My mind must be too highly trained

I’ve played var­i­ous mu­si­cal in­stru­ments for nearly 40 years now, but some sim­ple things re­main be­yond my grasp. Most frus­trat­ing is sight read­ing while play­ing pi­ano. Though I’ve tried for years, I can’t read bass and tre­ble clef at the same time. To sight-read pi­ano mu­sic, when you see this:

C D E F

you need your right hand to read it as C D E F, but your left hand to read it as E F G A. To this day, I can’t do it, and I can only learn pi­ano mu­sic by learn­ing the tre­ble and bass clef parts sep­a­rately to the point where I don’t rely on the score for more than re­minders, then play­ing them to­gether.

Trans­pos­ing is also ap­prox­i­mately im­pos­si­ble for me. The mu­si­cal scale is drawn as a lin­ear scale, but it isn’t lin­ear. There are miss­ing steps be­tween B and C and be­tween E and F; B# = C and E# = F [1]. So C D E F, trans­posed into the key of B, be­comes B C# D# E [2]. Trans­pos­ing mu­sic that uses notes out­side the scale is sig­nifi­cantly worse. The only way I can trans­pose (badly) is to not look at the mu­sic and not think about the names of the notes.


I’ve blamed my­self for lack­ing some abil­ity that would en­able me to do these things. But my con­ver­sa­tions with (a few) peo­ple who can do these things have been pe­cu­liar. They don’t have any sug­ges­tions for my prob­lem, be­cause they never saw them as prob­lems in the first place. When I talked about the in­con­sis­tency of try­ing to use sep­a­rate no­ta­tions for the left and right hand, they stared at me un­com­pre­hend­ingly. The idea that no­ta­tions should be con­sis­tent seemed never to have oc­curred to them.

So I’ve de­cided to blame them in­stead. The prob­lem is that my mind is too highly trained.

No, se­ri­ously. I re­al­ize this is prob­a­bly an un­helpful, self-defeat­ing at­ti­tude. But is it cor­rect?

It seems to me that if you’re in the habit of work­ing with things on lin­ear scales, that’s go­ing to be a hin­drance when you try to trans­pose mu­sic. Your brain latches onto the notes marked on the score and au­to­mat­i­cally con­structs an in­ter­nal rep­re­sen­ta­tion that is wrong. Like­wise, if you’re in the habit of look­ing for con­sis­tent in­ter­pre­ta­tions of data and com­press­ing what you ob­serve, your mind will keep try­ing to re­duce the two clef no­ta­tions down to one.

The sys­tem of sharps and flats is effi­cient in some ways; you just have to re­mem­ber the or­der they always oc­cur in, plus one num­ber per scale (the num­ber of sharps and flats), to con­struct that scale. You or­ga­nize the mu­sic into con­cepts like “scale” and “chord”, and map those into new keys. It’s great if you’re play­ing scales and sim­ple chords, and if your mu­sic sticks to a few ba­sic keys plus their minors. But it sucks when you move be­yond that.

The no­ta­tions de­vel­oped for mu­sic work best if you don’t ag­gres­sively sys­tem­atize data, so that you can in­stead learn an or­ders-of-mag­ni­tude-less-effi­cient mechanism for mem­o­riz­ing note-to-note map­pings for ev­ery note and ev­ery pair of keys [3], and so that your brain doesn’t try to let your left know what your right hand is do­ing.

(A) If you can trans­pose mu­sic on the fly, have you got the note-to-note map­pings mem­o­rized? Can you say with­out think­ing what B flat is when trans­posed from the key of F to the key of C? Of A flat?

(B) Do you think this is plau­si­ble—that a very gen­eral abil­ity or learned skill can make it more difficult to learn some things, ei­ther in this par­tic­u­lar ex­am­ple, or in gen­eral?

(C) If so, are there any nat­u­ral sys­tems (not no­ta­tions de­vised by hu­mans) which are harder to work with for peo­ple with more men­tal tal­ent or train­ing? Idiot sa­vants come to mind.

(D) Is part of the per­ceived gulf be­tween art and sci­ence due to artists de­vel­op­ing no­ta­tions, the­o­ries, and con­ven­tions that make art more difficult for sci­en­tists?


[1] Yes, I know they’re not re­ally equal in most his­tor­i­cal in­to­na­tions, blah blah etc.

[2] Yes, I know you mu­si­ci­ans think that’s easy. That’s be­cause you’re say­ing “scale” and “key of B” and con­struct­ing a new scale in that key, which is a pretty effi­cient rep­re­sen­ta­tion for scales and sim­ple chords, but gets messy for mu­sic go­ing be­yond that.

[3] Or map­ping the pat­tern be­ing played into some scale or chord or other con­struct, trans­lat­ing that into the new key, and recre­at­ing it in that key. That seems un­likely, or to re­quire form­ing con­cepts for most of the 220+495 pos­si­ble 3 and 4-note “chords”, since even with sim­ple church mu­sic mu­si­ci­ans of­ten can’t say what chord is be­ing played. (kom­pon­isto has an ex­pla­na­tion for that, say­ing that what is be­ing played is not chords, but tem­po­ral se­quences mov­ing be­tween chords. But most mu­si­ci­ans don’t think of har­mony that way.)