Audiation is the foundation of musicianship. It takes place when we hear and comprehend music for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present. One may audiate when listening to music, performing from notation, playing “by ear,” improvising, composing, or notating music (see types of audiation).

Audiation is not the same as aural perception, which occurs simultaneously with the reception of sound through the ears. It is a cognitive process by which the brain gives meaning to musical sounds. Audiation is the musical equivalent of thinking in language. When we listen to someone speak we must retain in memory their vocal sounds long enough to recognize and give meaning to the words the sounds represent. Likewise, when listening to music we are at any given moment organizing in audiation sounds that were recently heard. We also predict, based on our familiarity with the tonal and rhythmic conventions of the music being heard, what will come next. Audiation, then, is a multistage process (see stages of audiation).

Everyday Musicality Podcast Episode 1:

What is Audiation?

Listen to Dr. Heather Shouldice discuss the big ideas of audiation in this podcast episode. 

Although musicians audiate all aspects of musical sound, including timbre, volume, and style, Music Learning Theory is concerned primarily with the tonal and rhythm dimensions of music. Instructional content and procedures are designed to help students develop their ability to audiate tonal content–including tonality, resting tone, and tonal function–and rhythm content–including meter, macro beats, micro beats, and melodic rhythm.

Through development of audiation students learn to understand music. Understanding is the foundation of music appreciation, the ultimate goal of music teaching.

Types of Audiation

The types of audiation are not hierarchical. Some of the types, however, serve as readinesses for others.




Type 1

Listening to

familiar or unfamiliar music

Type 2


familiar or unfamiliar music

Type 3


familiar or unfamiliar music from dictation

Type 4

Recalling and performing

familiar music from memory

Type 5

Recalling and writing

familiar music from memory

Type 6

Creating and improvising

unfamiliar music

Type 7

Creating and improvising

unfamiliar music while reading

Type 8

Creating and improvising

unfamiliar music while writing

Stages of Audiation

As theorized, the six stages of audiation are hierarchical–one stage serves as a readiness for the next. The table below outlines the stages of audiation as they occur in Type 1 of audiation (listening to familiar and unfamiliar tonal patterns and rhythm patterns in familiar and unfamiliar music).



Stage 1

Momentary retention

Stage  2

Initiating and audiating tonal patterns and rhythm patterns AND recognizing and identifying a tonal center and macrobeats

Stage  3

Establishing objective or subjective tonality and meter

Stage  4

Consciously retaining in audiation tonal patterns and rhythm patterns that we have organized

Stage  5

Consciously recalling patterns organized and audiated in other pieces of music

Stage  6

Conscious prediction of patterns