Book Review: The Mind’s Ear, by Bruce Adolphe

Note: This article is an edited “reprint” (with a new addendum) of a recent email I sent out to my special email list for those interested in my summer piano teacher retreats. I thought this book review and discussion might be of interest to all of my readers!

As I’ve been preparing for the 2024 Retreat at Piano Manor and designing our schedule of discussion topics and creative activities, I’ve been immersing myself in finding and ordering resources for us to look at together. Since settling on this year’s theme, Exploring Improvisation and Composition in Piano Lessons, I’ve been keeping my eyes open in particular for books and resources related to creativity.  

A recent rabbit hole has been to discover an interesting book called The Mind’s Ear, by Bruce Adolphe. Adolphe is the pianist behind the Piano Puzzler show from American Public Media. (Have you heard of it?)

Piano Puzzler is a radio show involving callers who guess which tune and composer Adolphe is mimicking in each piano puzzler. As an example, a piano puzzler might involve a folk tune such as London Bridge is Falling Down merged with Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor.

It’s fun to listen to, and Adolphe’s creative genius is amazing! 

[Note: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. Thanks for supporting my work!]

The Piano Puzzler show has been running since 2002 – an astonishing 20+ years. I remember listening to the show during my college years while driving to class tuned into my local NPR station. (You can take a listen to the show here or subscribe to the podcast version on Apple podcasts here.)

Getting back to Adolphe’s book now… I discovered The Mind’s Ear after seeing it mentioned in a thread on Facebook. I was curious what commonalities it might have with the Edwin E. Gordon’s Music Learning Theory (MLT) and audiation (a term for understanding what we hear in our mind’s ear), so I ordered myself a copy. I’m pretty fascinated reading about the variety of exercises Adolphe has used over the years with his students and audiences.

In the intro, Adolphe recounts the occasion when he realized that, while they were excellent players and did well with theory assignments, his students in the Julliard Pre-College Division could not hear in their minds how to harmonize a melody they saw notated on the board. Upon further discussion them, he was told: “I don’t really hear anything when I can’t use an instrument. … I recognize it as right or wrong only after I hear it or sing it.” He was astonished to learn that NONE of his students – even the ones with perfect pitch – could look at music printed on a page and hear it in their mind without using an instrument. 

This discovery inspired Adolphe to begin creating exercises that would engage the “mind’s ear” and build his students’ ability to “hear” in silence. The experience evolved into a special seminar and became a regular feature of his masterclasses, workshops, and other events across the country. Adolphe compiled his exercises in his book, The Mind’s Ear, now in its third edition and published through Oxford University Press. 

Why would we want to be able to be able to develop our mind’s ear? No doubt Adolphe makes use of his own mind’s ear extensively when creating his piano puzzlers. I think Adolphe sees it as a foundational skill for bringing authentic emotion to performance and being able to create with music. I’ll also go as far as to say that I think audiation – to use Gordon’s term now – is ideally the foundation of all music instruction. Our primary instrument is the mind-body; the piano is secondary, flowing out of our primary instrument. 

Adolphe insists the musical imagination and mind’s ear can be improved through appropriate exercises, just as is done with instrumental technique. His toolbox of exercises aim to engage the musical imagination and help musicians open up emotionally and expressively. 

Are you curious about the exercises in Adolphe’s book? 

Many of them are inspired by the theater games that are so familiar to drama students. Some of them are intended to be done in silence; some are done in groups; some involve musical instruments; and some are exercises specifically in composing. 

All of the exercises are designed to be playful, experimental, and exploratory – with no right or wrong answers. They are designed to help musicians never forget their love of music and keep passion as the driving force behind technical discipline. Here’s a few examples. 

  • One exercise is titled, “Imagining a Musically Complicated Situation.” It involves visualizing a scenario where a chamber music performance is interrupted by a musician practicing their instrument backstage.
  • Another, “Moments of Truth,” involves asking a group of musicians to sight-sing a melody silently together, with a “conductor” occasionally indicating when students should sing out loud for a note or two.
  • Still another exercise is to perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” on your instrument in a variety of different ways – such as, as if American troops have just returned home or as if you were on your honeymoon playing romantically for your new spouse.

In the coda of his book, Adolphe states that these exercises are ideally only the beginning. He hopes his book opens some musical doors and musicians will keep the music imagination going!

I’m pretty intrigued by Adolphe’s work, and can’t wait to try out some of these exercises together during my piano teacher retreat this summer. I think it will be fun to see what happens when we engage our musical imaginations together. It seems very timely that I came across this book!

