On Listening Fast And Slow

In his book, Thinking Fast And Slow, the eminent psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes two modes of thinking that steer our judgements and decision-making. The first type, System 1, is fast, intuitive, and emotional: the second, System 2, is slower, more considered, and logical. I have talked about Kahneman’s book on my blog, here.

Recently I remembered Kahneman’s work as I thought about how I listen to music. For me, listening is initially always a System 1 engagement. I make assessments about what I’m hearing fast–maybe too fast–as if answering a series of questions I didn’t know I had. Does this music speak to me? What is it trying to say? What of its materials holds my attention? Is it presenting something for me to grapple with and figure out? Does it manage to contain mysteries within its sounds that will keep me coming back for more? As you can imagine, not a lot of music passes this System 1 test. For worse or better, I often dismiss what I hear before giving it a chance to prove itself.

When I find something that sounds interesting my System 2 kicks in. Now I do two things. First, I listen to the music a lot, coming back to it over and over again, listening at different times a day in different places (to see how it travels), listening in a way that could be called well, obsessive. The second way I listen is I hone in on different points of intrigue in the music. The obsessive listening foregrounds things I never noticed during my first System 1 encounter with the work. Things like an unusual chord (“the bass note isn’t a stable root, it’s a dissonance!”), a rhythmic instability (“Why can’t I find beat one?”), or a timbre (“that organ in the high register is super transparent”). As I listen, I try to figure out how it is that what I like in the music works.


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