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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).

Although musicians audiate all aspects of musical sound, including timbre, volume, and style, Music Learning Theory is concerned specifically with the tonal and rhythm dimensions of music. Teaching methods 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.