Saturday, February 19, 2005

The Importance of Internalized Knowledge

In my offline life, I'm a musician and composer with a reputation as something of a theory wonk. I also sing with the Chamber Singers at the local college. When I'm there, I get asked things by the theory students in the group. It usually consists of them pointing at a measure and asking, "What do you make of that?" I'm able to look for a second and give them an answer.

Every so often one will follow that by asking, "How do you do that so fast?!"

"I've been doing it so long I don't have to think about it," I say.

This is an example of internalized knowledge. I'm using both knowledge and skills to derive an answer, but I'm not thinking about it. One case was a friend pointing at a chord (A-C-D#-F) and asking why it had a D# in it instead of an Eb (E-Flat). I had read the notes of the chord and determined its quality and function without a conscious thought. This involved both the internalized skill of reading music and the internalized knowledge of what type of chord was involved. (Theory Wonk bonus points: What kind of chord was involved and why would D# be used instead of Eb?)

In the case above, the knowledge was internalized to the point of automaticity. Automaticity is the point where the knowledge or skill may be employed without conscious thought. The automatic level is the one at which most of us employ reading skills or basic facts like 2+2=4. The other level at which knowledge is used is the conscious level, when it does take conscious thought to employ the knowledge or skill.

I could've answered the above question even if I'd had to consciously think about what the chord's quality and function were. I couldn't, however, have answered the question if my mind had still been consumed with the mechanics of reading music. This makes the skill of reading music a basic skill for me as a musician. I need to be automatic with it do more advanced things in music, like composing or playing or being a theory wonk.

I'm going to leave the Basic Skills v. Critical Thinking debate for another post. For now, I'll focus on how that knowledge was internalized.

I learned how to read music by practice. I was taught what a treble clef was, and what the lines and spaces were. At first, I had to think about every pitch I saw. "Second Space = A" Then, since I was learning to play trumpet, "A = 1 and 2." Then, as I practiced, I could look at a note on the second space and just think "A = 1 and 2." Then, I would look and simply say "A" and put my first and second valves down without thinking about it. Finally, I saw the note and played an A without thinking about it.

Then, when I got into high school, I learned how to read the bass clef by playing trombone going through the same process.

Then, I started learning about theory in college. The first thing my theory instructor told us to do was memorize all the major and minor triads. I went home and spent a weekend doing just that. Then he told us to memorize the major and minor key signatures and the primary (I, IV, and V) chords in each key. I put my effort into doing those to the point of instant recall, while many others in the class didn't.

This process continued throughout my theory training, and I ended up being able to answer theory questions very quickly because of it. That's not all that the process has helped me do, though. It also helps me be a more creative composer.

"Wouldn't all that memorization and drilling have killed my creativity?" you ask. It's quite the opposite. I'm so versed in the mechanics of what I'm writing I can think about the emotional and creative aspects of it. In addition, I've found that creativity involves a lot of unconscious effort. It's that feeling of just seeing the right way to do something that is the result of this unconscious effort. The thing about the unconscious mind is that only internalized knowledge is available to it to play with, so the more knowledge memorized or thoroughly learned, the richer the palette. (This interplay between rote learning and creativity is something that really deserves its own post, and it will soon get it.)

All of the above is simply about the internalization of the knowledge and skills involved with music theory and some of what I get out of it.

Now, give some thought to all the internalized skills and knowledge you've used in reading this one post. You'll be surprised at what you come up with.

TOPIC: Education