They say that guitar players’ brains are different to other people, in that they have a stronger tendency to synchronise with the music, at a biophysical level, and with other players. According to studies, they temporarily switch off their consciousness and enter an unconscious state. It’s a state that has been described as intuitive and spiritual. Here are some links about it:
Having been a guitar player for over forty years, here’s what I can tell you from my own experience: There is a feeling of satisfaction and completeness – a feeling that you want to repeat and that gives you a feeling of elation and joy – which comes from the anticipation of what the other players around you might play and then playing something to complement that, but then discovering that your intuition, or educated guess, if you like, was right, as the music progresses and unfolds.
It all happens very quickly. Yes, you are in time and tempo with the accompaniment and you are “in the zone” tonally, with your articulation and with the notes you are playing, but you get this sixth-sense feeling (from I don’t know where) that the other player will go in a particular musical direction, so you make plans to play something that will work with that, assuming that they do and voila, as you both continue to play, you discover that your intuition was correct and that the piece you just composed, in your head, fits perfectly. It is often at these moments of happy synchronicity that the emotional affect of the combined ensemble is at its height. Because you anticipated what the others will play and played something that would go with it well, the emotional moment you jointly create is much more powerful.
Guessing wrongly, or just playing what you want to play, irrespective of what the others are going to play (which, in an improvisation, you can’t know), is a recipe for disharmony and discord, both literally and in the sense that it feels emotionally perturbing. It feels so bad and so wrong that any group of musicians that play together regularly eventually learn to avoid it as much as possible, using a variety of strategies, including just not playing.
On the other hand, you can tell when this happy synchronicity has happened, because the musicians in the ensemble will often smile to themselves and to each other, spontaneously and uncontrollably. If you are a guitar player, you recognise that these performers are experiencing that joyful satisfaction of having almost unconsciously, intuitively anticipated what the other would play and played the ideal complement to it.
This phenomenon is, I think, the reason why so many people love jam sessions and it is certainly the reason that I do. The emotional and psychological reward for getting the anticipation right is like a powerful drug. By the same token, musicians that are not experiencing this synchronisation of ideation often hate jamming with a passion. They just can’t do it and don’t get the mental rush, because those intuitive anticipations are just not happening for them. There is no psychological payoff.
A jam session where nobody is listening and everybody is competitively playing against each other is very boring. It can be rescued by pitting your own intuitive anticipation abilities against the other musicians, even if they aren’t interacting with you. At least then, you get the sense of having pulled something magic out of the bag, from a cacophony of noise. You can feel good about playing the magic parts, to resurrect and rescue the mess.
The ultimate experience, though, is when all the musicians in the ensemble are playing in the zone and listening to each other carefully, so that they not only intuitively anticipate the other musicians’ contributions, but equally importantly, make space for those contributions to come to the fore and gain some prominence.
You can tell when musicians are improvising and achieving this mutual, intuitive anticipation. They’re all having fun and it’s infectious. The audience enjoys it, too. Better than that, the quality of the music made is very high. They’re striking sparks of each other and the music sounds energetic, active, innovative, exploratory and interesting. Unfortunately, it’s a relatively rare phenomenon to experience, unless the musicians are very accomplished, masters of their instruments and all willing to play the game.
When it does happen, though, it’s a thing of beauty to witness and one of the best psychological feelings it is possible to experience, if you get to participate in such music making. It might only happen to you a few times in your lifetime, but it feels better than the rush you get from speed (i.e. going fast, not the amphetamine drug), the frisson you get from doing something dangerous or risky, the euphoric joy you get from mutual love, the intellectual satisfaction of solving a difficult problem or finding just the right word or phrase and far more satisfying than any chemically-induced high.
I’m sure you get a similar feeling as a composer or music producer, but working on your own and experiencing a synchronicity with your own previously recorded parts is not the same as discovering a kindred musical spirit in another human being, or group of human beings. The intuitive anticipation, I’m sure, extends to drummers and bass players too, both of which can find themselves guessing exactly the right thing to play and finding that it works perfectly with what everybody else is playing, when they do.
I’m convinced this is the glue that often sticks groups of musicians together as a cohesive musical unit, at least initially. Bands form around it. I’m equally convinced that when bands break up (due to what is often attributed to “musical differences”), it is because one or more of the players no longer want to play this intuitive anticipation game, either because they have grown bored with it, or are seeking other affirmations, psychologically. Sadly, for the musicians left behind, the loss of this psychological buzz can end musical careers. The thrill is gone. Equally likely, though, is that when bands reform or put aside their musical differences, it is because they find a way to reawaken that intuitive musical anticipation that they once enjoyed among themselves.
Life partners of musicians can find this mystifying and threatening, often reacting against it and thereby forcing their musician partners into painful (and unnecessary) choices and ultimatums. The “love” that they feel threatened by, though, is very different to the relationship they share with their musical other half. The so-called “band bromance” is of a different character to the relationship between an individual and their life partner. Regrettably, unless you experience the joy of musical, intuitive anticipation, it’s difficult to see what the attraction is. For this reason, musicians often partner with musicians, because they get it.
So, that’s what I know about what happens to your mind and feelings, when you experience the synchronicities that are being studied so earnestly, in academia. It’s a feeling like no other and a psychological reward that is difficult to replicate. As far as inducing the moment, it’s not that you have rehearsed and practiced, to play the right things with each other; it’s that they emerge, seemingly spontaneously, from your joint musical intelligences and tastes. That’s the fun part. It’s the sheer surprise and delight of it all. For me, it’s the discovery of mutually satisfactory constructions, which happen, unplanned and in real time, which constantly amaze me. I love it when musical imaginations are able to work together collaboratively and without having to put too much effort into it. When it becomes formulaic, pattern-based, highly predictable and repetitive, my interest wanes. Part of the thrill is in taking big musical chances and having them work out.
I realise this is a highly personal and slightly idiosyncratic account, but it’s my truth and I wanted to share it with you, in case you had experienced something similar. Have you experienced the joy of intuitive anticipation?