Aphantasia and playing an instrument

Does anyone here have aphantasia? If you don’t know what that is:

I had no idea at all that this was even a thing until a few years ago, when I asked a student to close their eyes and ‘see’ their hand on the fretboard, only to find out this was impossible for them to do. Fast-forward to a couple of weeks ago, and I find out a friend of mine has it (he had no idea people even could visualize). The whole phenomenon is completely fascinating to me, as so much of what I do just in daily life is dependent on visualization.

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The ability to conjure up mental imagery is a spectrum. Some people have complete aphantasia while others (from what I’ve read) can conjure up images (or “mental movies”) which look just as detailed, vivid, and crisp as what you see out of your eyes. Most people fall somewhere between the two extremes.

Personally, I don’t have complete aphantasia but my ability to picture things in my mind is pretty weak. I can conjure up vague images but there is very little detail and it’s almost more like an outline, and very little color. Also, it’s super fleeting - I can’t hold something in my mind’s eye for more than half a second really.

I also don’t have complete control over the content of the images I conjure. For example, I remember as a kid I was able to imagine a cube rotating counter clockwise but if I tried to imagine it rotating clockwise, it kept flipping back to going counter clockwise. Super strange.

I certainly can’t conjure up detailed images like a fretboard with specific frets marked and hold them in my mind. Not even close. I can picture basic things like triad shapes and maybe an arpeggio pattern for a brief moment.

I’ve often wondered if this is a musical detriment. But then there are examples of great blind musicians like Ray Charles so really I have no excuse! (But then again, since Ray Charles wasn’t born blind, it’s not 100% certain that he actually had aphantasia since I would guess a visual imagination develops at a young age).

In a similar vein, did you know that even the fundamental everyday stream-of-consciousness though process varies quite a bit between individuals? Some people (like myself) think using an internal monologue - a constant voice which “reads” my thoughts in my head. While others claim to think more in abstract concepts not directly tied to language. Which I guess I do as well sometimes but it’s hard for me to imagine thought without language.

Here’s a great post on this topic: What Universal Human Experiences Are You Missing Without Realizing It? | Slate Star Codex


I very much appreciate your reply! It’s so fascinating to me that there are these major, inherent differences in how people perceive existence at large.

I imagine this is true, but I also can’t see how one could judge this beyond A: can visualize, and B: can’t visualize. There’s no way to test. I think my mental imagery is pretty clear.

Do you have any memories of childhood? I can actually ‘see’ a moment that occurred when I was a year old (44 now).

Maybe, but maybe not. There are other ways to sense things, proprioception for one, that perhaps would develop even better with a lower ability at visualization.

This is another thing that I only recently (within the past couple of weeks) became aware of. There’s a near-constant state of ‘self talk’ going on in my head, whenever I read or write, or even just think about something I plan to say or am trying to solve. A sort of inner ‘working out’ of things. I was fairly introverted as a kid, so perhaps this developed in response to that, and maybe super extroverted folks have less of this inner voice.

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I have a highly photographic memory I can recall things based on where things are on maps (probably explains why my favorite video games growing up were the ones with detailed expansive maps in the game world), pages of a book, etc. I can “see” it mentally. Never knew this was rare until I described something like this when I was in school and it kinda freaked the teacher out. It kinda works for guitar tab too I can “see” the numbers in relation to the frets.


Is there some sort of trigger that makes this happen? Meaning, you think “this is important” and develop a strong visual memory of it, or there is a high level of emotion attached to the moment, or does it just occur all the time or at random?

This is interesting

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Quick and dirty test: when you visualize an apple, which of these is closest to what you see?

For me it’s somewhere between 3 and 4. Though images don’t really look like true visual images… they’re somehow halfway between an image and an idea/concept in my head. A truly complete/stable image never really forms (even of a simple shape)… It’s really hard to explain.

Some other questions you could ask:

  • How long can you hold an image steady in your mind’s eye before you lose it? (Maybe half a second for me)
  • Can you picture the letter A clearly? (I can, sort of)
  • Can you picture the letter A in green? In red? (I can, sort of, but it’s more… the idea of green and red? Sort of?)
  • Can you picture a short word like “the”? (I can)
  • Can you picture a sentence and actually see all the words clearly? (I can’t really, I can just picture “words” and focus on seeing one at a time)
  • Can you picture a clock face? (I can)
  • Can you see each number of the clock face in detail? (I cannot, I just see that the numbers are there)

I don’t recall any childhood memories before probably age 4, and there are very few of those. But of the ones I can recall, I definitely can “see” them. Mental images of my memories are more vivid than trying to conjure up a novel object/situation, but they’re still extremely different than what I see with my eyes in a way that is again impossible to try to pinpoint/describe.

