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Audiation: The Foundation of Music Learning Theory

Are you or your child starting music lessons? If so, then you may begin to explore the world of music learning theory. When you do, you’ll probably hear the word “audiation.”

Unless you have a significant background in music, you probably have never heard of audiation before. However, chances are good that you have some experience with audiation without having a label for it.

Let’s take a look at music learning theory and audiation, beginning with pioneering music psychologist Edwin Gordon.

Who Was Edwin Gordon?

Gordon was something of a celebrity in the world of music education. Over the decades, he was a lecturer, teacher, editor, and author. He was a professor at the University of South Carolina who extensively researched subjects such as the psychology of music, the manner in which children develop musical aptitude, and musical aptitude in general. Much of modern music education is based on his discoveries with regard to music learning theory.

Gordon and Audiation

According to Gordon’s research, audiation is a mental process for hearing and understanding music. Audiation can take place even when no music is being played. Accordingly, it can be called thinking in musical terms or reflecting about music in a manner that enables the brain to give sounds meaning.

People are accustomed to thinking in words. They become so thanks to their language education and long years of experience of thinking and conversing with words. In 1999, Gordon wrote that “audiation is to music what thought is to language.”

Although Gordon is credited with coining the term “audiation,” the Hungarians began researching the concept of the “inner ear” in earlier decades. One of the most well-known of these innovators was Zoltan Kodaly, a researcher, musician, and instructor who pioneered the Kodaly Method, which is still widely used today.

More About Audiation

Audiation is what happens when a person hears or imagines music, even when no music is playing. This process even can occur with music that the person has never heard. Audiation happens when people are:

  • Listening to music
  • Playing music “by ear”
  • Composing music
  • Performing from sheet music
  • Improvising with an instrument, including the voice
  • Writing down music

When you listen to a person speak, it is essential that your memory retains the sounds that their voice makes long enough for you to be able to recognize those sounds and give them meaning. A similar process occurs with music. While listening, you may use audiation to organize the sounds that you are hearing. Actively listening to music will involve the attempt to predict what sounds are coming next depending upon your knowledge of rhythmic and tonal patterns.

Gordon wrote that audiation was the foundation of musicianship. He believed all musical learning and knowledge were based on audiation, and that it is impossible to genuinely engage with music without audiation. As people develop their audiation skills, they begin to be able to think in terms of harmony, pitch, and rhythm, essentially the language of music.

Comparing Audiation to Inner Hearing and Imitation

Audiation involves more than simply hearing music. Instead, true audiation requires not only hearing but also thinking about music with understanding.

Try this as an experiment. Think of the song “Hot Cross Buns.” Now, close your eyes and think through the song silently in your head.

What you’ve just accomplished is some inner hearing. The musical sounds are not currently present, but you are hearing them via a process of imitating the familiar sounds.

Imitation and inner hearing are essentially the same things. It is possible for anyone to imitate virtually anything without truly understanding it. Consider that you can listen to someone speak a phrase in a language that you do not speak. You may be able to recall the sounds of the words that were spoken in your head and perhaps even repeat them, but you do not understand what the sounds mean.

Imitation and inner hearing are parts of the audiation process. However, they only represent the beginning. Audiation requires further processing so that the mind can coherently organize the sounds. With context, the sounds take on meaning and allow you to listen with comprehension.

As Edwin Gordon once wrote, “We’re always imitating. We’re not always audiating.”

Identifying Audiation

Let’s go back to the example of Hot Cross Buns. It is a simple and familiar tune. You can call it to mind or whistle it without giving it much thought.

However, when you are audiating, then your experience of Hot Cross Buns will be completely different. Here are some of the things that you might notice when you are audiating Hot Cross Buns:

  • The resting tone is “do,” which puts the song in the major tonality
  • It uses a duple meter
  • The song is made up of two rhythm patterns, one of which is in measures one, two and four and the second of which is in measure three
  • The melody starts on “mi” instead of on the resting tone

Clearly, audiation is not something that most new music students naturally do. That’s because the majority of them have not yet developed the vocabulary to recognize all of these elements, even those in such a familiar song as Hot Cross Buns.

Nonetheless, there are some people who seem to have more well-developed natural audiation talents. Think about a person who has no formal musical training, yet can sit down at a piano and pick out favorite tunes. This ability to play “by ear” may demonstrate a natural skill for audiation.

Frequently, musicians who do not have strong audiation skills suffer from problems with performance anxiety and memorization. This is because they rely on their mental and muscle memory of whatever pieces they are playing. If they lose their way in the piece, it is virtually impossible for them to recover because they are simply recalling the piece rather than genuinely audiating the music.

Fostering Audiation in Music Students

Music instructors can take several steps to foster audiation in students. These are:

  • Developing a sense of the resting tone in each piece
  • Using the bass harmony to focus on harmonic functions
  • Helping students to think of music as a series of tonal and rhythmic patterns
  • Identifying the meter in every piece of music

Let’s take a closer look at each of these steps.

The resting tone of any song is the one note around which the tune is constructed. In a sense, the resting tone is “home,” and the song won’t feel complete until it has been sung. You may hear the resting tone referred to as the “tonic.”

It’s wise for teachers to help students be able to sing the resting tone at any time during a song. Typically, “do” is the resting tone in the major tonality while “la” is the resting tone in minor tonality. Altogether, there are eight tonalities, but western music mostly relies upon major and minor. This may lead music instructors to place a special emphasis on major and minor tonalities while ignoring the rest, but this is not as helpful for audiation purposes.

Instead, it is wise to expose students to all eight tonalities so that they can experience all of the contrasts and identify the major differences between each of them. To do so, teachers might consider using group singing or movement activities in varying tonalities and meters.

When it comes to using the bass harmony to focus on harmonic functions, teachers may emphasize familiar tunes like Row, Row, Row Your Boat to help students identify when the harmonies in the bass change. This can be an excellent jumping-off point for learning about how chords work and how to hear harmonies.

Audiation further is fostered by breaking pieces of music down into their component parts. For instance, students may be introduced to a new song in its entirety. Next, the teacher will break it down into elements such as rhythm and tonal patterns, asking the students to echo these back. The piece is then presented in total once more, hopefully with students understanding far more about how the music is put together.

Finally, instructors may ask students to develop their ability to state the meter in any piece of music to which they are introduced. Most music may be broken down into duple or triple meters. Basically, this means that the big beat is divided into two or three.

Develop Audiation with Prodigies

Before it is possible to read language, it is essential for children to learn to speak. Similarly, it is critical to introduce children to all of the fundamental elements of music before they can truly understand and engage with music.

At Prodigies, we help kids of all abilities develop a working musical vocabulary that instantly enhances their engagement when they are listening to or playing music. Through creative and stimulating lessons that emphasize the fun in learning, children are able to progress more quickly through all aspects of their education and develop a desire to learn even more.