On Judgment And Tacit Knowledge

If you follow music production discussions on Reddit you regularly see threads begun by musicians new to music production seeking advice. The musicians have just got set up with some equipment, have begun making tracks, and are noticing the gigantic gulf between the sound of their music and that of professionally-produced tracks. The most common type of advice musicians seek is how to go about learning the craft of making music with a computer and how to develop a reliable sense what sounds good. Such advice-seeking is a tall order, but since Reddit is ideally all about harnessing the wisdom of crowds, fellow community members do their best to help. Some recommend reading the software manual for their DAW, some encourage making a new piece every day, and some suggest learning a single software instrument so well that it’s easy to make any sound with it. This advice is good advice, and I would add something I’ve done through this blog, which is to scavenge far and wide through interviews with musicians for bits of technique/workflow insight that reminds us of all the things we could be doing, but are not. (This advice is available on the Music Production Database page.)  

Underlying the quandary new musicians sense as they try their hand producing music are two fundamental skills: judgment and tacit knowledge. Judgement is the ability to discern and make considered decisions. When I’m working on music, my judgment–not my technological tools or my musicianship–is the most important part of the process. I’m making judgements every second I play, listen, or futz with shaping sounds into something other than what they currently are. For example, even the smallest of producing moves, like adjusting the volume of a part fading in and out, involves judgment. As I repeat the passage dozens of times I make changes as I listen whilst trying to discern tiny gradations of difference in those differences. In other words, I’m using judgment to figure out the smallest discernible and meaningful bit of information, or what the Gregory Bateson once called “a difference that makes a difference” until it sounds right. 

Tacit knowledge is knowledge and intuition you’ve gained through your experiences that is hard to articulate–that is, hard to verbalize or write down. Tacit knowing was famously defined by Michael Polanyi as “we can know more than we can tell” (The Tacit Dimension, p. 4) and is the opposite of formal or explicit knowledge, which can easily be explained and codified into rules, like say a recipe. As I use my judgment while working on music, that judgment is anchored in a tacit knowledge whose roots run deep and wide. Tacit knowledge is the foundation upon which we can answer otherwise impossible-to-answer questions: How do I know when this part is right? When it sounds right. But how do I know what sounds right? I trust my intuition. Because our experiences are different, each of us has a unique tacit knowledge whose sources are opaque. But in craft and artistic pursuits, opaqueness about your process is okay–you don’t have to know how you know to know that you know. Back to culinary analogies: if you’ve cooked for years, you know when a food tastes “dull” and how to quickly brighten it with acid like citrus or vinegar. That’s judgment and tacit knowledge in action.   

Judgement and tacit knowledge then, are connected in the sense that if you possess tacit knowledge about a craft you are well positioned to use your judgment to guide you along the processes the craft requires. Back to the quandary facing new musicians seeking music production advice on Reddit. They’re in a quandary because they lack the thing that fellow Redditians can’t help them with, the thing that connects judgment and tacit knowledge: experience. Experience requires time, but also paying attention to what you’re doing. To use a gardening metaphor, experience is the soil in which both judgment and tacit knowledge grow. You can’t rush or completely control experience (or a garden), but you can choose where to aim your attention. Here are four suggestions for doing just that: 

Make something new each day. Doing and making are the foundation of experience. As you build you learn about what you like to listen to, and also figure out what you need to do to get the sound you want.

Make your learnings explicit whenever you can. At the end of each day I make note of things I’ve done that created pleasing results. I don’t know if this helps me remember my moves better, but it may reinforce something here and there. Build each day, but also take some time to reflect on what you’re doing.  

Listen widely and narrowly. If you’re not making music, listening to music is the next best thing. Listening widely means listening to musics far outside your zone of comfort and interest. Listening narrowly means listening repeatedly to your favorite artists to get inside their aesthetic space. For a producer or composer, listening widely and narrowly is the best way to build up a tacit knowledge “map” of the musically possible.

Work on large musical structures rather than small musical details. Try to finish entire pieces rather than sweating tiny details and not finishing anything. This principle comes from foreign language pedagogy, where it is common to practice speaking and writing phrases and sentences rather than individual words in isolation. The words hellohoware, and you are more useful when strung together because they achieve communication. So too with music. Instead of focusing on individual sounds, commit to arranging larger musical gestures such as a beat, some chords, and a melody, or better yet, a whole track rather than a loop. Larger musical structures let you hear how the music creates its space over time.  

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