Flow: In Music And Beyond
Updated: Nov 9
Flow is a state of deep concentration and absorption in an activity. It is often characterised by a sense of timelessness, effortless effort, and complete involvement in the task at hand.
Flow can happen playing a sport, performing on stage, or working on a creative project that you are completely absorbed in.
In The Musician's Way this relates to the domain of Emotion & the Unstructured. It represents a sense of freedom, of just going with the flow. It has the potential to be chaotic even anarchic but it is from this mental framework that true creativity emerges.
How does Flow relate to music?
For many musicians Flow is a state they very much want to achieve. This is the point at which for the performer the music comes alive. In this state they become one with the music. In many ways they lose themselves within the depths of the music.
To achieve Flow does however require a certain amount of preparation which can often include the processes of mindfulness and meditation. Issues such as suspending judgement and permission for error need to be understood and worked through.
Naturally competency is much sort-after in musical performance but it can also inhibit Flow. It may seem somewhat counter-intuitive but beginners can often enter this state more easily than advanced players. Advanced players have much more to overcome, such as years of self-judgement and difficulties with letting go of strongly-held views and preconceptions. However once they do let go they find the experience enormously freeing. Instead of having to focus so much on being correct, musicians can develop a real playfulness and spontaneity in their performance.
So getting into a state of Flow is in fact available to everyone if they are willing to let down their guard, releasing their inhibitions. This is partly because it can occur almost accidentally even to the complete novice. In music an individual with an 'easy access' instrument (such as a xylphone or metalophone) in a group of improvisers working in a non-judgemental environment has the potential to move into a state of Flow. It is this author's experience that on numerous improvisation workshops beginners along with professionals have been able to not only create beautiful pieces of music but also report that they regularly entered a heightened state akin to Flow. The key therefore to enabling a state of flow is the creation of a safe space where judgement is suspended, where active listening is encouraged and all ideas are accepted and folded into the mix.and appropriately processed
What does this mean in non-musical fields?
That last sentence applies everywhere. It's very obvious that if you want to allow a group to create with musical freedom then the above qualities need to be present. Leaders must focus their best efforts on facilitating these in their team or organisation. Team members will need to understand that their working environment will need to be different.
It may also seem a paradox but highly qualified individuals are not necessarily the most competent at thinking outside of the box. They are often restricted by their own abilities and how they acquired them. That said, musical scientists, engineers and developers are likely to have the edge over those that aren't.
There are groups of people who are tasked with thinking completely outside the square; beyond the known. Here are some examples of the kinds of projects which require this mindset:
Developing new energy sources: We need to develop new and sustainable sources of energy to meet the growing demand for power and to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Some promising areas of research include nuclear fusion, solar power, and wind power.
Curing diseases: There are still many diseases that we do not understand or cannot cure. Some promising areas of research include gene editing, stem cell therapy, and immunotherapy.
Exploring space: We have only just begun to explore the vastness of space. There are still many mysteries to be solved about the universe and our place in it. Some promising areas of research include exoplanet detection, dark matter and dark energy, and the possibility of life beyond Earth.
Creating artificial intelligence: Artificial intelligence (AI) is already having a major impact on our world, and it is only going to become more important in the future. Some promising areas of research include machine learning, natural language processing, and computer vision.
Understanding the human brain: The human brain is the most complex object in the known universe. We still have much to learn about how it works and how to treat disorders of the brain. Some promising areas of research include neuroimaging, brain-computer interfaces, and deep learning.
Working in these domains requires a particular kind of mindset not dissimilar to that of musical Flow. It might appear surprising that many scientists and researchers are often musically competent:
Albert Einstein: Einstein was a gifted violinist and played throughout his life. He once said that "music is the most powerful form of non-verbal expression."
Max Planck: Planck, the founder of quantum theory, was also a talented musician. He played the piano and organ, and he even composed his own music.
Werner Heisenberg: Heisenberg, another Nobel Prize-winning physicist, was also a skilled pianist. He often played with Einstein and Planck, and they would often discuss science and music together.
Edward Teller: Teller, who is known as the "father of the hydrogen bomb," was also a gifted pianist. He began playing the piano at a young age and continued to play throughout his life.
Alexander Borodin: Borodin was a Russian chemist who discovered the aldol reaction, which is still used in the production of many important chemicals. He was also a composer, and his opera Prince Igor is one of the most famous Russian operas.
Carl Sagan: Sagan was a celebrated astronomer and cosmologist who also had a passion for music. He played the piano and guitar, and he even composed his own music for some of his documentaries.
So this suggests that, for projects which require inventive thinking, team leaders would do well to include at least one musician on the team and consider including others who have some kind of musical background. Remember too that musicians with experience in improvisation may have particular qualities which could provide advantages to your team.
Being able to to maintain deep concentration and absorption in an activity is the essence of musical 'flow' and also that of the gifted researcher determined to find new answers to difficult problems.