Listening Fast and Slow

Can I trust what I hear?

I just heard two crimson rosellas calling to each other.

The first was in our yard. A clear 3 note call like the swung upbeat to downbeat opening of a cool jazz number.

Soon after, I heard a softer reply at a slightly lower pitch.

This call and response repeated several times, enough for me to capture it in my mind, walk into the studio to the piano, and find the notes.

When this sort of thing happens, I try to work out my best guess of the notes in my mind. But I did a cheat’s guess this time without internally recreating (or audiating) it first.

My fast guess was C5-A4. A falling minor third.

I wasn’t even close.

It was G5-F#5. Roughly. Cos in reality the sounds of nature don’t conform to the equal tempered scale used in Western music.

Hmmm. I deduce that my brain made some “fast thinking” assumptions. (Thank you for this understanding, Daniel Kahneman).

  1. The closer and higher signal of the pair was louder and had a lot of treble qualities. My mind leapt to a conclusion – it’s a higher treble note.
  2. Added to this assumption is my personal lowering vocal range/tessitura – my intuition about what is “high” has a different inner map these days.
  3. The second note was a lot softer because that bird was not in our yard. I guess it was at least 2+ blocks away. So, did I subconsciously equate volume and pitch as I heard them in relation to each other?

Kahneman’s discerning observations about our unconscious biases (“fast thinking”) and how they influence our quick deductions and decisions have a direct bearing on how we perceive music as a listener.  I encourage you to read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman for a full and true rendering of his thesis.

I have noticed that my own “fast thinking” can kick in when I am in a hurry and make assumptions about a song and an artist after just the first few bars of a track or video clip.  I may hit stop, skip or shuffle before properly listening at all!

But here is a deeper question. How do those inner biases influence our own music making?

“Fast thinking” in relation to my own individual singing might include:

In contrast, “slow thinking” when related to my singing might include:

There are times when “fast thinking” can be relied upon. I believe that is when it has grown from a foundation of rehearsed “slow thinking”.  (See what I did there…looped right back to the topic of practice!)

What do I mean? Let’s return to my birdcall audiation scenario…

If my ear training had been practiced and refreshed lately then my fast deduction might have had a better chance of being right.

But to be honest it might not have mattered. Because my ego jumped in, and I made a cocky guess. A nano second of inner hearing was needed to quality check my assumption. A moment of visualising my hand on middle C and playing some notes in my imagination to set a reference – while simultaneously holding the birdcall in my memory to keep checking it.

Advances in technology and post-modern thinking are not assisting us in spotting our “fast thinking”. This is why coaching, peer groups and learning/practice methods are useful to slow us down and train us to do the work of the small steps.

What “fast thinking” bias is creating obstacles for your singing right now?

How could you apply some “slow thinking” discovery principles to it?

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Photo by Nick Abrams on Unsplash

Kahneman, D.  (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Penguin Random House, USA

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