Primacy and Recency Effects: Implications for Musicians

primacyrecencyRolf Dobelli’s book The Art of Thinking Clearly includes primacy and recency effects in its catalogue of cognitive errors that can mislead our judgement. We pay too much attention to both our first impressions and our most recent experiences, and tend to neglect what happens in between. Dobelli gives some advice about how we can develop strategies to compensate, but I find myself more interested in considering how we can work with this natural tendency to make it work for us.

There are two main scenarios in which these matter for musicians: rehearsing and performing. In both cases, we need to note that those whose attention we are managing - respectively the musicians learning the music and the audience listening to it - are going to be disproportionately affected by the first and last things that happen to them, and thus this is where our best opportunities to influence them lie.

Strengthening Your Sense of Key

When I posted a while back on the subject of not messing with pitch, I received the following response from a reader:

I think I must have "a weak sense of tonal centre" but have no idea how to correct that.

And I thought: that sounds like something that could usefully be blogged about.

The first thing to say is possibly ‘correct’ isn’t necessarily the most useful verb - it’s not a binary thing whereby you either have a sense of key or you don’t. It’s a bit like reading music or breath management - however good you are at it, you are always aware that you could be better, but work at improving your skills always pays off.

Why Choirs Are Lazy

dobelliA friend once told me about a time when she was playing in an orchestra and there was a rather busy and complex passage for the cello section. The conductor kept asking for more from the cellos, and eventually asked to hear that section alone. That was when they discovered that they were all miming...

This anecdote came to mind while I was reading a chapter in Rolf Dobelli’s book The Art of Thinking Clearly on social loafing. This is the phenomenon whereby the more people you add to a team, the less effort each individual commits to the work. It was first identified in 1913 by a French engineer who noticed that two horses pulling a coach did not produce double the force of a single horse. Further experiment with men pulling on a rope revealed a progressive slackening off of effort from each individual as more people were added.

Chord-worship, Embellishments and Testosterone

There has been some interesting research over the years about barbershop and constructions of masculinity. Richard Mook, in particular, has investigated the discourses in both golden-age (i.e. early 20th-century) and contemporary barbershop ensembles and shown how they configure the harmonic experience of expanded sound in terms of homosocial bonding.

This is possibly why you can get a room full of barbershop judges watching a video of the Gas House Gang's of 'Bright Was the Night', and the men are raving about what an amazing experience it is, musically and emotionally, while the women are saying, 'Yes but it's just chord-worship, isn't it? It's all about them; they're not really interested in the woman they're ostensibly singing about, are they?'. And both, in their way, are right. It is an amazing performance, but it is more about lock and ring as symbol and enactment of the bond between singers than about the content of the lyrics. And the comments posted on youtube about it are telling in this context - the verbal equivalent of punching the air and shouting 'yeah'.

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