Building Auditory Imagery Vocabulary

Try to memorize this sentence.

Now, try to memorize the following string of letters: Mzeto thtsi emoeri ennets.

The second sentence has fewer letters and fewer words but is probably more difficult for you to memorize. This is because our memories work best when they are dealing with known objects. And since internal auditory imagery is essentially an act of memory, the same will be true of this imagery.

So one of the best ways to improve your internal auditory imagery is to simply learn lots and lots of patterns that are common in music. And, in fact, not just to learn them, but to deeply internalize them, and to associate them with instrument-based kinesthetic imagery and solfège to reinforce and enrich them.

Many traditional aural skills classes ask you to learn lots of music from notation (often called “prepared singing”) to build your internal auditory imagery vocabulary in this way. Unfortunately, many such common patterns are specific to different kinds of music: classical music has contrapuntal sequences and galant schemata, popular music has common chord loops, jazz has “the lick” and ii – V – I patterns, and more. Different teachers will have different priorities. In addition, while the traditional teaching method relies on music notated in sight-reading anthologies and this is what our exercises below focus on, you can internalize patterns through learning by ear or improvisation as well.

Regardless of any given teacher’s instructions here, anyone can build their vocabulary by simply learning as much of the music they are interested in as possible, particularly if they use a method such as solfège to focus their attention on what is “going on” in the music. If the notation-based activities below don’t fit well with your goals, experiment with how to bring this kind of awareness to your own repertoire and music-making.

Activity: Learning common patterns from notation

Goal: internalize a set of some of the melodic “vocabulary” most common across a variety of triad-based styles.

Before you start: You will need a sight-reading anthology for this exercise. The exercise is ideally completed with both voice and an external instrument but can be completed with just one or the other.


  1. Find the sections in your sight-reading anthology that focus on leaps within the tonic, dominant, and subdominant triads. (Most anthologies have chapters focused on these.)
  2. Learn a series of melodies from each chapter. The more ways you have of understanding the music, the more you will internalize its patterns, so we encourage you to sing them, play them on an instrument, and either speak, sing, or think solfège solfège syllables to make sure you notice how common patterns relate to scale degrees. You may learn the series of melodies all in a row or, even better, one or two at a time across several days or weeks.
  3. To test whether you have successfully internalized the patterns common to these melodies, try sight reading through other excerpts from these chapters. You are especially encouraged to sing rather than play because using the voice relies primarily on internalized models (our goal) rather than instrument mechanisms. You may wish to look ahead for advice from the chapter on sight reading.


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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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