Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Illusion of Transparency: Mistakes are not that Noticeable.

There’s a phenomenon is psychology known as the “illusion of transparency.” It’s centered on the idea that we feel our emotions are transparent to others, when studies have shown that they're are not. And this can occur while performing public tasks such as giving a speech,  a musical performance, or just interacting socially.   For example, if you’re giving a speech, you think it’s so obvious to everyone in the audience how nervous you are. When, in fact, they often have no idea how nervous you are. Unless, of course, you’re constantly stuttering and starting over, and your body is visibly shaking. This is usually not the case where we show such extremely visible signs of nervousness.

As musicians, we suffer from the illusion of transparency when they play. We think that everyone is hearing the same mistakes we’re hearing. That everyone heard that chord change we botched, the melody note that we fluffed, or that out of tune note in the higher register. Sometimes this may be the case, but usually it’s not. During live concerts, both the band members and the audience have a lot things biding for their attention. While you’re missing that chord change, the drummer might be focused on how to better lock in with the bass player. At the precise moment that you fluffed that note in the melody, the guy at the front table probably ordered a beer from the waitress. As you can see, competition is steep during the context of a performance. You might be center stage, but you’re not always the center of attention.

In studies done where people tapped out rhythms to songs they were hearing in their heads while listeners tried to guess the song, they found that the listener got it right less than 3% of the time. So imagine how few would notice if they were not listening intently. Imagine if there were three other instruments playing at the same time. 

This is important to remember because we can let this false sense of transparency get in the way of us enjoying what we do--affecting us in live and recording situations. I can’t keep track of how many times I’ve disregarded a track from a recording because of a harmonic or rhythmic fluff. Things that were obvious to me, but no one else—unless they were sitting there listening with the same critical ears with which I listened.

I understand why we want flawless recordings. Who wants to cringe every time the section with the out-of-tune notes comes around?  But one of the dangers of letting the illusion of transparency infiltrate our musical decisions is that we might cater to our paranoia rather than to the best musical moments.

There are so many classic jazz recordings where I didn’t even notice the fluffed melodies or the missed chord changes until having listened to them for several years. And I’m sure there are some mistakes on some classic records I’ve still not noticed. There’s so much great music played on those recordings, those minor fluffs seems inconsequential. In fact, those imperfections give those recordings character and beauty. Which makes my point: When you cater to one’s paranoia instead of the great musical moments, you run the risk of only including tracks from recording sessions that are perfect in terms of satisfying your illusion of transparency neurosis, however, disregarding recorded moments with real aesthetical value. In other words, going with the music that’s perfect, but sterile.

I think we’d be a lot better off if we’d realize that things aren’t always as obvious as we think. We're not as readable as an iBook. And since we’re looking at things from a psychological perspective, maybe should practice “selective amnesia.” So when we do make a mistake, we’ll just forget that it ever happened.

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