Paralysis By Analysis “Godwin’s Law”

In 1990 Mike Godwin famously wrote about Usnet discussion groups, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.” The corollary is that once this comparison is made, the individual who made it automatically looses the argument. It’s become known as “Godwin’s Law.” I propose a similar adage for the expression, “paralysis by analysis.” As an online discussion about brass technique gets longer, the probability that someone will come along and reject a logical or factual argument with the term “paralysis by analysis” approaches 1. When that happens, that individual looses the debate.

I’ve blogged about my problems with this expression before, but it’s worth repeating.

The first issue I take with this expression is that it is almost always used to dismiss someone else’s points without actually addressing any of the logic or facts that were brought up. Someone can provide a well-documented and rational argument about some point of brass technique and rather than pointing out flaws with the argument, a contrarian will reject the entire argument without having to provide any evidence or logical explanation. If they don’t use the expression, “paralysis by analysis” they often say something like, “you’re thinking too much,” or “the body will figure itself out.” It’s intellectually lazy at best, and at its heart it’s bad advice.

noun, plural analyses

1. the separating of any material or abstract entity into its constituent elements (opposed to synthesis).
2. this process as a method of studying the nature of something or of determining its essential features and their relations.
3. a presentation, usually in writing, of the results of this process.

Analysis in musical pedagogy and practice is a good thing. It allows us to learn about the details of playing technique, put music into an historical and theoretical context, and help us to communicate the results of our study to other people. When people discourage analysis they are not just recommending against a valuable tool for teachers and students, they are actively encouraging students to NOT explore, question, and learn.

Do music students often freeze up when trying to play their instrument? Of course, but it’s worth looking deeper (dare I say, analyze) what’s actually happening to musicians when this happens. There are two scenarios. First, and I suspect most common, the musician is trying to multitask and rather than making for an improvement it leads to the musical equivalent of “athlete’s choke.”

Multitasking is really just task switching. It’s not really possible for people to think about more than one, maybe two, things at a time. Instead the focus changes from one thing to another. Because there are so many different physical skills that need to coordinate for playing a musical instrument it’s really impossible to keep them all in mind while playing, so we need to be selective on what we concentrate on while practicing and performing. Analysis should be done prior to picking up the instrument and the particular task to be practiced is selected based on what the player or teacher determines needs correction. Once the work on that particular point of focus is concluded, the musician should move on to another task. At no point is the analysis itself causing the freezing up, it’s the action of trying to analyze while coordinating all the physical tasks, and often trying to make corrections on the fly at the same time.

“Paralysis by multitasking” just doesn’t have the same ring to it, but it’s much more accurate.

The other scenario that happens when a musician struggles with analysis is that they aren’t drawing the correct conclusions from their analysis. This is why we have teachers, who presumably have more experience than the student and understands better what’s going on. Where I have a problem is when music teachers discourage their students to analyze because they want to always do that for their student. Those students are going to need to learn to do their own analysis, and so it’s better for the teacher to instruct the student in what correct playing mechanics are and how to spot check their own technique and make their own corrections. Furthermore, most serious music students end up doing some sort of teaching at some point in their careers, even if it’s just offering advice on the internet. When students consistently hear from their teacher, “paralysis by analysis” they take that mantra too seriously and it becomes an excuse. They use it to justify ignoring or dismissing information that is useful and it becomes a cover for teachers who simply don’t know what’s going on with their students.

“Paralysis by ignorance” doesn’t rhyme either.

So I herby declare that in the comments section in this blog, if you use the expression “paralysis by analysis” to dismiss a logical or specific point of view you don’t agree with you automatically loose the argument.

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