We’ve all heard stories about musicians who used mental imagery or visualization to prepare for a performance or supplement their regular practice. But there aren’t as many stories about how musicians might use imagery during performance – though I have come across a few.
The late violist Roger Tapping, for instance, once described (~19:29) a section in a particular quartet that used to scare him a bit. But he discovered that as long as he listened intently and imagined that he was playing the cello part at that moment instead, his own part would go just fine.
Pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein has suggested something similar (~41:02) – explaining that one of the keys to better ensemble playing is imagining your musical partners’ parts by being “inside” their playing.
So…is auditory imagery a skill that isn’t limited to just the practice room, but could help us play more effectively on stage too? Especially when it comes to being a better ensemble player? Like, the sort of chamber music or collaborative partner who is so good at knowing what you’re going to do and when and how you’re going to do it, that it feels almost as if they could read your mind?
A study of piano duos
In a 2010 study (Keller & Appel), researchers recruited 14 pianists (with 12-24 years of piano experience) to prepare and record two short piano duo selections by Carl Maria von Weber.
The pianists were sent scores for both pieces in advance, and asked to learn both the first and second parts. When the pieces were learned, they came to the lab, where they met their randomly assigned duo partner for the first time.
The pianists were given a little time to warm up and rehearse together, and when they felt they were ready, they recorded each piece, though in a couple different ways. For one, they switched off parts to ensure that each person in the duo had a chance to play both the first part and the second part. And the researchers also set up a barrier on half of the takes so that the pianists couldn’t see each other or use visual cues to coordinate their playing.
How well did they play together?
To get a sense of how effectively the pianists were able to play together, the researchers calculated the asynchronies between the two pianists. Like, when they had notes that should be played together, how close or far off were they from each other?
Previous research in this area suggests that “anticipatory auditory imagery” – or the ability to imagine or anticipate the music that’s ever so slightly ahead of what one is currently playing – is an important factor in effective synchronization. However, much of this research has taken place in lab settings, which may or may not apply to real musicians doing real things.
So the researchers measured the pianists’ anticipatory auditory imagery ability using a special device and test that they designed specifically for this purpose.
And what did they find?
How much did visual cues matter?
Well, before we get to the main finding, do you remember how the researcher also had the pianists record half of their takes with a screen up to prevent them from being able to see each other? Well, interestingly, vision didn’t have much of an impact on their ensemble playing. Meaning, the pianists were able to play pretty well together even when they couldn’t see each other.
Which reminds me of something that came up in the podcast episode with conductor Joshua Weilerstein. Where he spoke of the importance of listening, and how Claudio Abbado would tell orchestras to “listen, listen, listen, listen, listen.”
The importance of visual cues probably varies from piece to piece and depends on the nature of the music we’re playing of course, but I wonder if this does speak to how in some (or many) cases, our ears could be more important than our eyes.
The role of anticipatory auditory imagery
But going back to the primary research question, as the researchers suspected, the pianists who had higher anticipatory imagery scores did tend to play more tightly in sync with one another, with smaller key stroke asynchronies.
Which suggests that playing in sync with one’s musical partners does seem to rely on being able to imagine their parts slightly in advance, rather than simply reacting to what one hears.
So maybe our chamber music coaches were on to something when they suggested that we take a look at the score. 😅 And maybe this is why we do all those singing exercises in ear training classes too? 🤔
In any case, a related study adds some additional details that seem like they might be important too.
Two types of auditory imagery?
In this study, the authors looked at a couple different types of auditory imagery (Pecenka & Keller, 2009).
One was pitch imagery – as in, the ability to vividly imagine pitch. But they also tested participants’ ability to anticipate or predict beats in the context of tempo changes.
Long story short, they found that the musicians who had better imagery abilities tended to do more predicting of tempo changes rather than simply tracking or reacting to tempo changes. Which was linked to being more in sync with changing rhythms.
However, while the vividness of one’s ability to imagine pitches does seem to be important, the results suggest that temporal imagery (essentially, the ability to imagine an internal pulse) may be more important when it comes to playing more in sync.
Which once again makes me think back to ear training class. Specifically those Starer books and all the rhythm exercises we used to do. I was never really sure why we were doing any of that stuff at the time – but maybe this is exactly what the Starer books were for…?!
So what are the main takeaways from all of this?
Well, Peter Keller, the researcher who co-authored both of these studies has a particular research interest in how musicians are able to play together effectively in ensembles. And one of his conclusions from the years of research he has done in this area, is that effective ensemble playing does seem to be a skill, separate from just being good at your instrument, with unique sub-skills that have to be developed and practiced, just like anything else.
Which makes me have a greater appreciation for some of the things that we did in ear training class. Not just those exercises that were geared towards developing our inner ear or auditory imagery, but the rhythm exercises that must have been intended to help us develop our inner pulse or temporal imagery abilities too. Which in light of the studies we looked at today, were perhaps more relevant to my playing than I realized at the time!
Keller, P. E., & Appel, M. (2010). Individual Differences, Auditory Imagery, and the Coordination of Body Movements and Sounds in Musical Ensembles. Music Perception, 28(1), 27–46. https://doi.org/10.1525/mp.2010.28.1.27
Pecenka, N., & Keller, P. E. (2009). The relationship between auditory imagery and musical synchronization abilities in musicians. In Jukka Louhivuori, Tuomas Eerola, Suvi Saarikallio, Tommi Himberg, & Päivi-Sisko Eerola (Eds.), Proceedings of the 7th Triennial Conference of European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music (ESCOM 2009) (pp. 409-414). Jyväskylä: University of Jyväskylä, Finland.