Intellectual vs Intuitive

The difference between singing and playing an instrument points to a difference between intellectual and intuitive ways of learning and understanding music. Intellectual understanding means that you can name the notes and rhythms you are playing, perhaps even write them down, and describe the structure of how these notes and rhythms relate using concepts like time signatures, scales, and chords. An intuitive understanding means that you can enjoy listening and playing music without any of this intellectual knowledge. You can easily sing and dance with no intellectual knowledge of music, but you intuitively know how fast to dance, and how high to sing.

What is the proper relationship between intellectual and intuitive ways of playing music? Some would say that the only proper way to learn music is to study the intellectual side of things. This is traditionally how things are taught in music classes, where learning to read notes and rhythms is often the first lesson. In this framework, progress is measured by how much intellectual knowledge you have, and how technically proficient you are at playing your instrument. This approach, if taken to an extreme, leaves out the enjoyable aspects of music, and can produce musicians who are proficient at reading and playing complex music, but can’t improvise, be creative, or be emotionally affected by music.

On the other hand, some people shy away from intellectual knowledge entirely and rely only on intuition. They experiment with their instrument, listening to what they play and slowly figuring out what sounds good. They may think that intellectual approaches will corrupt their intuition and turn them into one of those musicians who can’t improvise or play with feeling.

As you may expect, I think both of these approaches are necessary. When I see great musicians who started with the intellectual approach, I believe they became great because they reconnected with their intuition, their emotional attachment to music, and their desire to simply enjoy music again. When I see a great “self-taught” musician who took the intuitive approach, I can see that they became great because their intuitive wanderings led them to a highly personalized intellectual understanding of music.

I believe that it is best for your intellectual understanding to act as a servant to your intuition. Your intuition must be in charge. When you are deciding what to play, it is best not to use your intellectual knowledge, because you’ll end up playing something that lacks emotion. While your intuition guides you, your intellectual knowledge is a tool that can help you along the way. And it can be a very powerful tool. Your intuition might know the destination, but your intellectual knowledge will be able to help you get there.