When you’re having trouble hearing sound in your head, one of the first methods you should try is called subvocalization. To subvocalize a pitch, you actually make all the physical shapes and motions in your vocal mechanism to make the desired sound, but stop just short of actually making it. For example, I’d get my mouth, diaphragm, and throat ready to sing, maybe even breathe in as if I were about to do it, and then instead of actually letting my breath activate my vocal folds, I’ll listen in my head to what it would sound like if I were to do so. You can experiment with exactly which motions are helpful to you.

Subvocalization is particularly helpful as a method of “cueing” internal auditory imagery. Why does this work? Sounds you hear in your head are, of course, not actually sounding in the external world; rather, your brain creates them from memories of past sounds. For many of us, making sound with our voice boxes is so familiar that activating this part of our body is an effective “cueing” mechanism. This stimulus that is so strongly associated with the desired memory that our brains almost can’t avoid accessing it.

Subvocalization can improve with practice. Fortunately, you have lots of opportunities to do this! Anytime you’re about to make music, whether that’s reading music at sight in an aural skills class, preparing to play something in your personal practice time, or something else, take just a moment and imagine what it’d be like to sing that music. (It’s fine to give yourself a starting pitch or just imagine it at whatever pitch level is comfortable.) See if you can make that sound real in your head before it becomes real out in the world.

Even those who are not entirely comfortable with their voices may find subvocalization helpful. Nevertheless, if it’s not working even after practice, we do have another option: instrument-based kinesthetic imagery.

Activity: Practice using subvocalization to cue internal auditory imagery

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

Before you start: You’ll want to either choose a very short passage (3–8 notes) of notated music or plan 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.).


  1. Subvocalize the passage; that is, make all the motions your mouth, throat, and torso would need to sing the passage—just don’t actually make the sound. As you do so, try to hear what it would sound like if you were to make the sounds with your voice. Depending on your goals, you may wish to give yourself a starting pitch so you can imagine the sounds at a specific pitch level (say, as notated), or you may wish to start your internal auditory imagery on another comfortable pitch and simply follow the (transposed) correct intervals/contour from there. Either is fine.
  2. Sing through the passage out loud to compare the sound with your imagination.
  3. 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.
  4. 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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