How much do we know what we’re doing?

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John Mayer: music as intellectJohn Mayer: music as intellectAndrew Downes: music as feelingAndrew Downes: music as feeling

At one point we had a pair of composition teachers at Birmingham Conservatoire who seemed to get on very well, but nonetheless had diametrically opposed views about how we should approach music. John Mayer used to harangue me over the photocopier about how music was nothing to do with the heart, but was an intellectual pursuit, while the then Head of Composition and Creative Studies, Andrew Downes used to say that you should never analyse anything, it should all come from the heart.

I used to reckon that while we had both of them in the department, our students would be getting a reasonably balanced education.

But it is an interesting question - and one that anyone involved in creative activity probably spends quite a lot of time reflecting on - how much we actually know what we are doing, and how much is going on in bits of our brains that we really don’t have much self-aware access to.

It’s clear that anyone who aspires to anything more than sporadic and sparse output needs some sense of method. Just waiting until inspiration hits is no way to meet deadlines. But equally, artistic activity cannot be reduced to method alone. It is perfectly possible to apply all the rules correctly and still come up with a result that is hokey or unconvincing or simply dull. (That is a grand generalisation, I know – but having taught pastiche composition in a number of styles I’m pretty sure it is a robust generalisation for music. Just guessing about other arts!)

It’s easy to argue along with Schoenberg that the method is the teachable bit, but that without the spark of intuition all its products are worthless. And it’s a tempting leap from this to assert that technique/book-learning/study is therefore essentially unimportant. That of course is a sign that the arguer is trying to get out of their harmony homework. Something that is necessary but not sufficient is nonetheless still necessary.

My own feeling, from the inside of this dilemma, is that the conscious, technical work feeds the imagination. The times when my brain tells me to do something I wouldn’t have thought of from a standing start nearly always follow a problem-solving process. I find I need to articulate consciously what the obstacles or challenges a particular arrangement (or indeed composition) present before I’m able to set about solving them in any meaningful way. The analysis of the problem will involve lots of false starts and muttering ‘what’s going on here then?’, but suddenly there comes a point when I identify exactly what I have been finding difficult. And I know I’ve got it nailed because I get this inner sense of recognition, and can almost hear my non-verbal brain saying ‘righto, got that now, I’m on the case’. (Obviously that’s fanciful. By definition, the non-verbal part of my brain doesn’t speak to me in words. Which of course is one reason why I’m not always entirely sure what it’s up to.)

There follows a very pleasurable time when I just get on and do it, and – to go back to my question in my title – am partially and intermittently aware of what I’m doing. The process shunts between the technical part of the brain that tells you which notes you need to complete the chord or makes helpful suggestions about voice-leading and the holistic bit of brain that interjects with things the technical brain hasn’t thought of: a wild chord substitution, a way to simplify a line, a fragment of counter-melody. The two bits of my brain cooperate closely – the holistic side making suggestions, the technical side verifying and refining them. I can thus usually reconstruct why I made one decision or another, but not necessarily how I came up with the idea.

The reason we care about this (apart from the inherent pleasure in naval-gazing) is of course the problem of teaching the arts. If we don’t entirely know what we’re doing, how can we help anyone else learn how to do it? Well, there are lots of well-developed answers to that question, and it’s way too big in any case to start on at this stage of a post! But this is one place where educational theory’s shift of focus onto learning instead of teaching is probably very healthy: there are things that cannot be taught, but they can be learned.

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