’t just help you play the right notes – it also helps you play the notes right, crafting a truly musical performance. With ear training you can become a master audiator and hence a master sight reader.
In this tutorial we’ve covered what audiation is, two major benefits it can bring to your sight reading, and some simple ways you can get started audiating today. If you’ve ever wondered what’s missing from your sight reading performances, or you’ve wished you had an instinctive understanding of how notes on the page relate to the music you hear, audiation could be just what you need. Give it a try next time you sight read a new piece!