This article is part of the Psychology section
“Feeling” is a wonderful word, because the way we use it – to describe at the same time both our physical and emotional worlds – reveals beautifully the intimate connection between our emotions and our bodies. Intellectual thinking, on the other hand, although it can have a great effect on our physical and emotional worlds, can be completely detached from the world of feelings (do dry mathematical problems and dodecaphonic music move you?).
Most music is pure feeling – a sensorial, non-verbal language of sounds that (normally) bypasses the intellect completely. Music normally doesn’t communicate clearly defined thoughts or intellectual ideas but rather speaks directly to our feeling world, creating images, colours, sensations, moods, and emotions (visceral, spiritual and everything in between). It is, simultaneously a very primitive and a very sophisticated language, in the sense that our emotions are not just our primal energy powerhouse but are also (potentially) the realisation/expression of our highest (and lowest) forms of humanity.
Why do adolescents love music so much? Because it speaks directly to our emotional and physical world, overwhelmingly turbulent and predominant when we come out of childhood and into a new body with its newfound sexuality. When we add meaningful (and intelligible) words to the music, as in songs, their message becomes exponentially more powerful thanks to the musical, emotive accompaniment.
Some music however does speak more to the intellect and less to the emotions. In dry counterpoint, fugues and dodecaphonic music the musical objectives are often more mathematical and academic than emotional. Most contemporary classical music is also a VERY strange – and revealing – combination of feeling and thinking. Click on the highlighted link to see a deeper discussion of the bizarre mix of extreme intellectuality with primal emotionality that is so often found in contemporary atonal music.
In musical performance, the role of the thinking, analytical brain is quite limited. In performance, we are looking for “flow”: a state of uninterrupted physical and emotional ease, responsiveness and spontaneity. To achieve this, we need to be deeply in touch with, and deeply trusting of, our bodies and our feelings. Intellectual thinking tends to interfere with and block this flow. “Thinking” can cause complex automated movements to tie up in knots, as the many small component movements cannot be controlled and coordinated individually, simultaneously and consciously. This is why so few sporting professionals are great intellectuals or artists – and why so few great intellectuals and artists are also great at sports. To be a really fine musician, we need to be able to be all three: sporty (body feeling), artistic (emotion feeling) and intellectual (thinking). But above all, we need to know WHEN to be each one, and how to mix them in different proportions !
Having discussed the negative side of excessive intellectuality in both musical performance and in modern composition, what then are the positive roles of intellectual thinking in music-making?
Composers need it (but, as we have seen, not too much please!), teachers need loads of it, conductors need it (but almost always overrate it), we players need it to learn to read and write the musical language, and we also need it to solve the infinite variety of problems that present themselves in our musical preparation. We might think that the intellectual brain is necessary for learning new repertoire but it IS possible also to learn new pieces simply by imitating/copying (some singers do that all the time!). And as a general rule, if our teacher does all our problem solving for us, then we are very lucky indeed: we will barely need to use our intellect, everything will appear easy for us and people will think we are extremely clever and talented.
See also Musicality