Tunes Inside Your Head

We are all familiar with the phenomenon of hearing music inside our heads. Whether it’s a persistent ‘earworm’ or a conscious recollection of a particular piece, the imaginary sound world can seem almost as vivid as the real one. For musicians, there are immense benefits in cultivating this auditory imagery. Without a clear idea of how we want to shape a phrase or communicate the architecture of a piece, there is little hope of giving an expressive and coherent musical performance. Effective auditory imagery is also an important part of successful mental practice while learning and memorising new repertoire. Moreover, for both musicians and non-musicians alike, the tunes inside our head provide a private reserve upon which we can draw at times of emotional need.

No matter how vivid these imagined tunes may seem, very few of us confuse them with real sounds. So what’s the difference? Understanding the neurological basis of auditory imagery has been the long term research interest of Andrea Halpern, Professor of Psychology at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, who is currently on sabbatical in the UK with Goldsmiths and Queen Mary Universities in London. I attended her symposium on Neural Correlates of Dynamic Musical Imagery at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in January 2013.

fMRI_imaginingUsing functional MRI to locate neural activity, Halpern has pinpointed specific areas of the brain that are activated when imagining versus listening to music. Unsurprisingly, some areas are active in both imagined and actual music, such as the part of the brain involved in secondary auditory processing. The fact that the primary auditory cortex – which is responsible for processing sound – is not active during imagined music perhaps explains how we can tell the difference. However, there are a number of distinct areas of the brain that are only active while imagining hearing music. These relate to attention, sequence and memory and are lateralised to the right side of the brain (unlike verbal memory). The fact that so many different areas are involved probably explains why imagining music is such a cognitively expensive and slow process! Interestingly, people who self-report as being particularly vivid auditory imagers have correspondingly higher activity in these regions.

One of the defining features of music is the rich structural, dynamic and emotional changes that occur through time. Is imagined music also characterised by these temporally changing aspects? Using a series of ingenious experiments, Halpern has shown that the emotional content of a piece is indeed present in imagined music. Moreover, the emotional changes that occur through time correlate spectacularly well between imagined and actual music. The fact that they correlate so well may be due to our ability to anticipate what’s coming next, particularly in music we already know, something that also seems to be achieved through auditory imagery.

After hearing Professor Halpern describe her research, I was left in no doubt that auditory imagery is a important part of mental practice and a powerful method for forming musical memories. Based on her research, she suggests that successful mental practice should be done at performance tempo, avoiding the temptation to either rush through the easy bits or slow down at the tricky sections, to best preserve the emotional and expressive intentions of a piece. Something to remember next time I sit down for some mental practice…

Key References:

Halpern, Dynamic aspects of musical imagery, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1252 (2012); 200-205

Herholz, Halpern & Zatorre, Neuronal Correlates of Perception, Imagery and Memory for Familiar Tunes, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 24 (2012); 1382-1397


About Caroline Wright

artist, scientist, musician
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One Response to Tunes Inside Your Head

  1. Pingback: How to memorise music, in theory and practice | Memorising Music

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