Music and The Curse of Knowledge

November 5, 2009 Off By Eric Jensen
One of the greatest sources of alienation and disillusion for professional musicians is the profound sense that their deep love of music and lifelong commitment to developing their skill, is completely invisible and unappreciated by non-musicians. It’s easy to becoming bitter when you see a crowd jump out of their seats for ‘The Chicken Dance’ at a wedding, yet the original piece of music you have rehearsed for weeks is completely ignored and/or misunderstood by the few people that hear it (often friends showing up out of sympathy for the disenfranchised artist).

There is a tendency to try to balance this phenomena by dumbing down the music, making a more ‘commercial’ record, hiring a mediocre singer simply because they look good on stage and bring in a crowd. This only leads to furthering the distance between musician and listener, deepening the cycle of bitterness and isolation (“…nobody likes my stuff anyway, so I’ll just climb into a hole and write really weird music…”).

We want others to be as moved by music as we are. Why is this so difficult for many of us to achieve? The explanation for this phenomena, and the way out of the artist’s conundrum, is understanding The Curse of Knowledge. This principle is well articulated in Chip and Dan Heath’s book, “Made To Stick”, which I heartily recommend. The idea is that, once we know something, it is very difficult to imagine what our experience would be without that knowledge. A professional musician has spent years developing their ability to hear, perform, and understand music. The simple act of listening to a commercial on television triggers a complex array of associations, emotions, and physical reactions that a non-expert does not experience.

So, how do we bridge communication and understanding between musician and audience? The behavioral change must come from the artist. The key is to find common ground for both parties. It has to be real to avoid the ‘dumbing down effect’. Put yourself in the listener’s position. How will they respond to your music, emotionally, physically, the visual presentation, etc.? Of course, appreciating music is a very personal experience, built on exposure throughout a lifetime, but there do seem to be certain musical phenomena that resonate almost universally and stick with people for hundreds of years. How can you use this idea to connect with your audience without compromising the deepest, most personal elements of your work?