Music Learning Theory

What is Audiation, Exactly?

Have you heard of “audiation” before, but perhaps weren’t exactly sure what it meant? Have you wondered: why do we need this new word? Why should audiation matter to us as musicians and music educators?

Audiation isn’t an idea that is going away anytime soon. We are going to continue hearing more about audiation within music education circles. As the term “audiation” is becoming more widely known and increasingly used, it would benefit us to ensure that we have a clear and accurate understanding of the term.

Why did Edwin Gordon coin the term “audiation”? 

The term “audiation” was coined around 1976 by music professor, researcher, theorist, and author Dr. Edwin Gordon (1927-2015). Audiation is the central focus of a collection of theories about how music is learned, known as Music Learning Theory (MLT).

Audiation refers to a mental process that is both a natural and integral part of music making — and has been since the beginning of time — but has gone unnamed (at least, in the English language) until Gordon came along.

There is power to naming something. Giving something a name means acknowledging it.

Gordon recognized there is a great deal of mystery surrounding musicians’ own understanding of what they are doing when they make music. And when musicians try to teach others how to do what they do, this mystery does not necessarily become clearer. Gordon observed discrepancy between how music making works and the way teachers are typically trained to teach music. Much of his lifework was dedicated to illuminating a direction towards a better way of teaching music making.

Giving something a name also means we can talk about it more intelligently. Terms allow us to more clearly and accurately describe things we observe in life. Having more names enables us to achieve higher levels of understanding.

By giving this phenomenon a name, we can better understand it, learn to do it, teach it, and talk about it.

What is audiation, exactly?

The process of audiation certainly has something to do with hearing music, but you might still be wondering: what does it mean “to audiate” exactly?

The difference between sound and music is the meaning we ascribe to the latter. When we make music, there is a certain kind of understanding we ascribe to the sounds as we’re doing it.

Music making isn’t just about physical skills (coordination, technique, etc.) at the instrument. It isn’t just about the use of our memory to recall and perform sequences of gestures. It certainly isn’t necessarily about music notation, which is merely a limited representation of something far more wonderful.

Music making has more to do with meaning, intention, conversing, communication, comprehension, and impact. And this is what audiation refers to.

To audiate is to think music with understanding, in much the same way we think when we use language. It’s a mental process. It’s spontaneous. It can occur whether or not the sounds are physically present (for we can hear music in our mind’s ear, after all). It can occur both within time (in tandem with music making) or outside of time (in anticipation or reflection of what is coming or has come before).

A simple synonym to keep in mind when you hear the term “to audiate” is to think music. As a matter of fact, the term “audiation” comes from a combination of “aud” — which has to do with sound — and “ideate” — to think.

Levels of understanding during audiation can vary, according to a person’s previous experience and natural aptitude. Those who are still novices at music making will have little understanding of what they are doing when they are music making or when they listen to music. Proficient audiators, however, hear (i.e., understand) a great deal when they make/listen to music. Perhaps they can identify the meter, the tonality, and the chord progressions, or make intelligent observations regarding the style, the artistry, the composer’s intentions, and other aspects of the music they are hearing. Perhaps they can spontaneously create their own arrangement of a familiar piece, or improvise a new piece. Ability to do such things is an indication of the depth of their audiation proficiency.

So, audiation ability is a spectrum. It can grow, like any skill.

So, audiation is something I can grow? How? 

Gordon theorized about the most basic levels of audiation, and about how he thought audiation grows and develops.

As you know, music has two main elements: rhythm (having to do with time) and tones (having to do with pitch).

Rhythm audiation involves understanding a set of durations (let’s call them rhythm patterns) within a context of perceived macrobeats and microbeats (which we call meter). The meter is called duple when the macrobeats each contain two microbeats. The meter is called triple when the macrobeats each contain three microbeats. There are also other types of meter, where the macrobeats are not of equal duration (creating time signatures such as 5/8 and 7/8), which are called unusual or uneven meters

At the most basic level, rhythm audiation begins with being able to imitate (echo back) rhythm patterns and being able to find and identify the macrobeats and microbeats in music. We can ask our students to echo rhythm patterns. We can help our students learn to find macrobeats and microbeats, and then thereby identify the meter. MLT teachers tend to use Gordon’s rhythm syllables (DU-DE for duple meter and DU-DA-DI for triple meter, with TA being used for smaller divisions) as a tool to help students learn to do this.

Tonal audiation involves understanding a set of tones — let’s call them tonal patterns — within a context of a perceived tonal center (resting tone) and particular selection of tones — which we call tonality. The tonality could be major, harmonic minor, aeolian, mixolydian, dorian, etc.

At the most basic level, tonal audiation begins with being able to imitate (echo back) tonal patterns and being able to find and identify the resting tone and identify the tonality in music. We can ask our students to echo tonal patterns. We can help our students learn to find the resting tone, and then thereby identify the tonality. MLT teachers tend to use solfege syllables (movable DO with a LA-based minor) as a tool to help students learn to do this.

