Tell me what you see: An exploratory investigation of visual mental imagery evoked by music

Sofia Dahl*, Antonio Stella, Thomas Bjørner

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)
225 Downloads (Pure)


The link between musical structure and evoked visual mental imagery (VMI), that is, seeing in the absence of a corresponding sensory stimulus, has yet to be thoroughly investigated. We explored this link by manipulating the characteristics of four pieces of music for synthesizer, guitars, and percussion (songs). Two original songs were selected on the basis of a pilot study, and two were new, specially composed to combine the musical and acoustical characteristics of the originals. A total of 135 participants were randomly assigned to one of the four groups who listened to one song each; 73% of participants reported experiencing VMI. There were similarities between participants’ descriptions of the mental imagery evoked by each song and clear differences between them. A combination of coding and content analysis produced 10 categories: Nature, Places and settings, Objects, Time, Movements and events, Color(s), Humans, Affects, Literal sound, and Film. Regardless of whether or not they had reported experiencing VMI, participants then carried out a card-sorting task in which they selected the terms they thought best described a scene or setting appropriate to the music they had heard and rated emotional dimensions. The results confirmed those of the content analysis. Taken together, participants’ ratings, descriptions of VMI, and selection of terms in the card-sorting task confirmed that new songs combining the characteristics of original songs evoke the elements of VMI associated with the latter. The findings are important for the understanding of the musical and acoustical characteristics that may influence our experiences of music, including VMI.

Original languageEnglish
JournalMusicae Scientiae
Issue number3
Pages (from-to)717–740
Number of pages24
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2022.


  • content analysis
  • emotional state
  • empathy
  • mental imagery
  • music listening test
  • music structure
  • online survey


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