Soapbox: Over-analysed or Under-thought-out?

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soapboxIn a recent email conversation about various musical matters, one of the participants accused the rest of ‘over-analysing’. Our ‘gut’ should tell us what the song is about, he said, and if we get caught in the ‘brain game’ we will lose the true essence of the music.

Now, I recognise the dangers he refers to. Emotional connection is vital to make music live, and an approach that lives in the purely technical part of the brain is unlikely to find anything very meaningful to say. And I don’t think you’ll ever find me arguing against the importance of intuition in realising a song’s expressive purpose.

Having said that, the idea that the ‘gut’ has access to more valid musical expression than the brain is clearly nonsense.

Okay, so ‘gut’ here is metaphor for the parts of the brain and nervous system that deal with holistic and emotional things (right hemisphere and limbic system), and ‘brain’ is a metaphor for the left-hemisphere functions of verbalising and enumerating. But taking the intended metaphorical meaning (rather than the literal one), it is still nonsense. Just because our holistic functions are essential to successful music-making does not mean that they can manage without our analytical functions.

First, let’s think about relationship between musical competence and emotional experience. I think most of us would be quite affronted to be told that our innermost feelings are too weak or misdirected. We assert our right to know when we are genuinely in love, for example. Other people might have their own tests for what counts as ‘true love’ (does he go out in the snow to de-ice your car in the morning?), but if those tests don’t match our experience, we consider the tests wrong – we know how we feel.

And I think it is just as disrespectful to assume that a musical performance that doesn’t meet our particular standards for communicative power is not deeply felt on the part of the performer. Terrible performers love music as much as virtuosi, they just lack the skills to make that passion perceptibly manifest in their performance. They don’t need more feeling, they need more clue about what to do with music – and for this you need concepts and analytical skills and technical terms. If feeling really had primacy over musical coherence, then the conversation would go like this:

‘Why did you sing it that way? It made no sense of the lyric, and the rhythm was incomprehensible’
‘That’s how I feel it’
‘Oh, well, that’s all right then.’

Second, the reliance on ‘gut’ to lead you to the ‘true’ essence of music seems to assume that our emotions are a kind of internal noble savage, untutored and unteachable. While it is certainly true that there are instinctive ‘primary’ emotions shared by all human beings (fear, joy, grief, rage), we only really experience these in their pure form at moments of emotional extremity. The feelings we experience in the ebb and flow of daily life are filtered and shaped by our up-bringings, our cultural milieu, our personal histories.

A major part of our pleasure in arts such as music is the chance to extend and refine our emotional experience through empathy. We willingly and repeatedly engage with these vicarious emotional states precisely because we learn how to be more complex, nuanced, insightful people thereby. And we get the most out of these experiences if we also think about them, just like we become wiser and better able to cope with life by reflecting on our emotional responses to real life events.

Third, the accusation that someone is ‘over-analysing’ something always sounds like that form of anti-intellectualism that uses the word ‘clever’ as an insult. It seems to be saying, ‘well I can’t be bothered to try and understand that, so I’ll make myself feel better about looking a bit dim by stereotyping the people who do understand it as saddos with no sex life.’ I’m quite happy for people not to be bothered with thinking about something that I happen to be interested in – goodness knows there are enough things I can’t be bothered to think about because I’m too busy obsessing about this stuff. But there’s no need to be rude about it.

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