This post is based on, “A spiral model of musical decision-making,” written by Daniel Bangert, Emery Schubert and Dorottya Fabian that appeared in Frontiers of Psychology on April 22, 2014. Although based on thin research, my intuition likes it, and it would seem to have applicability beyond music. It splices together ideas of Ken Hammond (post Cognitive Continuum), Jonathan Evans (post Dual Process Theories of Cognition), and Amy Baylor (post U-Shaped Intuition).
Research has shed light on how both intuition and deliberation are used by musicians. Bangert et. al. refer to Hallam who interviewed twenty-two performers about their practice habits and found differences between those who were “intuitive/serialists” who allowed their interpretation to evolve unconsciously versus “analytic/holists.” who relied on deliberate, conscious analysis of the piece. Other research has shown that while performing, musicians pay deliberate attention to certain specific musical aspects (performance cues) and also have spontaneous performance thoughts.
The author’s study of seven violinists sight-reading, practicing and performing an unfamiliar piece of solo Baroque music identified various types of decisions being made. The study involved tasks that were intuition inducing (sight-reading) and analysis inducing (thinking-aloud during practice) in order to compare the proportion of decision types in a final task of performing the piece. Sight-reading was judged to be a wholly intuitive task requiring rapid default responses to issues raised in the piece, while practice thoughts were captured through a concurrent think-aloud and asking participants to mark the score. Changes to performance features in the sight-read and performance data were analyzed, and then compared with practice data. More experienced performers made a significantly greater number of decisions compared to less experienced performers. Secondly, the most experienced group made a greater proportion of deliberate decisions compared to less experienced groups.
In a case study of the cellist Daniel Yeadon, Bangert et. al. were able to elicit detailed description of decision-making regarding his interpretation of J.S. Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello. Decisions were defined as reported changes to one or more performance features and were classified according to the language used within the quotation. Four categories of decisions were found: intuitive, procedural, deliberate, and deliberate HIP (historically informed performance). Intuitive decisions were based on a feeling or sense and were not explained further. An important finding from the study was the novel category of procedural decisions, a sub-set of intuitive decisions that were originally deliberate but had become automatic and “built-in” through practice over time. The processes involved in this category resemble the concept of mature intuition proposed by Baylor. For example, when discussing articulation in a certain passage, Yeadon stated, “It felt natural to me. As if I’d assimilated all the stuff I had been thinking about all those bars and I was just playing”. Yeadon also talked about how the process of assimilation or automatization is necessary to achieve a flow state during performance: “I’ve thought about what I want in each bar but when I’m actually playing I don’t really have time to nourish those thoughts and put them into practice”.
In their case study, Yeadon also discussed differences between novice and expert thinking, but implied a circular motion beginning with early intuitive responses followed by a period of analysis and finally the use of intuitive/procedural decisions while “in the zone”: They asked him: How do you think your goals for these pieces have shifted over time?
I think I’ve probably come a full circle. I think when I first played them as a kid I found it easier. . . I always related to the music, so I found it easier just to play them in a really instinctive way. It was just music that spoke to me and I felt that I could interpret them and be myself. Then I started studying early music and doing lots of reading of treatises, reading about how music was played at the time and what one should and shouldn’t do. It’s become a much more mental process and I’ve passed through that lens and done a lot of mental work-not on all of the suites but on some of the movements and some of the suites. In away that’s been, the mental aspect of it, has been quite painful because it’s meant that I’ve been more self-conscious in the way I play it. I’ve been more aware of other people’s interpretations, aware of the greatness of the music. Now I’m coming back to being able to, as I was saying before, being in the zone and just making the music purely my own and heartfelt and not letting the mental stuff get in the way.
Bangert et al propose, based on their research and their study of existing models, that the dimension of expertise development can be integrated in a new model, illustrated in Figure 1 as a conical helix that alternates between points of more intuitive/less deliberate and more deliberate/less intuitive decision-making processes. As the upward-spiraling motion is a key characteristic of the model, they use the term spiral model in the paper to refer to the conical helix and its axes. The model extends Baylor’s U-shaped curve by acknowledging that the process of learning is a dynamic and continuous one in which a performer returns to musical problems over their lifespan with a fluctuating emphasis on either intuition or deliberation.
The x-axis in Figure1 is an intuitive-deliberate continuum that does not exclude contribution from either process. This acknowledges that most tasks require a mixture of Type 1 and Type 2 processes based on Hammond’s cognitive continuum. The spiral moves gradually upward along the vertical y-axis in Figure 1 representing level of expertise. The intuitive side of the spiral in Figure 1 includes a transition toward more procedural decision-making processes signified by an upward arrow, meaning that a performer who has passed through several phases in the spiral can access procedural skills and knowledge (mature intuition). As expertise increases and more deliberate decisions become automatic, reliance on procedural processes becomes greater. The radius of the spiral (r) in Figure1 is labeled “type selection degree of chance”, which is greatest at the base entry point and decreases incrementally as the spiral proceeds. Chance in this model is defined in opposition to control. Therefore, the decreasing radius indicates that the selection of decision-making processes is more arbitrary and subject to chance in novices and that experts have greater control and consistency in how decisions are made. The tightening of the spiral in Figure 1 also implies that the rate of changing proportions in decision-making processes becomes more rapid and relatively effortless with increasing expertise performing a piece of music. Individual differences are addressed by proposing that the spiral in Figure 1 maybe placed anywhere along the x-axis to illustrate variation in approaches between musicians. Some performers may remain static at points on the spiral for a period of time, veer toward the intuitive or deliberate side, or dip in expertise. Thus, the general principle of a fluctuating emphasis between intuition and deliberation can be applied individually to varying degrees and lead to differing endpoints in a slanting spiral shape that is not centrally located.