The Psychology of Music and Self-Perception

“Hey, great show! Love seeing your band, and I really enjoy your drumming.”

If you have ever played a show at a club, and then had someone say something like this to you after, then you know the feeling. You have to smile and say “thank you” to this person. Meanwhile, in your head you are re-playing all of the mistakes that you made during the show. Your opinion is that the show sucked.

This situation highlights the difficult psychological issues that come up for musicians. Others might view us as being great, while we have a different perspective of ourselves.

A FEW MORE EXAMPLES
When I told my band that I was taking guitar lessons, one of them had an interesting reply.

“Why would you do that? You’re already a great guitarist.”

My initial reaction to this was that maybe I should no longer trust his judgment, and that he’s lost all credibility with me. This is not because I have a judgment to pass on him, but because of judgments I pass on myself. I do not see myself in this light.

Later, I was on the other end of this transaction with my guitar mentor. I wrote him an email about where I want to go in my studies. I talked about artists whose work I wanted to investigate deeper. He was one of those artists. I said, “I really like your style and approach, which is why I’m here.”

When we had our latest lesson, he said that he’d read my email. He thanked me for the kind words, and then asked that we be “done with” the compliments. He did add that we may disagree about certain things in the future, as well.

I think that he approached it this way in order to intercept a potential issue that he may have had in the past with fans. Maybe he and the student had a disagreement, and some hard feelings resulted.

I have a respect for what he does, and do not approach anyone as if I’m a fan. Still, respect is an attribute that fans have, and expressing this can come off as if I’m a fan. I view fans as being blinded by celebrity, which is something I’ve done away with decades ago. Still, better safe than sorry.

In the end, my respect is understood, and now we’re going to move forward. I do not need to express this again.

UNDERSTANDING BOTH SIDES
If someone says they like what I do, then I take it at face value. They mean it. My perspective of myself or how my show went does not factor into their perspective of me or how their experience went.

I had to see both sides of this before I understood the dynamics of it.

A STRANGE THING THAT HAPPENS OVER TIME
When I was young, I learned, and then I did. Music came easily for me at the time. I felt that I had my genre of interest “mastered” to a degree that was sufficient for my artistic expression.

The older I got, the more  my perspective shifted. I would become unsatisfied with what I could do and what I knew. As a result, I would observe other players and try to teach myself elements of what they could do. I would also take lessons.

This resulted in a paradox, wherein the more I knew, the more I realized I did not know.

It’s like running on a football field, where you are certain that there is 300 yards of field in front of you. You start running toward to goal post on the other side, only to see it getting smaller. You keep running, and it gets bigger for a brief period, but then shrinks once again, rather quickly.

Suddenly, the other goal post appears to be many miles away. When you turn around to see your own progress, you realize that you’re only ten feet away from your original starting point.

WHAT YOU DO NOT KNOW
That feeling is daunting, and can cause someone to give up. As horrible as this feeling may be, let’s make it way worse.

If there is something you do not know, and you don’t know that you do not know it, then how can you know?

When I started with my guitar lessons, I had certain goals. Some of these goals ended up being modified, while others ended up going away completely. The more I learned, the more I realized I did not know.

Learning tends to go down this path. The guitar is an infinite instrument that can never truly be mastered. However, I can get better at what I want to do and what I want to get out of the instrument by practicing accordingly.

MY VIEW ON MY OWN ABILITIES
When I was young, I was a bad ass who could play any rock song I heard, to varying degrees. But as I got older, my musical interests got more complicated. Also, I wanted to be able to play beyond where I had been before.

I have confidence that I am not a beginner. However, the goal posts have moved so far that I cannot see the end. I can gain some ground, or so I think, by learning new things and implementing them into my tool box.

But will I ever be awesome? Will I ever be the best? Will I ever be a guitar god?

No. In fact, I may not ever think that I’m all that great. Not only do I acknowledged all of the musicians in the world who are beyond my ability, but these days I end up listening to music that I know I can never play.

As a musician, I have never been so good, and have never felt so not good.

DUNNING-KRUGER EFFECT
The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a form of cognitive bias, where a person who has relatively low ability holds the illusion of superiority.

Everyone has witnessed this at one time or another. A good, generic example is the person who parrots all of the talking points of their favorite talk show host. As they speak, you can tell that they believe that they are smarter than you. When you ask them to clarify their position, they tell you to “Google it.”

HOW TO TELL IF YOU SUFFER THE DUNNING-KRUGER EFFECT
A person who believes themselves to be the best, the smartest, the fastest, etc., suffer this effect if their abilities do not match their claims.

What most of the great musicians I know have in common is that they do not assert themselves to be in some kind of category. They are constantly learning.

I may enjoy some of my own music, but I don’t see any of it as some kind of stellar accomplishment, or something that will change the world. Regardless of where one puts my current skill level, I am open to learning more, I am actively learning, and I am actively practicing what I am learning.

Will I reach a level of greatness one day? Probably not. I’m enjoying learning, and I am also enjoying the results of my hard work.

I will not be writing the next great symphony, but I will be having fun with what I do.

