Listening to music in your head

Can you listen to music in your head? I’ve recently discovered I can’t, and it’s intriguing. I know the songs, so I figure I should be able to listen to them whenever I feel like it. It doesn’t work, though. I’ve been trying to catalogue what happens when I try, and here’s what I’ve got so far:

My first approach was to sing along in my head. I don’t actually sing, I just do everything that you normally do when singing – but stop before the actual out-loud noises part. All that matters is the intention to make the same sounds. And this works. I can get through a whole song without much conscious effort. This includes instrumental music – I just sort of sub-vocalise the notes by pretending I’m a violin or whatever.

But this isn’t what I want. It feels different from listening to music. It’s silent singing, rather than listening. I want to instead pull the song from memory and listen to it like it was on the radio, not feel like I am performing it.

So I tried to suppress the active singing. That turned out to be a thing my brain will do if I ask. No talking please, just listening. So this was the second thing I tried. And things happen: I can certainly will music into existence. But when I started paying attention I realised it was…strange. For starters, I don’t ‘hear’ the songs in real-time.

Let’s say I want to listen to ‘It Must Have Been Love’ by Roxette. With no conscious effort I immediately ‘get’ the first line of the chorus. I ‘hear’ the whole thing instantly, even though it would take a few seconds to sing out loud. That’s odd in itself – how is it possible to have a few seconds of music appear in consciousness in a fraction of a second? It’s more like seeing the music than hearing it.

After that the song doesn’t flow like it does when internally singing. I always get it in chunks. And it’ll cheerily just stop. Or sometimes I get a different part of the song – there’s no reliable order to it. It requires a continual low-level mental attention. I have to gently think ahead to the next refrain, and then that too just appears, fully formed. Sometimes I get a whole line or two, and sometimes just a particular musical highlight. But always in these little chunks of compressed time. The more attention you pay, the more structured and ordered it becomes – but the closer it gets to internal singing.

This was a surprise! I had expected that to work. And I thought I could just practice my way around it, but it’s proven quite stubborn.

In a pop-neuroscience way I could hypothesise about neural networks here. If memory is a network of linked ideas, it makes sense that information isn’t naturally ordered. At a low level you just get whatever is most closely connected to the previous part. Maybe the speech centres corral this stuff into a proper order, which is why it works when singing. I’m sure proper neuroscientists could point out 100 ways this is more complicated and interesting.

So, just asking my brain to play music doesn’t seem to work. I have to be actively involved. I can’t passively sit there and listen, with the occasional mental prod. Yet…I do feel like this happens sometimes. When I have an earworm, for example, it just plays unbidden. Admittedly earworms feel more like a glitch than a useful feature. But I also think I sometimes hear music when I’m concentrating deeply. Usually when coding, where it’s easy to fall into cognitive wells. (I’m tempted to say ‘a flow state’, though I’m not sure how dubious that concept is.) I think that songs go around my head during those times, without any cognitive effort. But it’s hard to say for sure: once you snap back to reality everything gets a bit hazy. I certainly can’t trigger this at will, though.

Perhaps relatedly: I’m much more aware of this happening with some visual stuff. When playing the piano I definitely get unexpected visual popups of whatever I’ve been watching of late. I’m not good enough at the piano to be truly zoned out yet, but I’m certainly over the lip of the well. I’m interested to see how this changes.

So that’s my experience, anyway. I wonder if this says something about mental structures in general, or if it’s more about mine in particular.

I’ve always figured that most people’s cognitive mechanisms are roughly the same. The philosophers will talk about the qualia of experience, and how we can never know what it’s like to be another person. But still: the world is real and evolution has adapted us to it. We all have to be able to navigate actual reality. It’s no good if one person perceives the ground differently, or if we all see different colours such that we disagree on, say, their relative brightness. It makes sense to think we have evolved to perceive things pretty much the same way – barring major issues in brain development etc.

But I recently heard the US magician Penn Jillette talk about his lack of visual memory. He can’t picture a scene from different angles, and his dreams are mostly conceptual: he certainly doesn’t seem to dream in the I-am-in-a-real-place way that I do. And while he isn’t entirely face-blind, he remembers few – and those only in familiar conditions. But he has an artist friend whose visual memory is such that she can draw people she hasn’t seen for 20 years. She and he have all sorts of discussions about the differences in their fundamental perceptions of reality, both of which seem entirely natural to them.

(It’s tempting to wonder if it’s a zero-sum game: he remembers most music, which makes little impact on her, and seems to have an almost-visual sense of the structure of ideas. This is likely wishful thinking, though)

This then made me remember an astonishing claim by director Robert Rodriguez. He says that during preproduction on his films he will find out their length by visualizing them while holding a stopwatch. He simply opens his eyes and sees how much time has passed. This is just alien to me. When I try to do that I get the aforementioned chunks problem – everything just turns up in one go. I can’t see how to override that. Maybe it’s something you can practice, but it feels more like a brain-structure superpower.

Maybe Penn Jillette and Robert Rodriguez are just one end of the bell curve, but it made me wonder if I’ve underestimated individual cognitive variation when it comes to these very fundamental perceptions. If there’s major variation amongst the general public about the very nature of perception, it’s no surprise we have so much trouble communicating. I’m sure there’s lot of research on this! I’m looking forward to finding out.

It’s weird finding yourself conscious inside a blob of physical matter. Your internal thoughts seem so freewheeling, but when you poke them a bit you realise they’re clearly running on physical architecture. If my brain can take an input of music from the radio, and just listen, why can’t I turn my memory of that music into an output and listen in the same way? Presumably it’s the same reason my computer “should” be able to do obvious things but can’t. Eventually you learn how everything’s put together and you see it’s a factor of the way it’s built.

I’m interested to know what happens when other people try this. How does your brain differ? Can you hear music in this way?

Photo: “Music Note Bokeh” by all that improbable blue is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0