Can You Hear Music in Your Mind’s Ear?

I can't. Exploring auditory aphantasia and the mysterious mind's ear.

Table of Contents

Think of Your Favourite Song

Allow the song to play in your mind’s ear for a moment. Do you hear that?

I was having dinner with my wife when she told me she had a song stuck in her head. When I asked her what she meant by this, she described an experience akin to being able to “hear” the song play over and over again in her mind.

What do you mean you can hear the song playing?

I remember asking her curiously.

My wife elaborated by telling me she could hear music in her mind as if it were actually playing. I was shocked.

How is it possible to “hear” music when it’s not actually playing?

The thought amazed me, and while I could not comprehend it, the ability to hear music in your mind sounded extraordinary – like a magic trick!

Is my wife some sort of magician? 

It was then I realized that aphantasia impacts all of my senses.

The Phenomenon of Earworms

I have multisensory aphantasia, meaning I cannot visualize or create any other sensory experience in my mind at will or involuntarily. My brain doesn’t work that way.

Come to think of it… I always thought “earworms,” the term used to describe the experience of involuntarily having a song stuck in your head, was just an expression—a figure of speech.

But I was wrong.

My wife’s earworms are not a magic trick but part of her unique internal experience. In fact, earworms are very common; up to 98% of people have reported experiencing one before.

How did I not realize people actually had songs in their heads before!?!

I questioned myself, my own misjudgement of countless situations in the past.

Yet, if you’re part of the ~2% of people with auditory aphantasia like me, who’ve never experienced an earworm before, how would you even know what was possible?

Exploring the Depths of the Mind’s Ear

What I found even more extraordinary from this initial discussion with my wife is that she can hear the song playing in her mind’s ear and control the experience by turning up and down the volume.

She must be joking, right?

When I finally came to grips with the fact that playing music in the mind’s ear was something most people experience, my curiosity took over, and I began asking everyone I knew questions.

  1. Can you think of a song and play it in your mind?
  2. How loud or soft is the sound?
  3. Can you adjust the volume?
  4. What is the quality of the sound? Is it like a 16-bit old-fashioned ringtone, a modern recorded soundtrack or a live concert?
  5. How close does it resemble the actual experience?

Composing in the Mind’s Ear

A close friend of mine told me they could compose an entire piece of music in their mind. They described an ability to control different groups of musical instruments simultaneously, everything from strings to percussion. They told me that as many as three musical instruments were possible.

THREE INSTRUMENTS! Surely, this must be a mind trick.

The ability to hear a song, play different instruments, and control the entire experience in the mind’s ear was beyond anything I could ever imagine possible.

I started to think, is this the limit? Or can some people compose an entire orchestra with ten or even twenty different instruments in their minds?

I feel bewildered just thinking about it.

The Unanswered Questions of Musical Imagery

The more I think about it, the more curious I become. The more questions I ask, the more questions spring to my mind.

  1. Music is made of vibrations of air. Can you feel the vibrations of sound in your mind?
  2. What exactly are the limits and possibilities of your mind’s ear?
  3. Are there any limits at all to your mind’s capability for multi-sensory experience?

There are so many questions and even fewer answers at this point.

This realization taught me that we can never truly know what happens in someone else’s mind. Inquiring into the experience of others and understanding all the nuanced ways in which our internal experience differs from one another is the first step to discovering more about the unique variation in human experience we call aphantasia.

After all, it took one conversation with my wife over dinner to realize I did not fully understand the range of sensory abilities playing out in her mind. Literally.

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I’m a professional musician – composer, choral arranger and pianist – plus I have perfect pitch – and darned if I don’t have auditory aphantasia! I FEEL music in my brain – like I’ll get an idea for a melody but I don’t hear it. Okay, let me try to explain this… I don’t hear a piano or voice or any other instrument actually playing it. I don’t actually hear anything. Again – it’s a FEELING. And like a fleeting BLIP of a sonic idea – SOOO hard to describe. I’ve spent my whole life thinking something was wrong with me because other professional musicians I know actually HEAR the songs/instruments/whatever in their brains. Oh well – guess I have aphantasia all around – I’ve never been able to visualize anything.

I also find it a very  intriguing subject. I for one feel like being on the exact opposite of the Spectrum to Aphantasia. I can imagine anything at anytime very clearly in my head, and can also recall the smallest details of imagines or pictures in my head. I have a ongoing monolog in my head 24/7 and something you could almost describe as a soundtrack off life. It can only be an “earworm” or even composed music pieces from my unconscious. Although when I try to think of a song I first most of the time just sing it in my head. Other times it also can be like listening to the radio. Generally I find it harder with pieces that have lyrics. But the most extreme examples for me are when I dreaming. My dreams are more or less like watching movies. With a soundtrack composed from my unconscious, sometimes even intire orchestral pieces. Often the dreams start with an scenario and I later can decide what happens, a little bit like a video game. The most extreme example by far although was a dream where I was performing on stage on a talent show. For some reason I didn’t know my song anymore and so to girls came up the stage and helpt me (apparently we were a trio). It was a song that my brain came up on the spot, with perfect harmonies between our three voices. I remember after the song finished not believing how it happened and saying in my dream: “wow harmonies” Sadly with what happens with most dreams I forget them again as I wake up and so also the music. That means sometimes I know that it happened but I can’t recall the actual melodies or the whole pieces, so all of these masterpiece just get lost somewhere in my brain never to be heard again.

I was alone while my husband was traveling. I play piano a bit and was working on a Shubert piece that had many chords and a pronounced rather hymnlike rhythm. It began to play in my head and eventually became quite intrusive. I needed to exorcise this demon tune and I decided to use another piece to drive it out. I used a favorite bass aria at the end of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. I find it immensely moving: mache dich mein herze rein. The singer wants to bury Jesus’ body in his heart—a weird concept. I can’t remember the Shubert piece now but the Bach aria has begun to play now in my head. It worked , by the way on the earlier occasion