I’m sure you’ve all heard the saying that ‘music is math’. It refers to the fact that, no matter how free-flowing and spontaneous the creative process might have been to create a particular song, if you boil it down, it’s essentially just a precise, formulaic combination of notes.
There are certain rules that each musical piece must follow in order for it to sound good - the beauty of harmony, melody and rhythm can all be explained in mathematical terms. There’s even an AI program that has created an entire, original song in the style of Travis Scott, purely through algorithms and formulas.
It’s scary, right? I don’t know about you, but I like to think of music as being an overwhelmingly expressive, emotional outpouring from an artist. And I struggle to align this image of creativity with the rule-following, impersonal world of maths.
Okay…but what’s this got to do with perfectionism?
Well, I would describe myself as a perfectionist. Whether I’m writing a University essay, playing a round of golf, or laying-in an article, I want to get it exactly right. And that’s not to say I think I’m capable of somehow playing the perfect 18 holes or composing the perfect essay - far from it.
It’s more that, if I’m writing an essay or an article, I’ll write down a first draft quite quickly and just splurge out all the main things I want to say. Then, when I’m editing it, I’m working on the principle that there’s some optimum way to order the paragraphs, that there’s an ideal way that I can phrase something, that there’s a perfectly neat and concise line that I can tag on to tie it all together at the end.
So I’m not really after ‘the perfect essay’ in the sense of this essay being the best essay that’s ever written. I mean ‘perfection’ more in a formulaic, almost mathematical, sense. For each essay I write, I envisage a ‘correct’ version of that essay alongside it. Taking into consideration that topic, the points I want to make, my style of writing, and the length I want the essay to be, in my mind there’s a ‘right’ way for all of these to be configured together.
'And now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good' - John Steinbeck
Looking at what I’ve just written, I realise that it all sounds like a load of nonsense and gobbledegook. But I’m leaving it like that, because it underlines to me that yes, that’s exactly what it is.
Because of course there is no ‘right essay’ or ‘right way' to compose an article, it’s all entirely relative and subjective. But for whatever reason, in my mind there is.
In most activities I undertake, I struggle to keep a lid on this perfectionism. Don’t get me wrong, it’s often a big help in pushing me to be the best I can be.
But equally, it can often feel like I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself to get it all ‘right’ or ‘perfect’. Generally, I think perfectionism seems a lot more prevalent in modern society, and I have this theory that it can largely be put down to technology. The neat algorithms and exactness of computational systems only reinforce the idea that ‘perfection’ is attainable. Technology has given us the power to create seemingly ‘perfect’ things. Each time we navigate our way through the perfectly ordered algorithms on our phones, we might as well be seeing repeated notification alerts blaring ‘Perfection is possible! Perfection is possible!’
And music is no different. As it’s essentially a mathematical equation, it too suggests that yes, perfection isn’t some unattainable fairy-tale, it’s a realistic goal. As I said before, to think of perfection in this way is often beneficial, especially to a modern society that values productivity over all else.
But it can also be really negative, because it forces us to set too high expectations for ourselves, and then feel disappointed when we fall short of those impossible standards. Think of all the mental health damage done by the concept of ‘the perfect body’, as well as the idea of ‘the perfect man’ with all the trappings of toxic masculinity.
What’s the solution?
Well, I’m not sure it’s a solution per se, but I want to highlight the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, which I believe can be really helpful in easing the pressures of perfectionism. Wabi-sabi is an aesthetic technique which embraces imperfection and incompletion. Wabi-sabi pieces of art tend to be asymmetrical, rough and rooted in nature.
Heavily linked to wabi-sabi is another concept that I love - ensõ. This is the Zen practice of drawing a circle in one complete and free-flowing brushstroke, and accepting the result, even if it isn’t neat and joined-up. It again symbolises the natural beauty of imperfection, simplicity, and irregularity.
I have an ensõ print hanging above my bed, and it just reminds me that while perfection can be great and beneficial in many instances, there’s also a lot of beauty to be found in our flaws. If I just step back from all the neat lines, the CGI, and the digital orderliness for a moment, and give attention to this underrated notion of ‘imperfection', then I find that it takes the pressure off a great deal. Nobody’s perfect, and that’s okay.
Returning to music, I know I implied earlier that it’s not helpful - and after this revelation, I’m announcing that we’ll be shutting down Mindful Melody…
I kid, I kid. Despite being essentially mathematic, music is actually very helpful in showing me the beauty of imperfection - just not the music we stream. The wonderful spontaneity and freedom that you see when an artist is performing a live set, where they don’t have a million takes to get the vocals exactly right, is really refreshing.
Yes, it often doesn’t sound quite as good as the studio version. But in many ways there’s something more authentic and natural about hearing someone perform a song live, hearing someone mess up or momentarily stray off-key, because it means we lose the pretence of perfection that we often hear when we listen on Spotify or Apple Music.
Finally, I know my friends will be sick of hearing me drone on about how good Vinyls are. But I genuinely love the fact that they don’t sound the same as listening to an album through headphones. There’s a warm hum in the background that you don’t get when streaming. Also, on one of my Luke Combs Vinyls, there’s a moment in the song ‘This One’s For You’ where it skips a couple of seconds. At first, I was a little frustrated that it didn’t sound exactly how it should.
But after a few listens, I thought of the ensõ and wabi-sabi, and I now use this little glitch as a way of reminding myself again that there is beauty in imperfection. After all, there’s nothing more imperfect than humanity, and think of all the amazing things us humans have achieved over the centuries.
So whatever flaws, mistakes and wrong-turns you might be beating yourself up about, just remember - nobody is perfect. Well, okay, I know what you’re thinking, and I agree - Drake comes pretty close. But apart from that, no, nobody is perfect. So from now on, let’s celebrate our imperfections.