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Musical Imagery

Musical imagery is the mental picture you get of the music that helps you see where you've been, where you are, and where you're going.  There are a variety of mental images that can be used to think about music, and specifically music on the harp.  The harp is one of the instruments where you cannot see what you are doing; you can't (and shouldn't) look to see where you are by looking at your finger or hand position on the instrument.  The position and shape of your mouth and tongue, so crucial to good control over bends, overblows, and even vibrato, is something you visualize for yourself--it's generally very difficult to describe just what is going on inside the mouth and throat in other than general terms.  The harp is also an instrument where you can't look to see what note you're playing.  You have to have a mental map in your head to keep track of where you are and what surrounds you, wherever you are.  Keyboard players build a mental map based on the layout of the white and black notes on the keyboard, and tend to think about music according to this mental map.  This works great on a keyboard since you can look and see where you are whenever you want.  On the harp, you have to keep track as you play, whether by ear, listening to the sound of the note and its relationship to its neighbors, or by keeping track of your position on the harp on a mental map you've internalized.

I think it is good to be able to draw on as many different mental images and musical visualizations as possible, selecting among them depending on the demands of the music you're playing.  For example, jazz may demand a thorough understanding of advanced music theory concepts and a need to quickly translate the musical understanding to the harp, requiring one kind of mental map of the harp.  Blues may want more expression of sound in a tighter form, where the theoretical concepts are ingrained at a fundamental level and don't require any analytical thought.  This sound focus can make use of a different kind of mental map than the theoretical map used with a jazz focus.  But seeing with both of those inner eyes can help both jazz and blues players, as in this example.  Each player can draw on an understanding of both sound and musical relationships to better express him/herself musically.

Aural Image

The aural image is the mental picture you have of the music itself--the sounds.  What does that mean?  It's hard to explain, but maybe easier to see in an example.

Suppose you record yourself (which I highly recommend) and when you listen to what you've played you notice a mistake on a certain note in a certain place.  You can "see" where the mistake is in your mind, knowing just what you did wrong and how you should have played it right and where it is.  But suppose you go to leave yourself a note to remind you later what you need to do differently.  What do you write down?  Where is the mistake?  Well maybe if you know musical notation or have the song tabbed out you can figure out just which bar has the mistake on exactly which note and make a symbolic notation.  Then maybe you could jot down the problem, and the next time you read through the written music you could identify where the problem lurks.  Or maybe the song has lyrics and the mistake is on a certain word in a verse you could identify.  But in general it would be difficult to identify in words right where the mistake is, even though you have a clear picture of it and where it is in your mind.

It's like the difference between thinking about chairs in general, conceptually, and picturing a particular chair (like the one you're sitting in) in your mind.  The particular chair in your mind is like the aural image of the music.  The conceptual generalization of a chair in your understanding is like an understanding of a musical relationship.

It is this "seeing" of the music, and not the symbolizing of the music, that is the aural image.  One of the ways in which music is memorized is by building a solid aural image of the piece.  You don't memorize (necessarily) the physical actions that produce the music, or the tab or the notation that tells you how to play the music.  You memorize the music by building its aural image and following it when you play.  It's kind of like walking a particular path through your house--you can retrace your steps without having a physical path to follow.

Musical Relationships

Another mental image you can build is of the musical relationships of the notes and where they lurk in the harp.  For example, you can have a picture of the notes that tells you the 2 draw is the same as the 3 blow--and also that those are the same scale tone (e.g. C or G) as the 6 blow and 9 blow.  Further, if you're playing in 2nd position you can also build a mental picture so that you see that those are all tonic notes (the first note "do" of "do re me fa sol la ti do") of the 2nd position scale, and also root notes of the tonic I chord.  You can have a picture where you "see" that the 1, 4, 7, and 10 blow scale tones are the sub-dominant notes of the 2nd position scale (4th scale degree "fa" from "do re me..."), roots of the sub-dominant IV chord, or tonic notes of the 1st position scale, and that 1, 5, and 8 draw are the dominant notes of the 2nd position scale (5th scale degree "sol"), roots of the dominant V chord.  This picture shows the root notes of the I, IV, and V chords highlighted in different colors as an example of seeing musical relationships in the context of a diatonic harp.  The diagram itself becomes a visualization tool that helps you build musical maps of the harp in your mind, to draw from when you play.
You don't have to know the note names or their function in music theory to know that they are the same note, or that they have a particular sound in what you are playing.  The idea is that you know where those sounds are on the harp, and what you have to do to get them and make them sound good.  Practice playing different notes and note combinations on all possible places on the harp.

Two Dimensions

There are two dimensions of musical relationships on the harp:
  1. Across the harp (i.e. different holes) and
  2. Within each hole.

Written Symbols

Written symbols range from full standard notation to tab to lead sheets to fake-it-style melody and chord lines.  If you're going to write down something about music you have to use some sort of symbolic system.  Reading music is often seen as something arcane and difficult, and real-time sight reading of complex standard notation is certainly a skill learned over a long time.  But, the basic concepts can be learned by just about anyone in a few hours.  Once you've got the basics down, it becomes a matter of practice.  At first you'll be able to stumble through the music only slowly--but you will be able to learn the song.  As you get more practiced, it becomes more second nature--you don't have to think about each detail, but you see the musical notation in an analogous way to reading text.. not by the letter but by the word, or phrase.

The harp layout diagrams like the example above are another form of written symbol that you can draw from when building a musical map in your mind.  You can see musical phrases and licks as a progression of places (cells) in the diagram, and each place in the diagram corresponds to a physical action or technique you need to use to play the note.  These visualization diagrams can help pull together your different mental music maps, showing you both where the notes are and how to play them.  Having a firm mental image to visualize while you play can really help your playing.

Some people keep in mind a mental image of the written down musical symbols.  They see the sheet music in their mind and it reminds them what music to play.  I would think this would be most useful for a limited number of problematic passages or tricky licks, and not for a whole song--but, you never know.  Different people have different visualization strengths, and you have to pick what works best for you.

Mechanical Image

This is essentially a muscle memory response to the mechanical demands of the instrument.  It can be a guitar player's image of his hand and finger position for a particular chord, or a piano player's image of a handful of keys, or a harp player's image of how to play a particular note.

In a very real sense, the harp is a set of 10 different "horns" set very close together, each of which can play its own characteristic notes using its own characteristic techniques.  You need to learn to play each horn by itself, and in a variety of pitches because low notes play differently than high ones.

Because of the different characteristics of the different holes, you can actually tell where you are by seeing how a hole responds to a certain technique.  In other words, one way to tell where you are on the harp is by the playing characteristics of the hole--seeing what bends or overbends are there.