Musical Doubt

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doubt – a feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction

“While the theories come and go, the phenomenologies stay.”
– Nassim Taleb, Antifragile (2014)

When I’m playing music, composing it, or writing about it, a feeling of doubt repeatedly presents itself. Do I really buy what I’m doing? Whether we’re talking about making sounds or organizing words, I have my doubts: it sounds dumb, it lacks subtlety, it reads awkward, it doesn’t leave enough space, it has zero aura, it seems almost pointless—this sucks. Recently, I got more than a quizzical sideways glance at home when we were watching the Winter Olympics and as soon as the figure skater took an unexpected early tumble I exclaimed calmly while shaking my head, he’s done, it’s over, perfect routine ruined, what-a-waste. What’s wrong with me?

Lest this doubting mindset sound simply negative, here’s a recent musical example of how I have been mobilizing it towards more productive ends. I was revisiting a project that recasts my Four Piano Music, listening to one track’s six parts chug along. I furrowed my brow, realizing that almost everything I was hearing was irritating. Would I want to listen to this? No, no I wouldn’t. I then began muting parts one by one, until I was left with only the original remix material I had begun with. With these two parts exposed I realized that they were the problem. I had been having doubts about the parts from the get-go—they had questionable aura—so how did I expect to build something convincing on top of them? I had to begin again from the beginning, and this meant re-configuring my remix material until I found something that convinced me and that I could believe in. In the meantime, I kept of all of the other parts muted while I searched for something enchanting.

Now I wonder: How can doubt can be both a useful creative tool and an unstable intervention? In his book that keeps giving, Antifragile, Nassim Taleb speaks of the importance of making “sure your methodology is robust and can withstand the judgment of time.” For me, doubt forms a part of what I hope is a reliable—even antifragile—methodology for creative work in that it can be used for assessing what I think I’m trying to do and whether or not I’m actually doing it. In this way, doubt is a form of intuition, a short-cutting heuristic in the sense described by Gerd Gigerenzer: a judgment derived from paying attention to cues in one’s immediate environment while ignoring unnecessary information. In his book Gut Feelings, Gigerenzer describes a baseball outfielder running down a fly ball, timing his running speed by keeping his eyes focused on the trajectory of the falling ball. The outfielder doesn’t have to solve any equations on the fly (as it were)—he simply follows his intuitions, believing and not doubting that if he stays on his present trajectory he’ll make the catch. The example makes intuitive sense, but of course, we know now that intuitions can be misplaced. As Daniel Kahneman has convincingly shown in Thinking, Fast and Slow, we should be skeptical of our intuitions because they are unreliable, feel ‘natural’, and are susceptible to influence (Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, pp. 153, 194).

My takeaway from Taleb, Gigerenzer, and Kahneman is that while my doubts about my own work may be unreliable, they are nevertheless fairly robust guides for action. It’s not bad to doubt. The important thing is figuring out how to productively mobilize the feeling.

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