A closing thought: Take a moment to imagine what would happen if you could discover new inlets for helping your students engage their musical imaginations and building their audiation skills? I don’t know about you, but I love the idea of having more creativity flowing out of my students. We can nurture students’ abilities to create with music (whether it’s simple compositions and improvisations, or applying their own changes to the pieces they learn) and be fluent with music like a language.

Interested in the book? You can find The Mind’s Ear by Bruce Adophe on Amazon, at your local library, or your favorite source for books.

An Addendum Especially for MLT Practitioners

After chatting about Adolphe’s book with a few MLT colleagues, I wrote out a few more of my thoughts comparing and contrasting Adophe’s concept of “the mind’s ear” and “musical imagery” against Gordon’s “audiation.” Here they are.

For MLT practitioners, how useful is Adolphe’s The Mind’s Ear book? I think that Adolphe is talking about approximately the same thing as Gordon’s “audiation.” Adolphe is undoubtedly a highly-skilled audiater. While I’m not sure Adolphe’s concept of “the mind’s ear” / “music imagination” is as clearly defined as Gordon’s “audiation,” I do think it’s the same general idea.

In his book, Adolphe regards “notational audiation” as a desirable skill (although he doesn’t use that term). He also discusses “music imagination” as a thing musicians ideally can do apart from their instruments. Interestingly enough, Gordon used the term “music imagery” (before the term “audiation” was coined) to describe musical thinking/comprehension, taking cue from Carl E. Seashore (1866-1949), a psychologist and author of aptitude tests in art and music who was Gordon’s predecessor at University of Iowa. Gordon found, however, that musicians tended to misinterpret the term “music imagery”, taking it to involve some kind of visualization within the mind. This is partly why Gordon thought it was necessary to popularize a new term.

As far as term usage goes, I find Adolphe’s “music imagination” better than Seashore’s “music imagery.” I find “the mind’s ear” (which I’ve seen used by researchers in scholarly articles) to be extremely useful at times. But in my mind, Gordon’s “audiation” is certainly the primary term that that is beneficial for us music educators to embrace.

In his book, Adolphe doesn’t address about being able to understand pitches or rhythm dimensions within a context, which is absolutely fundamental to Gordon’s theories. (Gordon’s reasoning is that we can’t really audiate [read: understand] rhythm unless we are also audiating the context of an established meter, and similarly we can’t really audiate tones unless we are also audiating the context of an established tonality). Although Adolphe doesn’t define much in the way of specifics about his concept of “music imagination” and how it develops, but I have no doubt that Adolphe audiates at an advanced level (evidenced by his Piano Puzzler brilliance) and I’m guessing he would resonate with at least some of Gordon’s ideas. 

Relatedly, another difference I see is the fact that Adolphe’s exercises are deliberately non-sequenced and non-leveled, whereas Gordon was deeply interested in sequencing and individualizing instruction. Adolphe’s book, as he states within, is not intended to provide anything that is step-by-step. He refers to his book as a resource for teachers and musicians to pull from to explore and experiment with developing “the mind’s ear.” 

That all said, I do think it’s notable that Adolphe is getting at certain dimensions of audiation that Gordon didn’t spend much time on. Besides rhythm and tonal dimensions, Gordon thought there were something like two dozen other dimensions of audiation. Gordon’s own Music Aptitude Profile (MAP) test addresses, in addition to the rhythm and tonal sections, “musical sensitivity” — which consists of subtests for phrasing, balance, and style. But in his Music Learning Theory, Gordon was primarily concerned with tonal audiation and rhythm audiation development. Adolphe’s exercises target additional dimensions, such as the timbre of particular instruments, tone quality, phrasing, shaping, dynamics, expression, form, style, etc.. While Adolphe’s book may not be directly supportive for typical MLT instruction as we commonly know it, the exercises might be an interesting and worthwhile experiment into discovering how audiation skill in OTHER dimensions develops.

Adolphe suggests teachers select one exercise to try with all students for a week, and see how that goes. The following week, he says you can either continue using the same exercise or try another. Time is always a precious commodity in piano lessons. Perhaps these exercises would be useful as an activity to experiment with during summer months? Or it could be part of a summer camp or other group event? Or used at a piano teacher meetup such as my retreat, of course. 😉 

Speaking of my retreat, would you consider joining me this summer? This year’s Retreat at Piano Manor (August 12-14, 2024, near Ann Arbor, Michigan) has an opening, and it would be great to have you! I can’t wait to put our heads together as piano teachers and together explore ways to make creativity practical in our lessons. Find details at or directly on the registration page HERE. Questions? Send me an email

Thanks for reading! Please share your thoughts and reactions in the comment section below.

Happy music imagining! 


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