Notes: are you 'pictaural'.

July 28, 2012 at 07:58 PM · I may have read this somewhere so its probably not original - but its new for me. Its come up primarily when I play scales - I'm hoping it spills over eventually but I'm not good enough yet.

Simply, I'm trying to imagine the note I play as it looks on the printed page. The idea is to eventually both 'see' the note as I play a piece and also to help me imagine the sound of the note when I see it on the page. [I find the latter to be crucial for difficult shifts for example.]

It sounds easy enough, but it was really hard at first - I am, however, gradually getting better.

Try it - close your eyes and play a 3 octave scale very slowly. For each note create a mental image of what it looks like on the music. Don't play the next note until you've succeeded. At first I could only get up to F (one octave up) on the E string but now I'm able to get to D - then I get lost in lines!

I was wondering also if there is anyone that does this naturally (perhaps also when listening to music too?) ? I'd love to coin a word for this (assuming of course that one does not exist) - how about 'pictaural' (picture aural)?

Replies (34)

July 28, 2012 at 08:05 PM · This is not something I have done, but I am sure I could. I wonder if it makes a difference that I learned to read music at a fairly young age (5 or 6)?

I was always good at spelling bees in my elementary school classes because I could picture the word in my mind and read the letters off aloud.

July 29, 2012 at 12:06 AM ·

July 29, 2012 at 04:19 AM · If my daughter gets lost somewhere in a Vivaldi Concerto she might ask me what page she's on so that she can visualize where she needs to be. I think it's quite common in kids to have an image of the music in their heads as a basic memorization strategy/crutch.

July 29, 2012 at 04:34 AM · I memorize the music in pitch and phrases and the structure.. Much like reading a novel, my mind is full of scenery rather than words, so I memorize the scenery than the words.

If you go visual IMHO it'll distract the listening.

July 29, 2012 at 09:04 AM · I think I just realized that it must depends mostly on what kind of memory you have - aural, visual or kinesthetic. But I really should start a different topic on that - its more a question of how you approach music. This one was simply on whether when you play a note you see it on the page and can you train yourself to do so.

July 29, 2012 at 11:50 AM · Paul - I did the exact same thing back when I was younger (and studying Vivaldi concertos, incidentally). Not anymore, though; I do sort of what Casey does - I feel the topography of pieces as I play them. When I play contemporary works (which doesn't happen often) that are less tonal and not in a regular time signature, I usually have to forgo memorization entirely and play the piece from the sheet music.

July 29, 2012 at 11:51 AM · No, I don't do this. Or rather, I can do it for notes on the staff if I try, but I don't do it automatically, and I can't do it for notes above about F (in 5th position) on the E-string. It correlates pretty well with what I can recognize on sight and don't have to count. I get lost in lines pretty easily. I've never tried to train myself the way you describe because it's actively unpleasant to attempt to do so. I'm not even sure how I'd go about it--how do you conjure to your mind's eye something that simply isn't there in memory?

July 29, 2012 at 02:25 PM · This is interesting. I think I sort of do the same thing. If I'm playing something from memory (even if I haven't memorized it, but just saw it once and am trying to remember it), I read the music in my mind.

I remember reading an interview with Artur Rubinstein -- the interviewer asked him how he memorized, and he said he was such a visualizer he even memorized the coffee stains :-)

Once when a student played in my Alexander class, the teacher noticed that she was staring at the music with big, round, unblinking eyes. He passed his hand between her and the music stand, and she messed up. So he removed the music & told her to play from memory, to unfreeze her eyes. She played exactly the same way, and when he passed his hand in front of where the music stand had been, she messed up again even though the music wasn't there.

When I give students a new piece of music and tell them to look it over, some of them look at it and start singing under their breath; some will look at it and their fingers start twitching; and some just look. It's always interesting, and gives me an idea how their mind works, so I can try to figure out the best way to teach them.

July 29, 2012 at 08:26 PM · A story I heard about Artur Rubinstein was that he was asked at extremely short notice to play a concerto. He didn't know the concerto, so he memorized it during the train journey on the way to the concert. Evidently, he must have visually memorized the piece and in the concert was "sight-reading" from his visual memory.

I wondert if some conductors do this as well.

