A substantial part of any musical journey is the quest for understanding. We recognize how beneficial music comprehension will be for us, so we study its inner workings to equip ourselves with what we need to play and create freely. Unfortunately, the desire for clarity can blind musicians to both the necessity of confusion, and the positives to be found in it.
When we learn something new or challenging, we experience the uncomfortable tension of the information not making sense. For many people, this feeling is frustrating. They might mistake their lack of immediate understanding as a sign something is wrong, or think they’re simply not cut out for music. To resolve this tension, some musicians might completely discard the particular concept or topic they’re trying to learn, or they may dismiss the value of the information simply because they’re not experiencing immediate benefits.
But this confusion is actually an essential part of learning. Your brain is stretching to process and comprehend something beyond the current limits of your ability or understanding. This is the “stress” part of Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness’ growth equation—which is stress + rest = growth.
When we avoid things we don’t immediately understand, we’re robbing ourselves of the positive stress necessary for growth. We need to recognize and embrace this as part of the process and learn to work through it so we can come out the other side better than before.
Confusion is not only essential, it’s also exciting. Once you understand the importance of this feeling, you’ll no longer see it as something to be avoided. In fact, you may find yourself excited by the prospect because you know it’s simply a sign there’s something new to learn. As Adam Grant writes in his book Think Again: “Confusion can be a cue that there’s new territory to be explored or a fresh puzzle to be solved.” Building a musical life means we get to focus on diving deeper into, and exploring, the wider world of music. Finding a new piece of the musical puzzle to decipher should be a reason to celebrate rather than to run away.
While we ultimately want a deep and complete understanding of music, uncertainty doesn’t have to be viewed as a negative. Instead, recognize how every moment of present confusion carries within it a seed of future comprehension. It simply requires patience and nurturing to grow. Embrace this part of the process anytime you challenge yourself with something new. Sit with it, work through it, and keep returning until the roots take hold and it starts to make sense.