Why aren't great musicians playing perfectly? (Even though you can hear they are)

How many times have you complimented someone on performing brilliantly only for them to tell you it wasn’t any good at all?

They played just perfectly so you reassert your compliments, yet they still reject them.

They also seem to think that you’re just complimenting them to ‘be nice’ or to ‘make them feel better’ and not because you actually thought it was good at all.

But you could clearly hear how good it was, so it’s impossible they didn’t hear that too.

It’s must just be false modesty on their part. Or perhaps they’re being overly-critical just for the sake of it.

Many musicians go into certain performances hoping people will think they’re good, so why don’t they acknowledge it when they actually achieve what they wanted?

This is due to a cognitive bias known as The Illusion of Transparency, a term coined by psychologist Elizabeth Newton who conducted research into this phenomenon at Stanford University.

This illusion describes how, because what we experience inside our minds is so obvious to us, we forget that it’s not necessarily at all obvious to anyone else.

But how does this explain someone’s refusal to acknowledge how well they’re playing?

If you think of a well-known tune and sing it in your mind you know only you are able to hear it. It’s obvious to you which tune you’re hearing, but impossible for anyone else to know unless you tell them.

As you’re practising ahead of a performance, you’re continually raising your expectation of how you want to sound so that you can continue improving. Just like hearing a tune in your head, no-one else can hear how you want it to sound, only you can hear that.

The more you raise your expectation of how you want to sound, the less satisfied you tend to become with the results you’re currently producing. You’re often no longer noticing or appreciating the qualities you’re already demonstrating in your playing.

So, someone compliments you on your brilliant performance, yet you ‘know’ this wasn’t the case.

You didn’t get close enough to how you wanted it to sound and the difference is so clear to you, you forget they can’t hear the same comparison you’re making.

The only possible explanation for their compliments is that they’re just lying to you to ‘make you feel better’.

However, from their perspective, although they can’t hear how close you got to the way you wanted to perform, they’re hearing qualities you’re no longer noticing or appreciating in your playing.

As your qualities are so obvious to them, they’re convinced you must hear them too. You’re clearly just guilty of false modesty.

But by refusing to believe you or other musicians when you tell them you’re not producing exactly the results you want all the time, they’re forming the belief that everyone else is performing a lot more consistently than they are.

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© Mike Cunningham 2017

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