Instrument-Based Kinesthetic Imagery

If you have played some instrument seriously for many years, you may be able to cue your memories of its sound by playing an “air” version of the instrument (for example, forming your fingers to hit the right keys on your saxophone or guitar) or even just imagining playing the instrument. This is called instrument-based kinesthetic imagery, and like subvocalization, it’s a great way to cue imagined sound in your head.

Instrument-based kinesthetic imagery can be really powerful. In our experience, imagining playing something on an instrument can be one of the best ways of figuring out how it works (when listening to music) or what it should sound like (when reading or planning music). Of course, not everyone has enough instrument experience to do this; fortunately, such people can use subvocalization. (Subvocalization is kind of like playing an air version of your voice!)

Just like subvocalization, instrument-based imagery also improves with practice.

Activity: Practice using instrument-based motions to cue internal auditory imagery

Goal: Build the habit of connecting sound/music with physical motion.

Before you start: Make sure you have a non-voice instrument. If your primary instrument is voice, you may wish to use another comfortable instrument or practice subvocalization instead.


  1. Start by choosing a very short passage (3–8 notes) of notated music or planning out a very short passage of improvised music. If improvising, don’t worry about the sound for now—just plan some notes that feel connected in some way (a stepwise passage, some notes in the same key, etc.).
  2. Imagine playing this passage on your primary instrument, trying to hear what it would sound like if you were to actually do so. Depending on your goals and your instrument, you may wish to play it in transposition or at the intended pitch. Either is fine. You might experiment with both playing an “air version” of your instrument and imagining playing it—see which one gives you clearer internal auditory imagery of the sound.
  3. Play the passage out loud on your instrument, to compare with your imagination.
  4. If you didn’t find your imagery to be very accurate or vivid, try step #2 again after hearing the music out loud. Having the sound in your head from step #3 may help you cue it in memory more effectively.
  5. Repeat steps 1–3 (and 4 when necessary) to continue building your ability to cue internal auditory imagery.


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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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