Natural Gadfly

One of my first jobs out of college was to serve as research assistant to Carol Krumhansl, a pioneer in the field of psychology of music. Before I joined her team, Carol recorded a world-class pianist’s rendition of a Mozart piano sonata using a robotic piano. It was equipped with force-sensors under each key so that it could precisely replicate the performance of anyone who played it. The pianist deviated from Mozart’s sheet music only dynamically and rhythmically, so I had the piano create three more versions: correcting the dynamic deviations, the rhythmic deviations, and both. The remainder of my job was to welcome college students into the lab, have them listen to each of the four versions in random order, and record their ratings of “tension in the music” as they listened.

Carol considered the experiment a failure. The average measure-by-measure tension ratings for all four versions were equivalent. There was no measurable evidence that the pianist had improved upon Mozart’s sheet music nor that Mozart relies on anyone to “interpret” his music. The pianist’s deviations seemed to be just an artifact of performance uniqueness—we might expect the same pianist to make different departures each time. From the standpoint of enduring musical truth, the world-class pianist apparently contributed nothing.

That raised the question of why the four versions differed at all. Were the pianist’s aberrations errors? Was the pianist unable to perform the sonata as written? Are humans simply inferior to machines when it comes to performing music? It may be difficult for humans to perform as consistently as machines, but that doesn’t necessarily make us inferior musicians. Maybe world-class pianists deviate from sheet music and create unique performances on purpose. Maybe they nurture a habit for creativity, exploring and experimenting when they perform, allowing unforeseeable feelings to influence them on the off-chance it might impact a listener in an unpredictably better way.

I did not tell listeners anything about the differences between the four versions of the piano sonata, nor did I ask whether they could distinguish them, but they inevitably volunteered that they detected distinctions, and identified the strictly mechanical performance as the worst. It was as though they thought I was testing their taste in classical music, and wanted me to confirm that they passed. Apparently they thought there is something good about a pianist being creative, deviant, inconsistent, and attempting to stir audiences in unforeseeable ways.

If you are a natural gadfly, then you prefer to be creative, deviant, inconsistent, and provocative even beyond the context of the arts. Like improvising comedy, you experiment with what might turn-out better than anyone could have expected. Making new discoveries that could persist long after you pass away, you aim at a perfection you expect no one, including yourself, to fully understand in your own lifetime. To defend against immoral impulses, you may “pick your battles” like a pianist who mostly follows the sheet music, but you prioritize social progress and escape from bias.

The preceding is an excerpt from Chapter 3 of GRIN Free – GRIN Together: How to let people be themselves (and why you should). Read the rest here.