Experiencing Time as a Musician

I started taking lessons again recently and one of my latest assignments brought me face-to-face with how a musician experiences time. The homework was to learn a variety of drop-2 chord voicings up and down the neck. To memorize the shapes in a musical way I practiced them by shifting between shapes in-time with a jazz drum track or metronome. What was surprising was how different it felt when the chord changes were really grooving and when they really wasn't.

Cmaj7 drop-2 voicings

When things went right, the transitions were smooth and easy. It was like the experience of "the game slowing down" for elite athletes. I felt like I had all the time in the world to get from one shape to the next. When things didn't go right, I felt like I was always playing catchup. The chord transitions weren't very musical and the whole process became much less fun.

So what was the difference between being "on" and being "off"? A big part of it was how I experienced the passage of musical time. When things were clicking I was already thinking one or two moves ahead. When things weren't going well I had that panicky sense of everything going by far too quickly.

It got me thinking about the opening footage from the excellent documentary Senna, which opens with this terrifying onboard footage of Ayrton Senna racing through the streets of Monaco:

It's one blind corner after another and this man is absolutely flying. How does he do it? It's pretty clear that he isn't simply reacting to the course—you couldn't drive that fast and survive on reaction and fast-twitch muscles alone. No, he knows exactly where each turn is and how he can drive it at the absolute limit of his car and his abilities. Like the chord-change exercise (at a much larger scale with much bigger consequences) the key to success in his lap around Monaco is thinking ahead.

But in racing as well as music thinking too much about the future can't be everything. In racing some unexpected track condition may pop up that you didn't anticipate. If you can't respond to what's happening in the moment you may end up in the barriers or worse. In music you can't abandon the "now" by focusing exclusively on the future. The rich musical moments where it all comes together (particularly with other musicians) would be lost. Somehow great athletes and musicians simultaneously track and experience two different periods of the time: the current moment and the future.

In music, this is best demonstrated by the great jazz improvisers. A guy like John Coltrane can absolutely slay the demanding challenges of a piece like Giant Steps by being able to anticipate the upcoming changes and play over the current ones.

Great improvisers have a creative voice inside their heads married with the uncanny ability to translate it to their instrument. In something as demanding as jazz improvisation there is a time gap between what their musical mind imagines and what they actually play. The truly great improvisers have shortened that gap to nearly zero. 

Baby Steps

I don't believe there's any great secret to learning how to do this. It takes a lot of time and attention to develop these kinds of skills. But a good starting place is becoming a good listener. It's so easy to get lost in what you're playing on your instrument that it's easy to tune-out what else is going on. Next time you play with others, trying playing your parts while focusing on what someone else in the band is doing. It's a little like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at once, but it's worth getting over the initial awkwardness.

If you're in a rock band focus on what the drummer is doing. Where does your guitar part fit with what the drummer is playing? Does your part land with the snare (beats 2 & 4) or around it? What about the bass player? Are you locked in with their part? Are they locked in with the drummer?

The next step is to start imagining what you want to play before you play it. Most music isn't completely improvised so you should have a pretty good idea of what you're doing in each tune. Even for musical "set-pieces" you should develop the skill simultaneously play your current part and be thinking ahead to your next one.

For improvisation this gets trickier, but the same principle applies. Truly great improvisers know where they're going. Try developing this inner musical voice in your head and then work on narrowing the gap between when you imagine a piece of music and when you play it.

A large part of that ecstatic feeling of really playing well is having the ability to sense two timelines at once. It isn't easy to develop, but when you get it going it's a feeling like nothing else in the world.