Mental Simulation: The Feeling Approach

As humans, we are gifted with our own simulation engine: The brain. When your mind imagines something, you receive almost instantaneous feedback about the situation. You might even figure out how to turn your imagination into reality.

Imagine eating an apple. By the time you read this, your brain has already activated the regions responsible for moving your jaw, tasting the sugar on your tongue, and the texture of the meat. (I just made vegetarians a little less likely to eat apples.)

Now I’ll briefly describe an imagination experiment I read in The Personal MBA today. It’s an obvious point, but necessary for context. I don’t know how to avoid plagiarism here, so for reference, it was originally about Antarctica.

Suppose you want to do a safari trip in Africa. You are sitting in one of those safari vehicles you see in pictures. A giraffe is standing off in the distance. Hold the image firmly in your mind.

How will you get there from where you are now? I don’t need to explain. Your brain can figure it out on its own if you give it a few seconds. The longer you hold that idea in your head, the more planning will be taken care of. You might end up considering different possibilities if you do it long enough.

Everyone will think up a different set of details, but we can all imagine getting from here to Africa and back. (To be honest, the book’s Antarctica example might be better, since it lies further outside of people’s realities. A trip to Antarctica also has relatively small amounts of known risk associated with it.)

Trouble arises when you try to imagine something you don’t fully understand. A professional programmer has a complex imagination for all things software. But someone without knowledge of a coding language is stuck with a hazy screen of 0’s and 1’s traveling through their mind.

Similarly, I have no idea how to imagine my way to a full track, because my mental model is incomplete. Even if I hold the final result in mind, my mind tells me next to nothing about how to get there.

Suppose it did though. What would we use as our destination to keep in mind?

The Feeling Approach

I presume many musicians think like this.

Hold a particular feeling in mind. Try to feel it in your body. Is it sadness, jubilance, or a triumphant feeling? Great. Hold onto that state.

I’m not sure if this should be separate, but my intuition tells me it is: How exciting should the track be? Here I refer to a more physiological sensation. Is it going to keep people moving throughout like a tech house track, or do you really wanna make people flail?

From here, the simulation engine works backwards to achieve a feeling and excitement level. I am confident that some producers have an intuitive grasp at how to effect both, using instruments (melody, rhythm, harmony) the way a painter uses color.

Each layer of sound, instrumentation, etc. contributes a little bit to the track. To me, it seems plausible that you could anticipate how a new part would contribute to the overall whole.

A simple example is that suddenly doubling the rhythm of a snare makes “excitement go up.” Another example I use less often is that the high frequency noise from long, open hihats very obviously contributes to the feeling of energy and groove. (Tchami has some good examples.) My last and most obvious example is the kickdrum; we all know how it should feel when it finally hits, and you can clue in to a problem in your mix real fast if it doesn’t feel right.

Does anyone out there work like this?



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