Thinking, fast and slow


I am currently reading an amazing book by Daniel Kahneman called Thinking, Fast and Slow. He presents the idea that we have two systems for thinking – System 1 is effortless and intuitive (fast), System 2 uses deductive reasoning (slow).

An example of Thinking Fast might be in recognising something, a car for instance – we just know it’s a car! Thinking Slow might be finding the answer to a sum, say 18 x 23 – we know it’s a multiplication sum, and how to do it, but we also know that it’s going to take considerable mental strain to hold various subtotals in our head before we arrive at the answer – and indeed it does!

However, Kahneman goes on to suggest that, with sufficient training, we can reach a point where we have expert intuition. It strikes me that, in my own field, this might be called musicianship! I am particularly interested in how we can strive to attain this expert intuition, especially with regard to the transition from reading the score to memorizing it.

The quote on the front of this book – “a lifetime’s worth of wisdom” – is pretty spot on. There are numerous things to share, but I particularly like this line:

anything that occupies your working memory reduces your ability to think

In short, processing all of those notes on the page takes a huge amount of our working memory – in Kahneman’s terms, it takes a great deal of Slow Thinking to make it all happen. The better way, I’m sure, would be for us just to be able to trust our instinct and play, but realistically that’s probably not going to happen. Unless, of course, we have that expert intuition (aka musicianship). There are a whole host of ‘back up’ devices which the musician needs to develop, which support and ultimately should replace the note reading element in our playing. Individually they might all seem rather trivial stuff that we just have to learn; theory, aural, scales, diminished sevenths… But actually, these things are the building blocks which develop that intuition, that musicianship. If we can recognise a dominant seventh chord for instance, and know that it is likely to resolve to it’s tonic, then we will know that A7 falls to a chord of D – and then it is less of a surprise to find that we are playing notes which fit with D major. Of course we can read them too, but this little bit of learned knowledge gives us a hint of intuition to back up the reading bit; in other words, the notes which we play are not longer a random coincidence, but we actually understand why they are how they are! And if we can hear the dominant seventh as well, then our ear might also give us a few suggestions as to what sort of sound to expect next. A little harmonic knowledge and aural skills combined will go a long way, to the point that we may well find that we arrive at the right place before we even read the notes!

Even before discovering Kahneman’s book, I realise that I have subscribed to his way of thinking for some time. I have often thought of memorizing music as having installed it on the hard drive, as opposed to accessing a memory stick (oh, the irony of a name!) The difference is that we hear the computer whirring as it processes the information on the memory stick ie this is Slow Thinking. If we can install the notes on our hard drive, that is, memorise the music, then Fast Thinking becomes a very real possibility. And the way to do that is to develop an expert intuition, our understanding of how the music works – our musicianship.

By the way, the answer is 414!

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