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The Four Musical States

Updated: Jun 1

How do we musicians, at our very best, work so well together?

And ... given that it's in our very nature as humans to be musical, how might working more musically help us work and play better together?

The Wisdom Of The Collective The Essentials:

The Mastering Chaos: The Musician's Way Model is based on the interaction between two aspects of human behaviour; how well-organised we are as a group, team or organisation, and what we base our decisions on; reason or intuition. Formal - Informal outlines a range from the autocratic to the anarchic. It is also indicative of the presence or otherwise of leadership. At the most controlled end of the spectrum lies totalitarianism, chaos lying at the other end. In the middle lies varying degrees of formality or informality. Reason - Emotion produces for us a range which varies from the strictly rational, evidence-based scientific approach right across to the way we get a 'sense' of something, we might just take a guess at what's happening, and even the mystical. Placing oneself centrally on this spectrum gives us the flexibility to use both our intuition and our rational abilities in equal measure. It needs to be said though that this includes the mental space of believing something is 'right' even when we're wrong. By combining decision-making with levels of group formality or informality it is possible to define four STATES which appear everywhere in musical creativity. This is helpful because whilst we can readily witness these states in music, beyond music, whilst they are still present, they may not be so accessible. Musically they show the broad spread of human interaction and influence. It encompasses both the best and, if taken too far, the worst of us. Making music is what humans do that makes us different from all the other species on this planet. When we make music we aim to invoke the four states:

Structured Passionate Challenging Spontaneous

It is important to be aware that the states are not completely separate and distinct; they have a relationship with each other. Knowledge and experience of each of the states is strengthened by familiarity with the other three. Remaining in one state is therefore usually an unhelpful strategy. Moving flexibly between each as required is far more effective. For example, you might intuitively sense something feels right but you sensibly flip over to check you have the data (in other words towards Reason') to support your position. Although to some this is obvious you might be surprised how few humans actually do this. In addition to having flexibility across the states, it is necessary to be aware of which state might be more appropriate for any given set of circumstances. Examining what might 'trigger' you into a negative state is a good place to begin. Knowing your triggers is helpful but knowing what state to replace it with is essential. 'Triggers' materialise from a pattern of responses you have repeated over time. Any of the four states described in the model could be the most appropriate response. Experience in the four states will tell you which one is best. It is worth finding the time to explore these states whenever you can to see what effect they have on your psyche. One of the safest spaces is in music, both listening to different types and also playing music of different kinds especially ones outside your comfort zone.



In music, the compositional process is the structured space which often results in such things as the printed music; our set of instructions. Ideas will flow often quite loosely at first but they will eventually be pinned down in some way or other. It is where we find form and structure in music. Projecting this out beyond music we find groups or teams following instructions for example car manufacturers, fast-food providers, and astronauts. In this sense the actions they need to take are pre-prescribed, they are following a set of instructions. If the instructions are followed then the product is produced, the food is cooked, the satellite is launched, and the music appears and sounds hopefully exactly as it should be.

Now that ought to be that, however if this was all that was happening, then the car, the beefburger and the symphony could instead be produced or played by robots or artificial intelligence. In a completely rational universe there would be no need for humans. But let's not go there right now!

Irrespective of whether humans were excluded from the manufacturing of the vehicle, the food or the music there would still be humans enjoying driving the car, tasting the burger and listening to Mozart et al. So you might notice that without the inclusion of human factors and therefore some elements of the other states, just following instructions doesn't work as well as it might. The parts can be put together, the ingredients processed and all the notes played. But something would feel awkward. Cars might function but not be enjoyed, the food might be tasteless and the music would be rendered but feel lifeless. These aspects all belong to our human feelings; our ability to experience emotion.

In fact in the domain of music, just playing the notes however accurately just doesn't work. It has to go beyond this state of mere competency. Beyond the domain of music there is a certain sense of something missing from the process being employed which doesn't allow for motivation, challenge and even a little spontaneity. So whilst centralising on following instructions is no bad thing, having an eye on the need for say, improvement opportunities and even change itself can lift the product beyond the ordinary. For those humans taking part in the process when they feel permitted to offer suggestions, when they can put something of themselves into what they're making, renders their involvement more valuable and enjoyable.

It is quite possible to take reason and structure way too far. This produces systems of human experience that are progressively ever more restrictive. This is the territory of the autocratic. Limits are placed on individual expression and there is a strong emphasis on conformity. So whilst the Structured State may be the most appropriate we need to be mindful of the effects of wandering too far away from the centre. There is an inherent risk of dehumanisation.



Feeling energised by a highly motivated leader can be inspirational for everyone involved. Some political party leaders trade heavily on their magnetic personality. Social media influencers are notorious for gathering together thousands if not millions of followers who follow their every whim. In the musical field, great singers and instrumentalists offer us some thrilling experiences. Teams and organisations can benefit from such individuals by their ability to raise the group's performance. In music a well-coordinated group can inspire each other to the point where their performance becomes much greater and far more wonderful than the sum of its parts. The energy of the group is an important element of their collective wisdom. This is also available to the non-musical group. Some teams just 'gell'. In these instances they seem to 'take off'. An inspiring leader can engender this spirit in them providing that leader also has the humility that there are other factors from other parts of the model which need to be in play.