Which reminds me - going slightly off topic, if I may - of what I saw on TV last night. Arriving late at my holiday hotel I switched on the TV and caught the last few minutes of Beethoven 9 conducted in a Prom concert by Daniel Barenboim. He was conducting from memory (not unusual), but he had no music stand in front of him. Consequently, he was slightly closer to the orchestra, and, more importantly, the absence of the music stand resulted IMO in the removal of an unseen psychological barrier between the conductor and the orchestra. I got the strong impression that Barenboim was able to interact better with the orchestra and was essentially a fellow performer in a very real sense.

I won't comment on the merits of the performance because the TV reception wasn't all that good and the sound on the internal TV speaker was dreadful (I'm used to a setup at home with external speakers and amplifier).

July 29, 2012 at 09:39 PM · I think we all uses aural, sight and kinesthetic senses when playing the violin.

Some sensory attributes will be more prominent with different individuals.

I use all 3 of them of varying degree, to maximise my performance.

July 29, 2012 at 11:13 PM · Elise, what do you hope to gain by learning to do this? Is it for an aid in memorization?

July 29, 2012 at 11:16 PM · I think I mostly use how the song sounds or felt to play in my head. If I know the tune exactly, I can play it. This is why I have a hard time memorizing fast passages with key changes, like the ones in vivaldi, because I can't remember exactly what they sound like. In those cases, I use muscle memory. It takes a few plays, and the mental sheet music would probably be better, but I'm lazy :P

July 30, 2012 at 01:21 AM ·

July 30, 2012 at 01:41 AM · For me it wasn't about memorization at all - I can't visualize worth anything - according to tests I'n extraordinarily kinesthetic so the way for me to learn is to do.

The point was to learn to associate the image with the sound and the place. I want to know what a note on the page sounds like so that I can play it. Being kinesthetic is different from (at least what I imagine) being visual or aural are. with the former you can visualize - and you can do so at any time, you see the music for example. Aural likewise you can hear the tune in your head. However with kinesthesia there is no logic to memory, its all subconsious - doing leads to knowing but you actually don't know that you know it! Thus, you kinda have to have faith that it will happen.

I've learned a lot about it through dancing where my partners now know to just do it, don't gas and don't demonstrate. Dance me through it a couple of times and apparently my right brain gets it... sometimes I wish 'I' did :-\

July 30, 2012 at 03:15 AM ·

July 30, 2012 at 06:06 AM · "If you imagine doing something, like dancing, do you actually feel it or just kind of see yourself doing it?"

Feel it! I was going to write 'of course' but one has to be very careful to not take for granted how others sense.

I'm really glad you asked because, yes, even with the mention of word dance I feel a swing in my body, I only imagine the sight of myself dancing if I happen to think of a video that I've seen.

I have a good memory for tunes (good, definitely not great) but its the emotion of the music that I remember more. Its hard to remember it on the page. But maybe thats an advantage of sorts - perhaps thats what makes a person musical?

July 31, 2012 at 02:18 AM · Elise, you are lucky! I wish I could learn in a more kinesthetic way. I expect learning and playing an instrument is easier for kinesthetic learners. I always had to think through everything my violin teachers told me and try to translate it into what to do with my hands. And I have never been very good at conveying emotions through music.

July 31, 2012 at 10:26 AM · Just because your favourite artist learn music in a particular way, it doesn't mean you have to.

We have to learn a piece which is best suited to our learning habits. Try discovering what makes you learn best and utilise that trait.

We all use all sight, aural and kinesthetic to learn but with varying degrees.

July 31, 2012 at 11:21 AM · ML, Kitty is right - you have to go with your strengths. A kinesthetic learner like myself basically gets into the mood of the method - but we are jealous of visual learners who can translate read notes into music and can observe and copy better and probably even more so of aural ones who basically hear music and then reproduce it from that memory.

It would be interesting to compare what kind of instruments different kinds of learners gravitate to - the violin with its extreme demands on body control in addition to aural feedback would seem to be a natural for those two skills. I wonder if visual learners gravitate to piano with its unbelivable (for me) complexities in note translation.

July 31, 2012 at 12:50 PM · I can tell my students which page, which line if they are stuck on some passage of a piece I have played and taught a lot, but I definitely don't see the page in my mind and play from it. My piano accompanist in college said she played this way.

July 31, 2012 at 01:12 PM · I think we should distinguish 'visual learners' from 'photographic memory' Although they must be related as I understand it they really are very different.

