Photo by Eric Nopanen

The human ability to represent the world in our minds in the absence of a sensory stimulus is a pivotal aspect of our mental life, allowing us, for example, to navigate the complex social environments in which we live and to mentally time travel to the past or the future. Because imagery has such a diverse impact on individuals and societies, research has been pursued by scholars from various disciplines including philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. However, not much is known about how music can be used to regulate such mental processes. “Music and Imagery” is a new and burgeoning area of research, with substantial potential to advance our understanding of the role and function of imagery for human beings. Because disconnected efforts have been undertaken separately, there is a need for greater communication among researchers. Our goal is to provide an inclusive space for all interested parties to share their work, views, and perspectives on imagery and music, in turn forging cross-disciplinary collaborations and advancing knowledge on this subject.

Below are some examples of the issues we are interested in and that require further investigation.

All kinds of Imagery!?

The types of imagery that unfold during music listening may encompass visual, kinaesthetic, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile or other kinds of imagery. Recent studies observed that visual imagery is particularly predominant during music listening, allowing listeners to ‘see with their mind’s eye’. But what about the other modalities? Relatively little is known about the prevalence of olfactory, gustatory, or tactile imagery during music listening. What kind of parallels between modalities can we expect during imagery experiences and do they mirror perceptual processes? To what extent do imagery skills across modalities correlate? Can auditory imagery skills be used to foster imagery through other senses?

If you experience strong imagery experiences during music listening, we'd love to hear from you! You can get in touch through our Contact Page.

Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Godøy, R. I., & Jørgensen, H. (2001). Musical imagery. Lisse: Swets & Zeitlinger.

Lacey, S., & Lawson, R. (2013). Multisensory imagery. New York: Springer.

Nanay, B. (2018). Multimodal mental imagery. Cortex, 105, 125-134.

Reisberg, D. (1992). Auditory imagery. Hillsdale: Erlbaum.

Mind Wandering

Visual mental images can be understood as part of a larger family of cognitive experiences traditionally known as mind wandering. Mind wandering or daydreaming is a ubiquitous and impressively frequent mental phenomenon (up to 50% of our waking time!), which is characterized by the emergence of internally-oriented images and thoughts that are largely unrelated to the present, external sensory environment and that dynamically fluctuate over time. Recent research revealed that music can alter mind wandering levels and content of images via evocation of different emotions. In other words, music can shape the way our mind wanders. But what is the nature of the link between music, visual mental imagery, and mind wandering? Do visual imagery and mind wandering rely on the same psychological and neural mechanisms? Do they differ in their degree of intentionality? What are their effects in daily life? And how can we harness music to steer our minds to positive and healthy directions?

Christoff, K., Irving, Z. C., Fox, K. C., Spreng, R. N., & Andrews-Hanna, J. R. (2016). Mind-wandering as spontaneous thought: a dynamic framework. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 17, 718-731.

Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330, 932.

Martarelli, C. S., Mayer, B., & Mast, F. W. (2016). Daydreams and trait affect: The role of the listener’s state of mind in the emotional response to music. Consciousness and Cognition, 46, 27-35.

Smallwood, J., & Schooler, J. W. (2015). The science of mind wandering: empirically navigating the stream of consciousness. Annual Review of Psychology, 66, 487-518.

Taruffi, L., Pehrs, C., Skouras, S., & Koelsch, S. (2017). Effects of sad and happy music on mind-wandering and the default mode network. Scientific Reports, 7, 14396.

Imagery and the Brain

The emergence of neuroimaging methods has opened a new chapter in the study of imagery, which was traditionally approached by philosophers. Neuroimaging studies, combined with other methods (such as studies of brain-damaged patients), have revealed that imagery and perception across modalities draw on similar neural mechanisms (e.g. early sensory cortices). Thus, imagery can somewhat represent perceptual stimuli. Nevertheless, many questions still remain unanswered. Why do people differ in their imagery skills? Is this difference reflected in brain anatomy or function? To what extent does music-evoked visual imagery overlap with perceptual processes in our brain?

Albers, A. M., Kok, P., Toni, I., Dijkerman, H. C., & de Lange, F. P. (2013). Shared representations for working memory and mental imagery in early visual cortex. Current Biology, 23, 1427-1431.

Ishai, A., Ungerleider, L. G., & Haxby, J. V. (2000). Distributed neural systems for the generation of visual images. Neuron, 28, 979-990.

Kosslyn, S. M., Ganis, G., & Thompson, W. L. (2001). Neural foundations of imagery. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2, 635-642.

Kosslyn, S. M., & Thompson, W. L. (2003). When is early visual cortex activated during visual mental imagery? Psychological Bulletin, 129, 723-746.

Visual Imagery and Therapy

The capacity of music to stimulate visual imagery has been successfully used in therapeutic practises such as the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music (known as GIM). GIM employs Western classical music to enhance imagery for accessing emotional processes or personal issues. The music is usually chosen by the therapist to match the client’s imagery or to facilitate working on a specific theme. While being guided, strong emotions are evoked and released, so that the client finds helpful insights or resolutions. However, the full potential of music to shape images has not been yet fully exploited. What are the listener characteristics or the music features that contribute to visual imagery? How does music preference influence imagery? A better understanding of the factors that play a key role in imagery can inform therapists further in their decisions of what type of music should be employed with different clients.

Bonny, H. L. (2002). Music & consciousness: the evolution of guided imagery and music. Gilsum: Barcelona Publishers.

Holmes, E. A., & Mathews, A. (2010). Mental imagery in emotion and emotional disorders. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 349-362.

McKinney, C. H., Antoni, M. H., Kumar, M., Tims, F. C., & McCabe, P. M. (1997a). Effects of guided imagery and music (GIM) therapy on mood and cortisol in healthy adults. Health Psychology, 16, 390–400.

McKinney, C. H., Tims, F. C., Kumar, A. M., & Kumar, M. (1997b). The effect of selected classical music and spontaneous imagery on plasma β-endorphin. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 20, 85–99.

Pearson, D. G., Deeprose, C., Wallace-Hadrill, S. M., Heyes, S. B., & Holmes, E. A. (2013). Assessing mental imagery in clinical psychology: a review of imagery measures and a guiding framework. Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 1-23.

Trance and Absorption

Music has been used across the world to alter consciousness (for instance to reach the so-called “trance” state) especially in the context of rituals or ceremonies (e.g., shamanic drumming). As the counterpart of mind wandering, absorption (an effortless type of heightened attention often associated with visual imagery) has also been previously associated with musical experiences. Although the relation between altered states of consciousness and music is not a novel subject (the Ancient Greeks already touched the topic), a systematic understanding is yet to be provided and fundamental questions remained to be addressed. For example, what are the acoustic properties of music that can facilitate trance or absorption? What’s the role of the cultural context in which the musical experience occurs?

Herbert, R. (2011). Everyday music listening: absorption, dissociation and trancing. Farnham: Ashgate.

Rouget, G. (1985). Music and trance: a theory of the relations between music and possession. University of Chicago Press.