CLIMBING A SUMMIT AND WHAT IS AT THE TOP
Every musician has had thoughts like this at one point in their lives, most probably when they were young.

“If only I can learn how to do [insert instrument trick here], I will have finally made it.”

On the surface, this sounds silly. To a degree, it is silly. But it’s also positive.

I had this belief long ago, that if I can learn how to play something, or build up speed, then I will have “arrived.” But then something strange happens when I actually work and acquire the ability to play this desired “thing.” That is, it’s no longer special. It no longer has meaning. It becomes something that “anybody can do.”

I’ve just learned something, and I don’t feel any better about it. I don’t feel that I’ve arrived.

As I stand on the summit of that “thing,” I look around and see one million other summits that need to be climbed. I see other people standing on those summits, and I know that it took them 50 years to get there.

I’m now at the base of a new summit, ready to take the first step toward getting to the top, with the realization that I won’t feel any differently when I get there. Taking those steps suddenly gets more difficult.

IMPOSTOR SYNDROME
People who suffer Impostor Syndrome have horrible thoughts about how they’re really no good at all. They’re a fraud, and everyone is going to find out.

This is the polar opposite of Dunning-Kruger. To summarize:

  1. Dunning-Kruger: Believing you’re the best, when you’re the worst.
  2. Impostor Syndrome: Believing you’re the worst, when you have ability.

I’ve had these feelings on many occasions, especially when I’m in the presence of someone who has incredible talent. If you work with someone who is way better than you, then you’ve felt this before.

Writing down your accomplishments and then working to internalize them can help with this issue.

SPLITTING THE DIFFERENCE WITH HONESTY
I have never walked off a stage and thought to myself that I’d had a perfect performance. It just does not happen. However, I have left the stage after a show and declared, “That felt great!”

Indeed, the show did feel that way. The audience was fantastic. Sure, everyone in the band screwed up here and there, but nobody seemed to notice or care. Everyone had fun, and that is the ultimate point of it all.

DO NOT TRUST YOUR SELF-PERCEPTION
Your self-perception is about as reliable and possible as your ability for your eyeball to see itself without a mirror.

If you think you can, then you are correct. If you think you cannot, then you are correct.

While you may know yourself better than anyone else, you’re also an expert on how to fool yourself.

THE DANGERS OF YOUR SELF-PERCEPTION
If you believe that you are really good, then you have no motivation to learn more or to practice. This path leads to a place where you are no longer trying. Dunning-Kruger has just been invited to your house.

But if you believe that you are really bad, then you run the risk of giving up.

Either way, your opinion of yourself is not reliable.

HABITS OF THE BEST
One’s perception of others has a better likelihood of being honest.

Pick the best players you can think of, on any instrument, in any genre. What they all have in common is that they do not rest on their laurels [accomplishments] while declaring themselves to be the best.

They’re still running toward that goal post, working to improve, trying new things, implementing new abilities, and so on.

HOW TO COPE WITH IT ALL
As you read through this, you might be thinking that all of this sounds horrible. Why try to be a musician in the first place, when you cannot be the best? Many other questions like this one will rise up.

I do have some ways to cope with these perils, which I will share.

Abolish your opinion of yourself: Don’t think of yourself as good or bad.

Take the opinions of others with a grain of salt: They might have bias. Grandma said you have a beautiful singing voice. This may not be true. They could also be jealous. You will never know the truth, so keep some perspective on it.

Know when to add weight to opinions: A drunk in the bar who says you suck is meaningless. A judge in a competition who says you need work in areas has something valuable to say. A teacher who has a critique should be taken more seriously, and their claim must be investigated.

Set SMALL goals and keep notes: Playing a riff or rudiment at 50bpm might be your baseline. Once you have that clean, then set your metronome closer to a goal. Maybe you’re trying to slow down, or speed up. Whatever your goal may be, document your work toward that goal.

Celebrate your wins: Once you hit a goal, acknowledge it. Document it. Be proud of it. Generate a feeling about it. Understand that this feeling will go away quickly and become meaningless.

Forget about reaching a destination: Remember the goal post I mentioned earlier? The one that keeps moving? The point of it all has nothing to do with a destination.

THEN WHAT IS THE POINT?
When you dance, the point is not to start on one side of the room, and end up in a specific place in the room by the end.

The point is the dance.

The point of learning music is to learn. The point of making music is to make it.

I practice every day. Then, I play music every day. Sometimes I write and record music. Other times I make music with others. Some days I make music for a future record with my band. Other days, I make music that I suspect nobody will ever hear, and nobody will like.

If you want to learn music, then learn it.

If you want to make music, then make it.

If you want to do something else, then go do it.

Should you be looking forward to your destination, then understand that you will be met with disappointment. Instead, look at the grass under your feet. Smell the fresh air. Look at the animals moving about. Take in the sunset. It’s all you’ve got.

brucelee.jpg“Just be ordinary and nothing special. Eat your food, move your bowels, pass water, and when you’re tired, go and lie down. The ignorant will laugh at me, but the wise will understand” –Bruce Lee

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DrumWild

Drummer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and blogger.

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