Using mental imagery can have multiple benefits for musicians - ranging from enhancing memory and facilitating motor planning to increasing the stability of musicians’ tempos. Clark and Williamon (2011) showed that mental imagery improved motivation and effective practice, relaxation and arousal control and performance preparation and enhancement. The main reasons musicians use mental practice are to be in a good state to learn and perform, for improving both efficiency and effectiveness of learning, and to be able to practice when physical practice is not possible. Musicians suffering from injury and unable to play for a period of time can nevertheless train mentally.  Some research that supports the benefits of using mental imagery in the field of music is outlined here. Most of the research is based on self-reports and anecdotal evidence.

Practice attitudes and behaviors, music and mental skils, trait and state anxiety, self-efficacy, and performance ability 



Clark and Williamon (2011) evaluated a mental skills training program for musicians. In some music schools there are programs for mental skills training, however, some of these programs base their training on little empirical support. Although some substantive research has been done, Clark and Williamon (2011) argue that there are still large parts of the functions of our mental skills to be discovered. For example, it isn’t clear for what range of functions mental rehearsal can be beneficial, neither is clear what the benefits are of structural mental skills training. Complementary to this, it isn’t exactly clear how the most effective mental training program looks like. Therefore, they implemented a multi-faceted mental skills training program on music students in the UK. The mental skills training focused on practice attitudes and behaviors, music and mental skills, trait and state anxiety, self-efficacy, and performance ability (Clark & Williamon, 2011). 

The mental training program consisted of a group session of 60 minutes and an individual session of 30 minutes per week. The program lasted for 9 weeks and was based on previous research from different fields: music, education and sports psychology. Three main categories can be distinguished from the program: motivation and effective practice, relaxation and arousal control and finally performance preparation and enhancement. Each topic covered three weeks of the program. Clark and Williamon (2011) used the Questionnaire upon Mental Imageryfrom Bett (Betts QMI) to assess the level of mental imagery. The questionnaire asks the respondents to rate themselves on a 7-point scale concerning the strengths and the vividness of their sensory experiences. It addresses seven different senses: sound, taste, smell, movement and interoceptive and exteroceptive sensations. The lower the score, the better the imagery vividness. After following the program, the participants scored higher on the Betts QMI than before. This change was found to be significant. Furthermore, participants of the program reported a changed view towards their practice behavior and scored also higher on the Musical Learning and Self-regulation questionnaire (also a self-report). 

Performance preparation and performance 

In an ethnographic study in 1987, William Trusheim interviewed 26 elite brass players – all members of leading American symphony orchestras – and found that they focussed on musical imagery in a multi-modal way (using auditory, as well as kinaesthetic senses) both during practice and in performance. He refers to their type of focus as “audiation” (Trusheim, 1991). The players used audiation and mental imagery extensively in practice, rehearsal and in performance. 

Trusheim found that the brass experts used auditory imagery for practice, in rehearsal and during performance to build consistency, note accuracy, musical understanding, expression and interpretation. They also used mental rehearsal techniques to prepare for performance. He found that imagery skills varied from one individual to another – in vividness, controllability and fluency, and through conscious practice, imagery skills could be improved. He interviewed 26 of the most prominent US orchestral brass players at that time – from five major symphony orchestras (Baltimore Symphony, Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra). The aim was to “explore the potential importance of mental images and imaginary strategies in brass performance”(Trusheim, 1991, p. 140). Not only was auditory imagery reported to be used as a strategy, but also examples of kinaesthetic, visual and multisensory imagery, e.g. of programmatic nature, or relating to a mood or atmosphere (Trusheim, 1991). Mental rehearsal was used by many players, and fell into two categories: spontaneous and controlled. Spontaneous mental rehearsal occurs when a player is conscious of an image without having consciously evoked it. Controlled mental rehearsal involves conscious audiation of a passage in order to explore expression or interpretation or to work on a technical problem. Another popular form of imagery found in the study was the recreating of the performance environment using positive guided imagery. During performance many of the players would audiate complete passages directly before playing. 

Trusheim concluded that auditory imagery was of great importance to the brass players. They could imagine with a high degree of vividness, clarity and detail, though some developed their imagery skills more consciously than others. He further concluded that a convincing and artistic performance relies on the use of imagery.

Research from Lim and Lippman (1991) investigated three different practice conditions. The first being physical practice, the second mental practice while listening to recordings and the last one was solely mental practice. Individuals from different groups were judged by a jury during a performance on aspects like accuracy, timing, phrasing and expression. Physical practice turned out to be most successful. On some aspects mental practice while listening was more successful than only mental practice (note accuracy), but for example for rhythmic accuracy there was no significant difference between the last two types of mental practice. Therefore, Lim and Lippman (1991) suggested that mental practice can have variable benefits, depending on the specific task and/or skills. 

Accuracy, timing, phrasing and expression 

Ensemble playing

A lot of research has been done about the potential benefits of imagery. Most of this research is based on self-reports and anecdotal evidence (Keller, 2012). Benefits can not only be found for individual practice, but also for ensemble performance research showed that mental imagery can be of use. In particular, musical imagery enhances the coordination between the individuals while playing. It provides the individuals with a better prediction about the timing of the other players, thus leading to more coordinated music. Besides the self-reports and the anecdotal evidence, little scientific research has been done about the role of imagery in music performance. This can partially be explained by the fact that it is difficult to isolate the effects of auditory imagery on behavior and brain processes in the presence of exogenous auditory stimulation.

Since musical imagery has multiple meanings and applications, Haddon (2007) tried to discover what mental imagery means for music students and their teachers. Factors that are of influence on how individuals perceive and practice mental imagery are: background, training, personality, sensory preference and the specific task. Furthermore, it would appear that individuals with absolute pitch have the highest use of imagery. Haddon (2007) found that for teachers mental imagery was most important for: (1) a holistic awareness and creative and musical benefits, (2) healthy physical practice and (3) developing a widermusical understanding. For students, mental imagery is important because of (1) awareness of the importance of the mind in performing and learning, (2) use in consolidation of musical learning and the promotion of more advanced musical learning and (3) awareness of the creative role imagery can play.

Stewart Ross (1985) did an experiment on college trombonists to test the effect of mental practice on the sight-reading abilities. For this, he divided the trombonists in five different groups:

1.     Physical practice

2.     Mental practice

3.     Combined mental and physical practice

4.     Mental practice with simulated slide movements

5.     No practice (they only got an article promoting strong sight-reading skills to read)

In accordance with earlier literature, Ross (1985) found that group number three did best on the experiment. However, there were some limitations to his research. First of all, the experiment isn’t able to say anything about musical interpretation. Secondly, the experiment doesn’t say anything about the quality of mental rehearsal, which can be of influence on the outcome. 


Effects on teachers and students