How do rhythm syllables and solfege syllables help increase our audiation? They awaken our awareness of function — that is, how something operates in terms of its context. We can learn to know when we hear tones as tonic function as opposed to “something else” (perhaps dominant or subdominant). We can learn to know when we hear durations as macrobeat/microbeat function as opposed to “something else” (perhaps divisions, rests, ties, or upbeats). Ultimately, the syllables are only a tool to help us learn how to understand what we are hearing, whether or not the syllables are actually being used at a given moment.

As you can see, there are specific kinds of activities that Gordon theorized will best help grow audiation skills. He theorized about the stages of audiation development we go through as we develop as music makers, and he formed instructional sequences teachers can follow to help their students increase their audiation skills.

There are simple things we can do to facilitate the growth of audiation skills in our students. We can be sure to always establish the context of tonality and meter before working with music. We can echo back rhythm patterns and tonal patterns together. Tap macrobeats and microbeats. Hum or sing the tone that sounds like “home.” Figure out the meter and tonality together. These skills are part of the foundation of audiation ability.

What happens when we grow our audiation?

Imagine what it would be like to be an incredibly proficient audiater. Imagine you can hear tonic functions, dominant functions, secondary dominants, Neopolitan chords, and more. Imagine you can hear duple and triple meters as well as unusual meters. Imagine you can hear what it is that makes Beethoven’s music so characteristic, or Debussy’s, or Bach’s. Imagine you can hear what makes one great pianist’s style different from another’s. Imagine you can sit down at the piano and create music, anything you desire, with intention and great depths of understanding.

Imagine what an asset it would be for your students to become fluent audiaters as they learn to create music, play a specific instrument, and perform literature.

As music teachers, rather than hyper-focusing on music notation skills or piano playing skills at the expense of musical understanding, we can consciously and deliberately target the development of audiation skills in our students.

Audiation, audiation, audiation. Let’s talk about it. Let’s acknowledge it and use this powerful term. Let’s try to understand it more, and grow it in ourselves. Let’s experiment with it as we teach and share what we discover as we grow audiation in our students.

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Leave a comment: Do you think teaching audiation skills is important? Did your music teachers grow your audiation skills as you were growing up? What activity ideas do you have for nurturing audiation in your students?

15 thoughts on “What is Audiation, Exactly?”

  1. This is a great post. As a mature beginner student (not a teacher) some of this is “over my head” at the minute, but this new word, audiation, nevertheless brings a fascinating insight into my own journey of learning. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for reading, Ashley. Yes, audiation is SUCH a useful word, and I agree it carries important insights and implications for all of us musicians!

  2. Absolutely! The first time I heard the term was in college wind ensemble in 2000. My conductor used to say “Audiation over Imitation” meaning that we needed to know for ourselves how the music was to be played, NOT waiting for our neighbor or section leader to play it and be a split second behind because we were imitating instead of being an independent musician. I felt like I didn’t have a good avenue to teach this in the context of a piano lesson until I found Dr. John Feierabend’s Conversational Solfege. It breaks down this process into 12 Steps and it is INCREDIBLE!!! Dr. Feierabend studied with Edwin Gordon for years-so this curriculum is his application of Gordon’s MLT. I love it because I teach a wide variety of music education: general elementary, private flute, private piano, AND I have my first private Music Literacy student this year-we are JUST working through Conversational Solfege. If you’d like, I could add you to the Feierabend Fundamentals facebook group page and you could watch the videos that the Teacher Trainers have posted of their general elementary students and how they are able to audiate (they call it “decoding” when they do anything that is technically dications both rhythmically and tonally) at such a young age! There are more and more of these general elementary music teachers using this method who also teach private instrument lessons (lots of piano) who are incorporating Conversational Solfege into our lessons and really focusing on the process of audiation, it’s really exciting!

    1. Yes! I know of some of Feierabend’s work and that he studied with Gordon, but I haven’t used his Conversational Solfege curriculum. I’ll have to give it a closer look. Thanks for the recommendation. I have to agree, it’s totally amazing and exciting to see what it possible when audiation is more directly addressed and nurtured in music education!

  3. Thank you for sharing this. It names for me part of what I have naturally included as I teach piano. And it gives me ways of strengthening and enriching this aspect for my students.

    1. Yes! I think audiation is something we all intuitively use as musicians and intuitively teach to some degree. But giving it a name and exploring how we can more directly address it and nurture it is POWERFUL. And exciting!! Thanks for commenting, Annette!

  4. What an insightful and and a very important article/post.
    I will need time to read it again… and keep it!
    Thank you for sharing this brilliant resource!

  5. Thank you so very much for this post, Joy. I play advanced rep (piano)., but with no formal “higher ed” training – I have felt frustrated trying to articulate what I’m looking to learn, in order to really blossom. Working out chord progressions helps but…audiation is it. I’ll look into Dr. John Feierabend’s Conversational Solfege and go from there.

    So many thanks!!!

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