I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, a fascinating collection of writings about trusting (and mistrusting) our instincts and first impressions.
One of the anecdotes in the book is about two professional food-tasters who help with market research when a new food-product is in development. They have spent more than twenty years professionally tasting foods and, as a result, have naturally developed the ability to accurately analyze exactly why they respond the way they do to a new food, with some thirty or forty different categories of flavor, texture, and appearance.
A study was done in which ordinary people taste-tested a variety of jams. One group of people was asked to taste the jams and then immediately rank them. Another group was asked to taste the jams, rank the jams, and write an analysis of the flavor of each jam. Those who ranked the jams without analyzing them reached almost exactly the same conclusions as food experts, but those who ranked and analyzed the jams reached completely different conclusions. So the study suggests that the way ordinary people respond to jams, and the conclusions they reach, are no less accurate than professional food-tasters, unless the ordinary people try to analyze and justify their decisions.
This got me thinking about how conservatories and universities approach music theory. Could teaching young musicians to write analyses, dissections, and formalistic essays about music improperly influence their responses to it (i.e. do they actually like the music, or do they think they’re supposed to like it)? Is it possible that introducing music theory and analysis at the undergraduate level may subvert or distort a young listener’s perfectly valid instincts? Is it better to require theory and analysis courses only for music theory majors?
I believe that there is sometimes value in placing distance between an artist and his/her work. Our “natural instincts” can, of course, be influenced by the negative qualities of our environment, so at times it is good to be able to rationalize and analyze our first impressions. By doing this, we can be more aware of how ingrained fear, racism, homophobia, etc., are affecting our first impressions of people, places, and situations. We can also learn to more carefully develop impressions of experiences that challenge us in some way.
So how can music teachers avoid damaging students’ healthy instincts while also influencing them to critique their habitual responses?