Musical Mindsets


When I think about strategies for composing music, I often think in terms of problem-solving within the process of doing whatever I’m doing. Most often it’s as simple as hearing what I don’t like, then trying out various solutions for fixing it. (Deleting notes is by far my favorite solution.) Other times it’s a little more complicated and the solution is not so clear, such as when I hear something I like but I’m not bowled over by it. Can the music be fixed, can it be saved? Or was it just a weak idea from the start? This kind of problem-solving can be a delicate practice, because I don’t want to act in haste. I want to be sensitive to an idea that may require nurturing and time. More and more these days, I simply save a project idea if it’s not immediately compelling me to develop it further right now. Let’s see how it sounds in a few weeks or a few months. Sometime time does fix things.

Problem-solving is effective for dealing with something you have already put together, but less useful for the moment just before you begin because there’s as yet no problem to solve except for your mindset. Mindset refers to an established set of attitudes held by someone—as in, Tom takes a problem-solving approach to music production. The specifics of these attitudes fascinate me and I recently took note of some of my own go-to mindsets when I’m working:

casual mind
focused mind
adventurous mind
curious mind
frustrated mind
confused mind
susceptible mind
associative mind
optimistic mind
humorous mind
excited mind
frantic mind
ruminative mind
empty mind

I usually begin a project not with optimism but with a frustrated and confused mindset. Not an ideal way to begin, I admit, but at least this mindset acknowledges how lost I feel regarding how to proceed. Then I get going with a cool chord or coherent sentence and I have something to build on. As I develop the project by trying out various things, connecting bits to make larger bits, my mindset becomes fluid, shifting from frustrated to curious and associative, and eventually, quite focused and excited. The focused and excited mindsets in turn lead to a sense of optimism that maybe this can work.

So I wonder: Where do our mindsets come from? And can we tweak them towards neutrality so we can get out of our own way?  

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