Over the years, I’ve heard discussions of the value of musical intuition that range from complete dismissal to unwavering reliance. But despite the varying opinions on this topic, there is often a fundamental misunderstanding of what intuition actually is.

Intuition is, very simply, instinct. I don’t think anyone would deny that human beings have instincts, certainly nobody who has watched a baby suck for the first time. Science has made great strides in uncovering the causes of instinctual response, but we still have yet to discover exactly how instinct operates.

Nonetheless, it is time to drop the notion that instinct is simply a misunderstanding of rational processes. Those are two separate phenomena.

Forget also the idea that intuition is somehow the same thing as emotion – we may have intuitive emotional responses to things, just as we may intuitively reach for rational explanations to events in our lives. That doesn’t make any of those three strands of cognition the same.

The homing pigeon doesn’t, as far as we can tell, equate home with happiness, nor does it attempt to find reasons for returning to the roost. It simply does what it knows it must.

Human instinct is less sophisticated than that of most other mammals, and we are far less reliant on instinct to get by in the world. In fact, music may be one of the most powerful payoffs of human instinct. Music certainly doesn’t exist simply to fulfill some rational need.

Humans have, for good reason, well-developed rational faculties, and we shouldn’t hesitate to make the most of them. At the same time, we have rudimentary instincts that – because they are so poorly understood — deserve to be developed and maximized. How we bring these skills into play with one another will affect the way our music works, or doesn’t work, as well as how effectively we are able to continue creating.

Trust your instincts, but don’t make the mistake of believing that trusting your instincts means mistrusting your ability to think through a step-by-step process. The complete engagement of intellect and instinct — that’s part of what it means to be fully sentient beings.

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