Qualitative vs. Quantitative Thinking

Originally posted 4/2/13

There are two ways we approach listening to music, and it affects how we think about practicing.  Consider the illustration below.

(Picture borrowed from this website–I don’t claim ownership of it)

On one side, you have a qualitative view of something.  It deals with abstract qualities of something: impressions, feelings, and descriptions.  The other side is concerned with a quantitative view, which measures specific and concrete data.

In regard to music, one can attribute a qualitative approach to the more artistic concerns: sound, dynamics, feel, ‘vibe’…all of those things that give us an emotional response.  Of course, quantitative thinking has to do with the technical aspects of music: tempo, rhythm, intonation, rhythmic accuracy…those which can be measured in an absolute sense.

As a drummer, one obvious case of this dichotomy is in regard to playing time.  There’s time, and then there’s feel.  I’ve always felt that the two are different, yet very closely linked, and the big difference is that they fall neatly into the quantitative/qualitative scale.  Time (quantitative) can be measured in terms of accuracy.  We can easily find out if it rushes or drags, or if the subdivisions are played solidly.  Feel (qualitative) has everything to do with one’s emotional response to the time being played: Does it propel the music and give it energy?  Does it make you want to dance, or does it sound stiff?  Does it fit with the song?  Accurate time alone, as we know, does not make for a great feel, yet to provide a great feel, the time does need to be steady and solid.

Oftentimes in a lesson I will have a student play through an exercise, solo or musical piece, and after they finish ask them how they felt about it.  What’s interesting to me is the answer I always get is something like, “Well, I messed up the fifth bar of the second line, rushed the ending, shortened the rest in bar 27”, etc.  In other words, their evaluation to their performance is always entirely quantitative.  All fine and dandy, I reply, but what about musical aspects?  Any thoughts on phrasing?  Dynamics?  Melody?  They get bogged down by technical concerns to the degree that the musical have been completely ignored.  Of course, one must first master the technical details (quantitative) in order to focus on the musical elements (qualitative).  What I see too often, however, is a failure on the students’ part to shift their focus to the musical aspects once they’ve achieved technical control on the exercise.


Understanding how the quantitative and qualitative characteristics of our playing work together can greatly enhance ones musical development.  A good place to start is with listening to music.

1.  When you listen to a new piece of music for the first time, listen once (or maybe a few times) through and notice the emotional response you get from it.  Usually the first couple listens of anything new to the listener are done at the “macro” level, so really be aware of the general qualities of the song and how they affect you on a base level.  You can even write your impressions down as an exercise.

2. Then, go back and listen for quantitative aspects: tempo, key, repeating rhythms, instrumentation, lyrics (if applicable), form, etc. so that you have a good understanding of the nuts and bolts of the song.

3.  Then, go back and listen again, once again shifting your listening focus back to the qualitative.  Perhaps this time you may be able to link the two a bit more. “Hmmm….The bass player comes in on the instrument’s upper register (quantitative), creating a ‘suspended’ feel (qualitative) at the top.  The drummer loosens the hi hats slightly on the 2nd verse (quantitative), which opens the song up a bit more and adds some lift (qualitative).”

The same can be done with ones own practicing.  Here’s yet another example of the value of recording your personal practice.  Listening to yourself play a musical piece, or even a technical exercise, and evaluating it (as above) on quantitative and qualitative levels can really open your ears.  You’ll discover a whole new way of listening to yourself when you play.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: