On Theory, Practice, And Progress

“Techniques and processes are developed that work,
but the understanding of them comes later.”

– Matt Ridley, How Innovation Works

Because every session unfolds differently, there’s no typical producing music day. Some days you’re determined to begin something new, other days you revisit a piece from a few weeks ago, curious to hear if it holds up. Because there’s no typical day, it can be difficult to gauge whether or not you’re making progress. Are we progressing when we’re learning new things, or when we’re finishing what we’ve already begun? Progressing implies having a destination in mind, but we don’t always work towards destinations besides short term and close at hand goals.

When it comes to creating new music, seeking progress through theory loses out to making progress through tinkering, tactile practice. I could carefully read manuals or learn a synthesizer inside and out before attempting to work with it, but in practice that never happens. Instead I learn on the fly–which is haphazard, but also efficient, because I focus only on learning that which helps with the task at hand. This brings to mind Four Tet’s noting, “my relationship with equipment is all about ‘Am I going to get anything out of this?’”

The practice of making new music draws on all of our learnings (theoretical and practice-based) about tools, musics, and workflows. In fact, making new music is the best way to synthesize all that we know and don’t know. It’s how we mobilize our fragmentary knowledge and idea-based understandings into improvised action.

In sum, recognizing practice’s power helps you avoid getting bogged down in theory’s endless questioning and speculations. Instead of wondering what a tool can do in theory, you can learn what it does for you in practice by trying it and figuring it out. (A helpful heuristic is What happens if I do this?) Once you use a tool you set up a feedback loop between trying and getting results. And as you learn about what works for you and what doesn’t, you’ll gradually develop your unique tacit knowledge comprised of practice-based theories of approaches, strategies, and techniques that you can refine on each subsequent project you undertake.

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