I can hear music and melody/harmony in my head much more vividly than I can visualize images.


For myself, it’s a 1 or 2. The funny thing is if I visualize the apple and don’t try very hard to maintain focus on just an apple, the scenario will morph on its own. When I first followed this prompt, I thought of an apple, which then became an apple with a bite taken out of it, then a hand holding an apple, then a blonde woman leaning on a counter in a kitchen on a sunny day holding an apple. I could possibly learn to keep the original “just an apple” idea in mind for longer with practice.

I was able to do all of the other tasks with the exception of the full sentence. I tried seeing “the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain” for whatever reason, but the most I could see at once was “the rain in Spain”. This may have something to do with the inner monologue and how I read in general, though.

This is also something I can do well, but not quite well enough that I could fake my way into appearing to have perfect pitch. But again, maybe with practice…

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Wow!!! I think that I’m a 4 or a 5, with no ability to generate images; indeed, when my eyes are closed I think I just see noise from my retinas. That said, I can definitely hear my voice in my head, that’s as real as if I was talking and listening to myself.

Can you say a little bit more about how you visualize images? Do you have to close your eyes, or can you see them with your eyes open? How bright are they? How sharp are their edges? Any information is welcome, this is an awesome superpower that you have!

This is also an amazing superpower! How does it work, can you look at the map for a minute and be able to recreate it? Can you memorize things like the order of cards in a deck, etc.? How long does your memory last?

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So, these images I ‘see’ aren’t via my eyes - I can’t hallucinate something in front of me, and while I can sort of do it eyes open, it’s easier eyes closed or if I allow my open eyes to relax focus (less distraction?). The image is somewhere else in the mind, and I simply have no satisfactory way to explain it, but I sense it as purely visual. They can be clear as day, like a photo or film, but they might only last a few seconds before fading out or wanting to change in some way. I’ve never practiced trying to develop it further, to hold onto an image longer, but maybe that could be done. This is never something I’ve tried to do at all, I’ve just always been able to do it and assumed everyone could.

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Very similar to how @Riffdiculous described it. It’s like if someone tries to remember a telephone number or anything but theres a visual aspect to the memory. It works best with maps and it takes a while to hone the image. Repetition solidifies it more. But I can forget something if I don’t use the information for some time but when I relearn it it will begin the process again of remembering it via an associated image. And like @Riffdiculous describes I too thought everyone could do this and it is was just normal.

This is like all the controversy when a bunch of people online discovered a sizable amount of the population has zero internal monologue.

I’m probably mildly on the spectrum so that probably contributes to this.

I wonder if famous musicians like Mozart who had a reputation of hearing things once and replicating them had some kind of high functioning autism spectrum divergence that enabled this.


Just a few thoughts strung together on the subject

according to NLP *), we have 5 lead-, input- and reference systems, with which we construct our "map of the real world“ and come into contact with it:


…in individually different combinations.

As an auditory type, I am constantly babbling in my head and when I remember situations or anticipate them in my imagination, it always has to do with (internally) heard speech.

Visually, on the other hand, I’m pretty bad. Fretboard representations regularly overwhelm me and only since I read Michael Pillitière’s “Building the Better Guitar Scale“ have I regained hope. Sure, it’s visual too, but there’s a system with manageable chunks that I can keep track of and not just sheer chaos (“Get to know your fretboard” x 5000) that overwhelms me.

I think as “guitarists from next door” we should learn to make the best of what we have. Not all of us could have been born into the Meader, Gambale or Mancuso family and been supported accordingly.

*)Yes, I know that NLP (Neurolinguistic Programming) is controversial.

Formulated with the help of DeepL. I’m German.

Greetings, Klaus


While I’m not an NLP adherent, I definitely think that many guitarists could benefit from letting proprioception and tactile feedback play a bigger role in memorizing guitar parts. During practice, try closing your eyes and trying to really focus on where your hands/fingers are and what they’re feeling. I find it particularly useful for helping me get more confident and consistent with small position shifts while crossing strings, i.e. getting a strong kinesthetic sense of where the first fretting finger on the “arrival” string should land relative to my finger positions on the “departure” string.


This is so ridiculous because I can see the apple, the apple from behind, from both sides, from up, from down, a hole drilled into it, whatever, that’s too easy, I can see the apple with dewdrops and rotate it at will. My mental imaging is like -11 on this scale.

But I can’t hear music like that. I guarantee you, these things are separate!

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As another anecdote re: separate: I’m reasonably strong at mental construction of both visual and auditory experiences, but definitely more vivid and controllable on the auditory side.

Tell me more! Where is the image? Do you have to close your eyes? Etc.