Intuition and music


This post is a deep-dive, straight into what goes beyond focusing on specific strategies and techniques, to a place where the mind takes on a different role.


I’ve always felt that I have an intuitive side, that I often have a hunch about things, and somehow know what’s going on without really knowing how I know it. Most of you can probably relate to this in some degree. But what exactly is intuition? And how is it relatable to music?


According to Wikipedia, “Intuition is the ability to acquire knowledge without proof, evidence, or conscious reasoning or without understanding how the knowledge was acquired.” According to the Myers Briggs foundation intuition is a learning style that focuses more on meaning and patterns than on hands-on experiences. It works on a more abstract level, trying to see patterns, connect the dots, leap between different ideas and possibilities, and focus more on the big picture than on specific facts. Intuition can also be seen as a spiritual tool, as it serves as a quiet, inner guiding voice.


Which definition of intuition makes more sense to you is for you to decide, I will not try to define the term further. I will, however, lay down my experience of how it relates to music.


Sometimes, I feel as if “something else” has taken over my playing. As if I’m not the one controlling my hands. Moments, where I choose new, fresh and creative, notes without consciously thinking about what I’m doing. Moments, where it feels as if I’m just watching my hands play the piano, as if I was someone else, listening to the sound they’re creating. Moments, where my hands know the tune I’m playing so well that I can give all of my focus to the people I play with and alter the expression of the music to match the mood.


I believe intuition is very closely related to creativity and can serve as a tool to bring forth new creative patterns and ideas. In order to be creative, we must use the ability to look beyond the old, towards the new and fresh. I do not believe, however, that creative ideas must be original. To recycle old ideas, and reshuffle them in new ways, can feel equally fresh and innovative.


One tricky aspect regarding intuition is not knowing your skill well enough to access the intuitive element in your music. Bill Evans captures the essence of this argument in the video “The Universal Mind of Bill Evans”. He claims that “intuition has to lead to knowledge, but it can’t be out there on its own”. That is, if we want to play music through intuition, we must really understand the musical piece in which we use it. We must absorb the material, know it by heart, and identify and engage in the technique, before we can be intuitive with it. This “something else” can only take over when we are comfortable enough with the material.


As stated above, intuition is also a learning style. A way to deal with information by looking for patterns and new connections. I’ve spent most of my musical years applying this method to my learning process, long before I knew much about intuition. I would practice my instrument, and subconsciously start to analyze what I was doing. After i’ve played for a while I would go for a walk, rearranging what I had just played by imagining new scenarios in my head, asking myself what would have happened if I had practiced it in a different way. I sometimes imagined fake conversations in my head, where I would talk to someone about trying new ways to solve my practice challenges, as a way of internally trying to solve my musical problems. Intuition is usually a process with strange and non linear leaps, and many times the answers to my musical problems came from analyzing something non musical – such as something i’d learned in a book about something else, that somehow seemed to be reshape itself into an answer to my musical problem. Have you ever experienced having a problem you can’t solve – and while you focus on something else you get reminded of your problem, and then suddenly out of the blue you get an insight upon how to solve it? This is exactly the thing i’m talking about here!


Anyway, back to my process. After acquiring a certain amount of new ideas about how to practice I would bring them back into the piano room to see if they could help improve my playing. Looking back, I’d say that this process has taught me just as much music as actually playing my instrument! And while I don’t think this has to be the ultimate method for everyone, let me just state why I believe it has worked so well for me. I started early on to “play” with the information in my head. By rearranging it, I was forcing myself to question my playing, rethink, reformulate and, therefore, learn it, deeper. The reason that this way of learning is so powerful is that the information passes through the conscious, into the unconscious, intuitive side of the brain.


All learning is a balance between acting and letting go, to learn to play an instrument not only by playing, but by not playing. Consider this quote about technique by Victor Wooten: “If you want to get good at technique quickly, stop thinking about it”. Wooten is not telling you to never focus on technique. He is telling you to let go once you’ve acquired a certain amount of technical proficiency. In my opinion all skill mastery, once you’ve spent enough time acquiring it, is a matter of letting go. But letting go for what? Well, simply stated, intuition! And why? Let me break it down for you. Have you ever played or sung something so fast or technically complex that the only way you can possibly do it is to just do it? That is, just do it without thinking. If you rely too heavily on your rationality when you play you will not be able to execute music of a higher complexity. The time you spend thinking about the first note makes you miss the following ten. Additionally, I believe that you will miss out on the depth of the musical experience if you think too actively. That is, the more you can let go, the more you will appreciate the music you play. Don’t overthink it, rely on your competence, and release your intuition.


To wrap it up, this is my take on musical intuition. It is not that straightforward and tangible – but then, it wouldn’t be intuition. But to restate things in a more tangible manner – how exactly do you grow and make use of it? Two things: you learn to use it – and you learn to trust it. Use it by spending time analyzing different musical problems, but spend less time tangible, and more time looking for resembling patters, connections, similarities and how things connect in a bigger picture. Effortless playing uses the exact same process. Although, when we play effortless that process is more subconscious.


Before you can use it in your actual playing, make sure that you really get to know whatever you are working on. Acquire every aspect of the song on every level – by heart, intellect, hearing, technique and reflection. Here, the intellectual mind is actually very helpful. If you apply this method thoroughly enough on each song you learn, you’ll improve in more areas than you can imagine. Once the material is really absorbed, you can start to use you intuition. Train yourself to trust it by allowing yourself less and less control as you get more and more comfortable. If the material is well absorbed, you do not need to actively control it in order to execute it.


Remember to be kind to yourself, like every other process, it takes time. But don’t think of it as time lost. The more you put into it, the more you’ll be able to enjoy it, and little by little you’ll be able to let go. The greatest challenges in my playing has not taken weeks or months to overcome, it took years. But the belief that if I really get clear about what I’m learning, understand it on every level, and process it better on an intuitive level, is what drives me. That is, when my intuition is working on it, subconsciously, for me. My ultimate practice goal is to be able to play every note effortlessly – without having to think about it. I suppose it is a goal that you cannot reach in 100 %. Intuition though, combined with thorough practicing – makes it far more attainable.


What are your thoughts about music and intuition?


Did you like what you just read? Are you looking for further answers to your challenges? Don’t hesitate to comment on this topic, or any other, below.

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