The power of the leader can be taken too far. Organisations can be dominated by their leaders. At its extremes this is the realm of the dictator and the abuser, where power is given over to the leader, and an individual's existence is dependent on the will of and the belief in the leader. Political leaders prey on the emotions of their electorate making it possible for people to behave in ways they wouldn't ordinarily choose to.

So again perhaps in 'Passionate' we should be mindful that towards the extremes lies coercive control and dictatorship.



Other groups have instructions or guidelines but need to be flexible in how they are applied. Teachers and the medical profession are good examples. They can often find themselves in challenging situations which require a creative response. Whilst they have systems and processes in place they may find themselves needing to think outside the box, so-to-speak. In music, Jazz fits into this category. Classical music is formal and structured and falls into the Rational space very easily. Jazz on the other hand places challenges on these structures by for example, 'bending' notes (blues notes), or creating ambivalence by adding notes not normally present in the key. In addition, within the loose structure of jazz, improvisation is encouraged; a move in the direction of 'Spontaneous'.

There is another aspect to the musician's capabilities; that of always being prepared to learn something new. Musicians are curious. They want to know how this piece 'goes', so-to-speak. They will endeavour to conquer their nerves because of a strong motivation to challenge themselves.

Musicians also must have a safe way of challenging the rest of the group when something isn't right. This has to happen one way or another. If it doesn't then it will be obvious to all that something isn't working. It won't sound right.

Sometimes however, outside music, professional concerns run the risk of being seen as too challenging or even non-conformist. In jazz terms, the new riff might initially 'jar' somewhat but it would not be blocked. But there are numerous examples of this happening outside the field of music. The NHS trust involved in the Lucy Letby case and the BBC in the Jimmy Savile debacle are two such examples. But many more stay below the radar. The 'jarring' information shouldn't be blocked or ignored. Doing this just doesn't work.

So challenging can stray into very uncomfortable territory. Whistle-blowers are by definition, challengers or non-conformists. Organisations must have the flexibility to allow concerns to be raised in order to be handled effectively. Organisational safety is therefore paramount in these circumstances. A kind of organisational blindness can result, with the individual not being heard, and possibly experiencing denial by those in authority. Damaging possibilities can then, in extremis, emerge including 'shooting the messenger'.

A move by the organisation into extreme autocratic will likely result in threats to the whistle-blower or worse. On the other hand the organisation might itself shift into extreme chaos where it is itself damaged by not heeding the dangers uncovered by the 'challenges' of the whistle-blower. So to repeat, perhaps when in Challenging we shouldn't wander too far from the centre of the model. Individuals and organisations need to find a way of making 'challenging' useful.



There is within humans a strong desire to be free, perhaps even a little bit wild. This is the territory of being playful even spontaneous (for example creatives, inventors, and in music, group free improvisation). Sometimes organisations need to think the unthinkable. There are times where reason, process and formality don't work. At other times the inspirational leader, despite all the promises he might have made to put things right, doesn't have the answers. All talk and no action. Challenging might not be enough if all you can see is the problem but not have any answers.

Being spontaneous can feel unsafe. In Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs the need for safety is a prime concern. Without it teams and individuals daren't take risks. Great ideas come from this space. Fear kills creativity.

Allowing a completely open mindset can result in a completely new perspective, a totally original solution, or possibly even an advanced new product. If reason and structure are the organisation's only drivers then none of this is possible.

Again stray too far to the extremes of Spontaneity leads to chaos and anarchy. This means that even being Spontanous needs the support of the Rational. They are opposite ends of the spectrum but both need each other. Complete loss of structure is unnerving. People feel unsafe. Lawlessness encroaches in the neighbourhood and then community breaks down. So perhaps in Spontaneous we also shouldn't wander too far from the centre of the model.

One of the most powerful conclusions one can draw from this is that groups, teams and organisations that can incorporate the behaviour of all four states are likely to be more successful, more productive and happier. A tendency to adopt only one or two states leads to inflexibility and eventual organisational demise.

And a final thought. Encapsulating the four states and working with them flexibly draws attention to the fact that it is in areas around the middle where groups are healthiest. Situations that become out of hand, toxic or out of control points to behaviour at the extremes. People move towards these directions when they are anxious or in fear. So an overarching consideration should be for safety and kindness. These values, placed across the whole model will enable groups to maintain their confidence and, even in difficult situations, retain a sense of hope.

Consider therefore a 'Cloak Of Safety' and a 'Barometer of Kindness' for your team.

Surround the organisation with the cloak of safety.

Measure the atmosphere in the group with the barometer of kindness. Is it set 'Fair'?

Want to deepen your understanding? - Take a look at The Mastering Chaos Blogs.

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