Someone with 'visual memory' learns best by seeing something or having it demonstrated to the eye. But we have to define 'learn'. learning to my mind (excuse joke) is to not only input but also integrate information. Thus, if you learn where 'D' is on the G string your mind relates that to where 'A' is on the D string without any further conscious thought.

'Photographic memory' refers to someone who can glance at an image, be it a scene or a page in a book, and then later reproduce it from memory. They litterally take a snap shot of it and can then mentally visualize it and recognize objects or read sentences. A photographic memory image is, however, just like the scene it depicts - the information does not get integrated into memory. Thus someone who has a photographic image of a page in a book will ave to read a scentence from their pictorial image in order to THEN integrate the information with whatever else they know.

Thus, photographic memory is not memory as we usually think of it. Its a terrific skill for lawyers and (some) musicians who need just the fact (clause for the former, notes for the latter) but not so much for scientists or composers who (I presume wiht the latter) need the integrated information!

July 31, 2012 at 10:54 PM · I envy that skill....being able to glance at an image and reproduce it from memory. Imagine that, you could have the whole of the musical repertiore filed away in your 'photographic memory banks', open up any page and begin playing.

July 31, 2012 at 11:20 PM ·

August 1, 2012 at 12:38 PM · Elise,

Your distinction between being a visual learner and having photographic memory is well made. There's a difference between learning (getting something in the memory bucket) and remembering (getting something out of the memory bucket) -- although they are closely related, because learning is based on getting in, so it can come out later.

Memory's a really funny thing. One person can vividly remember the feeling of an experience, while someone else may recall the way it looked. Still another could quote the spoken conversation of the same experience verbatim. Someone else could have essentially flushed their memory cache, because they just didn't care about that experience.

In my case, I have never been able to memorize violin music easily (or well). Yet in choir, I could sing the notes by reading the octavo page in my mind. I guess there is more of a connection in MY brain between memory and vocal activity, than between memory and arm/finger motions. In fact, to memorize violin music, I just play it over and over, until it sinks in. Even then, I'll reach the end of a passage and have to think hard about what comes next. So maybe my noggin has nonstandard wiring. :-)

I haven't seen Sandy weigh in on this discussion. He could give a more educated view than I can.

August 3, 2012 at 10:07 AM · While it has obvious advantages, I think memory can actually be an impediment to knowledge and even more so to originality. If you remember too well (literal) you may not integrate that information well (a la photographic memory). But it can also be crippling for originality since the known can make the mind 'not see the forest for the trees'.

I once wrote a poem on this - it got an honorable mention in a competition (the peak of my poetic career). It goes:

Which trait of mine is the best?

My memory is vestigial;

Without recall I am blessed,

Forced to be original.



August 3, 2012 at 12:33 PM · Huh? Whadja say? I fergit.

August 3, 2012 at 02:30 PM · then you must be brilliantly creative john. just one problem, you forget your ideas before you can note them down...

August 3, 2012 at 10:15 PM · I don't picture my music note by note, but I do picture what page it's on, what section of the page it's on, when I would have to turn the page, what marks I made on the music, etc. I don't do it for any musical reason, but because I can get REALLY distracted and skip whole pages of music if I don't keep my brain in the game! (One time, I played pages 1 and 2, then did a wrong shift, and ended up playing the last line of the piece. I stopped and was like, "Um, what happened?") I've learned that if I follow along in my head, it keeps me from going into La-La land where all my favorite musicians live and I sit next to them in orchestra.

August 3, 2012 at 10:56 PM ·

August 4, 2012 at 01:21 AM · Du har rat, det gor inte so bra po svenska..

(my typewriter is missing afew letters - and so apparently is my brain)...

August 4, 2012 at 02:56 AM ·

August 8, 2012 at 02:33 PM · Oh dear, someone's upset Eric again - hope it wasn't me!

I feel I know the music when I can stop visualising the page. To me, the score is like the map on the passenger-seat: for a quick glance, but not to be read while driving!

August 8, 2012 at 04:40 PM · Maybe Eric's country won a gold and he's waving the flag? :p

August 8, 2012 at 04:42 PM · I don't have that problem Adrian! I never see the music in my head - once i know it, it just comes out of my fingers. Actually, to be accurate there are memory 'points' in my head for certain notes or links that need special treatment and I may 'see' them.

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