The Inner Experience of Playing Music

Back in the 1970s, there was a skit on the National Lampoon Radio Hour entitled “Mr Rogers Interviews a Bass Player.” It’s a parody of the long-running PBS children’s show, Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood. It isn’t one of Nat Lamp’s better skits. However, it does contain one of the most  profound questions anyone ever asked a working musician. It’s a simple question, something a child might ask. After years of reading and listening to interviews with hundreds of musicians, classical and modern, I’ve never heard anyone ask this question.

The “Mr Rogers” character asks the bass player, “What do you think about when you play your bass?” The bass player answers that he’s thinking about how much he’s getting paid. Very funny, but never mind that.

What do you think about when you play your instrument?” This question gets into all of the mental processes at work when you play music. What are all those gears turning in your head when you’re making music? Or listening to music? Or reading music? There are different mental mechanisms behind each one.

Let’s apply Mr Rogers’ question to the listener. What do listeners think about when they are listening to music? An
old Chinese philosopher observed that as human beings, we spend all of our time, whether awake or asleep, coping with our immediate circumstances. A big part of coping with life minute-to-minute is trying to predict what’s going to happen next.

This mental behavior, constantly wondering what’s around the next corner, is common to all mammals. You can see it just talking to people. It’s the reason people finish each other’s sentences. As you’re reading this now, you’re guessing which word I’m going … to … write … next. The same mental processes occur when you listen to music.

Listening to music involves following patterns unfolding in real time, which involves guessing what the pattern is going to do next. You get one type of satisfaction from guessing right, and another type of satisfaction from being surprised.

Good music strikes a balance between the two. If music is too unpredictable, then there’s nothing to follow, and the listener feels confused. If it’s too predictable, then the listener gets bored. Music appeals to our innate fascination with interesting rhythms and sonic textures, and it’s a non-stop game with the listener’s expectations.

Traditional methods completely ignore the inner experience of playing music, reading music, learning music, and listening to music. Later, I will look at approaches which take the student’s inner experience into account. We’ll start with physical conditioning to transform the sensation of playing guitar or piano for the first time.

© 2019, 2020 Greg Varhaug