Practice Listening with Your Memory

A Deaf Composer on How to Hear the Piano

Photo of Jay Alan Zimmerman by Barbara Norman.
Think of a simple song. “Happy Birthday” will do. Imagine the rhythm of the words, the bouncing melody soaring out of you as you make the birthday candles flicker. Hear the happy crowd harmonizing. Feel the music building to a rousing climax as everyone belts out “to you!” at the end.

Did you hear the tune in your head? Of course you did. That’s because “hearing” doesn’t take place only in your ears. Which, frankly, is a huge relief for someone like me, a composer who became profoundly deaf.

“Hearing” doesn’t take place only in your ears.

At the start of this series, I asked you to practice listening and to begin to see music as a vibrant, almost spiritual thing that exists all around you; a wonderful thing that you can create at will. To think beyond listening with your ears, to listening with your body and with your eyes.

But your body (the tactile sense) and your eyes (the visual sense) are simply triggers. And your ears are simply transmitters. If you want to deeply understand how to listen to music, you need to follow those triggers and transmitters to where the action really happens: your brain. When you make yourself hear “Happy Birthday” in your mind, you are already practicing how to listen… with your memory.

Hearing music in your head is sometimes called musical imagery, musical memories, auditory imagery, or—if you can’t get rid of the tune—an earworm. And practicing how to use it is sometimes called “ear training” or “audiation.”

But to me, it’s auditory memory. Just like remembering your mother’s face or the town you grew up in, you can remember music in big or small forms, from a symphony to a single note. And forget iPods and hard drives. You’ll never run out of storage space—you’ve got about a million gigabytes available in your head, according to Scientific American! Your music memories are more accessible than your phone, always charged up, and you can turn those tunes on and off in a blink.

Forget iPods and hard drives. You’ll never run out of storage space.

Using your “mind’s ear” is the one tool that will bring together all the other tools I’ve taught you. It will help your piano performance in multiple ways, including: as a tool to ensure you start in the right tempo, to fill in the blanks if you have a hearing loss, and to “sing” your melodies as you play them so your phrases have natural “breaths.”

It’s just a matter of input, output, and practice, and you’ll soon you’ll be replacing unwanted earworms with useable music memories.

To start, choose what music you need to remember and then “input” it into your mind. If you want to hear exact intervals between notes, try common tunes. For me, a fourth is always “Here Comes the Bride,” an augmented fourth is from West Side Story—“boy-ee, boy-ee, crazy boy-ee”—and an octave is the beginning of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I learned these in my teens, and they’ve stuck with me forever.

If you’re learning a new piece, play it slowly by phrases. Repeat the phrase and sing along in your head. Repeat again, but leave out a note or two and only hear those in your head. Continue until you can repeat all of it mentally without touching the keys.

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Copyright © 2018 Nancy M. Williams. All Rights Reserved.


  1. Dear Nancy,
    I can across your site yesterday while searching for recordings of Debussy’s Deux Arabesque I. I do enjoy listening to your performance and especially appreciate the tempo at which you play. You play at a speed where one can actually discern the notes and better appreciate the technical elements – as well as the art.

    It’s taken me about 2 months to learn the notes and now I hope I’m ready for the music!

    I returned to piano lessons about 5 years ago at age 63. I have much more passion than talent. I am enjoying the posts from other students on practice techniques (practice scales for 1 hour) and memorization.

    Thanks so much.

  2. Thank you for this article – it is so helpful to me to know that there are different ways of “doing” music

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