Analysis and Intuition; Innovation and Experience

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This post arises from the same circumstances as my recent one about interpreting barbershop ballads. I was listening to some recordings of work-in-progress with the remit of giving advice about the musical choices they were making about a song's delivery. The nitty-gritty stuff helped me crystallise observations about musical delivery and pacing, but I ended up with a pile of left-over thoughts about the relationship between analysis and intuition in developing performances, which is what I am going to be sorting through here.

You see, I had been given that remit because I have certain technical skills. I can identify chords; I can use notation to infer not just what to sing, but how. A lot of the ineffective musical moments you encounter in barbershop world come from a lack of that analysis, an over-reliance on lyric to tell you everything about how a song should go, without working out what the melody, harmony, voicing and embellishment strategies are suggesting.

On the other hand, the barbershop world is full of only slightly musically-literate people producing very effective performances. Someone who can't tell a tritone from a treble clef can nonetheless shape a ballad so as to move your heart. They work almost entirely by intuition from years of close listening and loving attention to a musical tradition to which they are deeply committed, and they nail it.

Moreover, you can give the dots to a highly literate person from outwith the tradition, and in the absence of first-hand experience of the style, they are likely to produce a performance that makes musical sense but does not speak to a barbershopper's condition. It is likely to be too metrical, too articulated, and the rubato will be the wrong shape. A barbershopper will say it sounds too technical, too dry.

And if the barbershopper who can just read music a little if at all gets a bit defensive about it all, this will be in part because of their entirely reasonable observation that technical skill does not and cannot substitute for intuition. Unless you understand it implicitly, it won't be believable.

So I was wondering: what, if any, are the limits of intuition in making performance decisions?; how do intuition and analysis interact - indeed, do they?; and what authority does my book-learning have to go round telling intuitive musicians what to do?

The contrast between the experienced insider and the technically-skilled but inexperienced stylistic novice suggests a direct correlation between experience and reliability of instinct. Experience here encompasses not just years of involvement, but also depth of involvement: you'll get a more developed mastery of the genre through dedication to the more hardcore activities - quartetting and tag-singing - than just putting in 15 years on the back riser.

However, since intuition is fed by experience, the relationship runs into trouble when faced with musical content that pushes beyond that on which the experience is built. If you are singing music that is genuinely innovative, you'll still need your intuition on duty, but it may not have the wherewithal to answer all the questions that the music asks. Music that positions itself at the edge of the style also lives at the edge of singers' experience;pushing the boundaries is not just about a chart's relationship with the rule-book, but about its relationship with the patterns of expectation and response in audiences.

The experienced singer faced with innovative music is in much the same position as the inexperienced singer is with standard repertoire. They are about to gain a whole new layer of musical depth; they will emerge with their intuition nourished and enhanced. But for that to happen successfully, they are likely to need to work analytically as well as intuitively. Analysis provides the scaffolding to extend your house of musical knowledge safely; once the extension is built, your intuition can move in.

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