Inside the mind of a musician

Many musicians say they hear music before they play it, but how do they do it and what’s the science involved? Meet Dr Rebecca Gelding, a cognitive neuroscientist who studies musical imagery in practice and performance. She’ll be on stage explaining why internal listening skills are fundamental to becoming a musician at City Recital Hall on Tuesday 18 February from 12.30-130pm.

Q: When did you become interested in this topic and why?

I’ve always been interested in music and the brain, when I met with my supervisor to discuss possible topics for my PhD the idea of studied musical imagery using neuroimaging – measuring the brain whilst participants were engaged in such a purely subjective experience – really captured my curiosity. How could we possibly design tasks so that we could know objectively that people were imagining exactly what we want them to be imagining? It was a huge challenge!

Q: Are internal listening skills formally taught to musicians?

Hearing music in the mind is required for many of the types of aural skills taught in music theory classes, like sight-singing. However, the translation of these skills into actual performance are not always emphasised by individual instrument teachers.

Q: How do you conduct your research?

I designed two tasks – one that involved imaging pitch and the other rhythms. I tested hundreds of participants with a range of musical training from absolutely nothing to a professional jazz musician.  I then took 18 participants from each task and measured their brain activity whilst they completed it. I was interested to see exactly how certain regions of the brain communicated together as participants were imagining. 

Q: Have any surprising research findings emerged?

A lot! I was surprised to find such a range of ability in imagining music. Whilst musicians were better at the tasks, some novices (e.g. “I studied clarinet for 2 months back when I was 10, but gave up”) outperformed musicians with decades of training. It sounds obvious now, but I was also surprised that tapping out rhythms lead to more accurate imagining of them later. Better imaginers also showed different information flow during perception of sound – as if they were anticipating what they were about to hear next.

Q: What can musicians do to develop these skills?

Definitely practice on your instrument, but also do mental practice – when you are riding on the bus, or brushing your teeth, any time you have a spare moment, instead of grabbing your phone, imagine the music you are learning in as much richness as you can – how does it sound, feel to play in your body, what emotions do you feel, what does the music look like on the page. Do the same thing when you sit down to play the piece, then play it and pay attention to how accurate your imagery was. Also, don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and improvise, create and compose new music.

Dr Rebecca Gelding was a speaker at TEDx Macquarie University in 2019.

Event details

All welcome to join Dr Rebecca Gelding at City Recital Hall, accompanied by improvisational opera singer, Sarah Toth, who will discuss her own journey with imagery in how she has developed as a musician.

When: 12.30 pm, Tuesday 18 February
Where: City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney
Cost: Free with booking via this link

About Dr Rebecca Gelding

Dr Rebecca Gelding’s award-winning PhD thesis investigated what is going on in the brain as people imagine musical pitch and rhythm. In addition to academic papers, she’s written for Quillette Magazine and Times Higher Education and her research has featured on ABC Science.