Maybe this is the result of over-rationalizing the seemingly endless stream of typos I’ve made over the years or the occasional factual gaffe, but I’m beginning to realize that mistakes are not only unavoidable, they’re the prime force in shaping history.

Mistakes are how all the languages we currently speak (including music) got the way they are and are probably the only way all of them will ever evolve beyond what we currently speak. E.g. It’s how judgement changed to judgment and is slowly changing back to judgement. It’s also how people woke up to the fact that perfect fifths in equal temperament don’t sound so bad, or, for that matter, how we got equal temperament in the first place.

Upon rare occasions, innovators have been totally honest about this. George Perle evolved a whole new branch of 12-tone tonality out of what began as his admittedly misperceiving part of Schoenberg’s theory. Frederic Rzewski’s Les Moutons des Panurge is a process piece derived from an ensemble’s mistakes and there’s a minimalist piece I’ve been dying to hear for years by a British composer named David Cunningham in which a performer’s mistakes in a repeating sequence generate the next sequence.

I’ve had episodes in my own music where performers’ mistakes have sounded better to me than what I had originally written and I’ve changed the music accordingly. And, sometimes, whether you’ve got writer’s block or listener’s block, the only way to a new path is by blindly going down the wrong one.

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8 thoughts on “Mistakes

  1. david toub

    Frank, I agree that inadvertent errors can be worthwhile. Sometimes when I compose and am playing an idea back, I may hit a wrong note, and like it better. There’s something to be said for stochastic processes and chaos theory. 8-)

  2. ottodafaye

    “A system is only as good as the mistakes you can make with it.”

    You can quote me on that.

    Arthur Jarvinen

  3. Daniel Wolf

    …with his notion that truth is error burnt up:

    Error is created. Truth is eternal. Error, or Creation, will be Burned up, & then, & not till Then, Truth or Eternity will appear. It is Burnt up the Moment Men cease to behold it.

    (from A Vision of the Last Judgement)

    Finding musical virtues in mistakes, malfunctions, and systems used improperly is a central aspect of the hardware hacking and circuit bending community, which appears to be one of the few new music scenes these days in which making discoveries seems to be both routine and valued.

  4. cornicello

    “Artists don’t make errors; for the artist, an error is a portal to invention.”

    I’m paraphrasing, but it’s from James Joyce’s Ulysses, and it’s one of my favorite quotes.

  5. Colin Holter

    If there’s something about a piece that makes it boring, trite, pandering, etc., isn’t that an error? It may not be the violation of a system, but it represents a flaw in the composer’s judgment.

    Obedience with respect to a generative system is by no means a guarantee of a piece’s integrity; obviously, making a “mistake” like using an incorrect row form will have a negligible effect on the piece’s success (except insofar as internal continuities like interval content and phrase contour are altered, which may or may not matter). I would submit, however, that one most certainly can make mistakes in composing – miscalculations of pacing, proportion, etc. – that can cause a piece to crash and burn. I’m speaking from personal experience.

  6. JKG

    How ironic in an age where tradition carries so little value amongst those too “liberated” to concern themselves with it, that erroris somehow even an issue. How would one ever know a “wrong note” in a Boulez piece – because it happened to form a dominant seventh? To assume that contemporary “standards” in composition will set the tone of music to come by virtue of its’ errors is to assume those errors were intentional and meaningful to begin with, which I don’t buy. Even the average, “uneducated” listener knows trash when he hears it. And if one must create one’s meaningfulness in a piece around a willingness to play wrong notes, then what was ever the function of learning the right ones?

  7. mmacauley

    I find that mistakes play an invaluable role in learning. Two examples from recent experience: studying a new language, and learning a new piece (on piano). In each case, there are right answers and wrong answers, right notes (or rhythms) and wrong notes (or rhythms). (There is more than that, of course, but those boundaries are pretty clear: words have limited definitions, and scores have particular notes.)

    In each case, I find that I learn most quickly and most effectively — and I have the most fun in the process — when I free myself to make lots of mistakes. Of course, I try to notice when I make a mistake, and I correct my mistakes sooner or later, especially repeated ones. But translating a sentence or learning a passage very carefully — trying hard to avoid making any mistakes — is missing an opportunity to learn from the mistakes that might otherwise be made.

    Anything that can be defined is defined by what it is not, as much as by what it is. So every mistake one makes is a memorable answer to the question of what the thing is not. The more such wrong answers one has discovered, the more confidently and thoroughly one can know what the thing actually is. Additionally, when learning a passage of music (especially if it’s fast and tricky), the more times I make a mistake and nonetheless manage to keep going, the more confidence I’ll have in my ability to recover from any mistakes, surprises, or distractions that occur during a performance.

    Applying this to composition, I imagine that I would write more and better music, and develop my craft more quickly and effectively, if I composed more freely and with less fear of making compositional mistakes — misjudgments, “bad” pieces, tasteless or weak passages, et cetera. I certainly find this to be true with my writing (prose), which shares many similarities with musical composition. But, though I am intellectually aware of this fact (or hypothesis which I tend to accept), I still have difficulty applying it during the act of composition: I am too much of a perfectionist for my own good.


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