Am I Biased?

There is no slow way to answer this question as it is very simple; I am biased. Everyone is biased. However, the reasons and circumstances that bias us are worth investigating further. I cannot pretend to have a keen inside on the human psyche, but I do tend to analyse and think about what motivates and influences us to behave the way we behave and do what we do. I have therefore opened up a greater depth to a simple question; what biases us? We should all agree that we are biased; subconsciously, consciously even actively! If you want to disagree then please forward all of your ideas to my toaster. Actually, I am kidding; email me. I want to hear other viewpoints, but I will run it by my toaster for a second opinion.

A very obvious modifier to our minds is how we are brought up, what we are exposed to from an early age and how our peers regard our decisions and actions. There are some things, as with every decision, that needs to be kept in check. By which I mean you should analyse what you are thinking and try to understand why you have that opinion or thought, then see if you are willingly thinking this because it is of your own volition or is it through a conditioned response. Finally evaluate that condition; is the condition personally valid; does the condition make a form of sense to you, or is it born out of a modified behavior? To elucidate upon my points, and intending to further clarify my meaning I will pose a few scenarios.

Growing up, playing an instrument was not cool; especially playing a brass instrument that smelled like moldy floor-boards. Some would say that growing up and playing the trumpet is a contradiction of terms… I digest. For quite some time I gingerly brought my trumpet into primary school and disowned it in the instrument store before my lessons. In the lesson it felt like I was at home, there were other “outcasts” playing, and while I had no great desire to play it felt like I was safe from mockery. Finally I thought the instrument was so uncool that I wanted to quit in year 6, I was probably 11. What stopped me quitting was my mother’s intervention. I don’t remember specifically, but the impression of that memory is that I was not allowed even the option of quitting or moving onto trombone (which at the time I thought was cooler because one of the “cooler” kids was playing one… WOW dodged a bullet there!) Thanks mom! A similar situation presented itself in high school, however, I started playing the guitar which was “cool” and then started to see musicians being appreciated for what they were. In my final year of high school I started having the guts to play the horn, and playing what I wanted to; jazz. To analyse this; my decisions and fears were from peer groups and at this stage it is something that the teacher could have addressed (by encouraging me and showing that the instrument was in fact a great choice!) however this was not the case. Now, and maybe for the best, and as a result of general berating and put-dowenery from players who “could have been” or from those with such low self-esteem that they had to put others down, I have a somewhat defiant attitude. It is perhaps a self-protecting mechanism, but it is simple; I know my flaws, but I work hard and so I will listen to your criticism, but if it flags the BS detector I will pass it along to my toaster. There are teachers and players that you want criticism from and they offer this criticism genuinely, but there are also those that do so to boost their own ego. That is where the line gets drawn. At what stage does music require or benefit from attitude problems?

Another example: listening to classical music was definitely not “cool”, however, it was always played at home; so again due to my nature as a child I did not listen to much classical music around schools, however, I was exposed to it and now it is one of my favorite forms of music to listen to. Granted that using such wide terms of genre includes a lot of music that I would very much prefer not to listen to, but on the whole the music within has a lot of thought and intelligence behind it. It has a lot of depth and it does require an invested listening to appreciate fully, as with all “quality” music (for the sake of a general discussion-avoiding term).  One person I am exceptionally proud of is my young brother, Andy, who almost exclusively listens to classical music as this is the music he loves. Today it is no cooler for 12 year olds to listen to that music as it was for me, 11 years ago!

The argument for the validity of certain music types is one to look at another time and for now we can agree that certain types of music are more complex than others. Some appeal to us on different levels and we all listen to music for a variety of reasons. What I try to hear in music is sincerity and intention behind what is played, which is why it is very hard for me to appreciate the huge quantities of mass produced, money grabbing, soul-less pop music (which too has a place)!

So many encounters can shape us which leave every one of us biased and I could continue to list more examples of events which have shaped me as a musician, but I think that I have conveyed my point. Being biased is not necessarily a bad thing as it is part of who we are, but we must question everything (internally and externally).

Through study and listening we can teach ourselves discernment, vocabulary and much more; this, as with the topic of validity, is for another time. For now I would like to outline the issue of how we strongly subconsciously guide and bias our minds through listening. It is very much the case of what you put in is directly related to what you get out, in some form or other. In this respect it is important that we positively bias our mind. The idea of positive bias seems a little contradictory to some of my other writing, as it is very much arguable that everything is equal, and that as a sound (the fundamental element of our music) everything has no more meaning than anything else. It is obviously not the case; this model exists hypothetically, and mainly to arouse debate much like the infinite monkeys, typewriters and time scenario… I will gladly accept that we are rational and will agree that there are certain precepts and constructs within music which can be learned and improved upon, in much the same way these issues can be poorly taught and learned.

It is now the time to see the role of respected peers, lecturers, teachers, family members, band members, gigging buddies etc… Those people with whom you place respect, you do so hopefully based upon musical or personal merit rather than the Neolithic playground social model in which respect often goes to someone who is considered “cool” or even to the school bully. If we have respected people in our lives, people whose opinions and thoughts matter, we are likely to adopt or at the least, appreciate their opinions on music in this instance. This is a great opportunity to learn, and to guide your listening. Why are your peers listening to a certain composer or musician? Why are more than one of your friends doing so? Start to question, and to listen. Without meaning to stray into another topic, a learned bias in this example is a good thing, however, it must always be held to your own standards and questions; in order for this particular bias to mean anything to you, you must make its meaning personal to you, otherwise you are following the leader.

I have just realized how I have used the phrase “learned bias”. To clarify; this is how I would describe any form of modification to your behavior and thinking which is either consciously or subconsciously learned. It does not mean a study and mental implication of this precept as you would an essay; this would be rather difficult, as you would probably forget, unlike the subconscious which is powerful in its capacity for memory and thought processing.

As a biased writer, who sometimes struggles to find the correct words to convey his thoughts, I enjoy these new opportunities to learn, and to question why things are as they are. I enjoy analyzing music; how and why it makes me feel the way it makes me feel but importantly I enjoy playing music. I would like to stress how the most important concept in this article is how we can believe so strongly in something, but not understand why and it is at this stage where you realize that you are acting on a culmination and combination of many other people’s thoughts subconsciously combined in your own mind; this is why the power of self-interrogation is paramount to arriving at personal conclusions. Without this we easily run the risk of thoughtless-opinion which is dangerous, especially when confronted.


About Michael Barkley

Trumpet player/tutor, luthier, jazz enthusiast, coffee addict.
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