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Can you Hear That? Auditory Aphantasia

Can you hear music in your mind's ear?

Think of your favourite song.

Allow the song to play in your mind 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 hearing 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.

She elaborated by telling me she could hear the music as if it were playing in real-time, at that exact moment.

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 initially, the ability to play music in the mind for me was extraordinary – almost like a magic trick seen on television!

Is my wife some sort of magician? I remember thinking to myself.

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

I quickly discovered that I was wrong, and that my wife’s earworms are not some sort of magic trick but rather, part of her unique inner experience.

In fact, this experience is quite a common experience for most people.

How is it that some people can access songs outside of what they hear with their ears in the present? Why did I never realize that people could access music, sounds, or even voices in their mind’s ear before?

As someone who lives with aphantasia, I do not possess the ability to produce visual imagery nor auditory imagery in my mind for that matter. If you’ve never experienced an earworm before, how would you even know it was possible?

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

What I found even more extraordinary from this initial discussion with my wife is not only can she hear the song playing in her mind’s ear but she can actually control the experience by turning up and down the volume. 

Is this some sort of joke? I remember thinking.

Once I had accepted the fact that playing music in the mind’s ear was something that others without aphantasia could experience, my curiosity took over and I began searching for answers.

How many others play songs and control the volume in their mind too?

Thinking I would explore this more, I started to ask a few people I knew about their inner experience. I began asking questions like:

  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 is it more like a live concert?
  5. How close does it resemble the actual experience?

Following this line of inquiry, 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 at the same time, everything from strings to percussion. They told me that as many as three musical instruments were possible.

THREE INSTRUMENTS! Surely, this must be some sort of mind trick.

The ability to hear a song, play different instruments, and control the entire experience in the mind’s ear sounds truly amazing and was beyond anything I ever imagined possible at the time.

I started to think is this the limit? Or could others possibly achieve something beyond this experience? It is possible for some to compose an entire orchestra with 10 or even 20 different instruments in their mind?

I feel bewildered just thinking about it, how is it that I never knew these realities were possible before now?

We can never truly know what happens in someone else’s’ mind.

The more I thought about it, the more curious I became. The more questions I asked, the more other questions would spring to my mind.

Music is made of vibrations of air, so how does that work? Can you feel the vibrations of sound in your mind? What exactly are the limitations from music playing in the mind to music playing in the present? Are there any limits at all?

There are so many more questions I’d like to ask. I guess you could say, I have a deep curiosity about this subject.

So much so that I wrote a book about my own experience with aphantasia, and some of the discoveries I made in talking with others about their unique experience. The book is called: Aphantasia: Experiences, Perceptions and Insights.

Inquiring into the experience of others is the first step to discovering more about this unique perspective on the world we call aphantasia.

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

Alan Kendle was the aphantasic author who wrote the first book on the topic, called Aphantasia: Experiences, Perceptions, and Insights.

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