Training Yourself to Forget


David Byrne in True Stories

“I really enjoy forgetting. When I first come to a place, I notice all the little details. I notice the way the sky looks. The color of white paper. The way people walk. Doorknobs. Everything. Then I get used to the place and I don’t notice those things anymore. So only by forgetting can I see the place again as it really is.” – David Byrne as Narrator in True Stories

True Stories, the movie quoted above, was released in 1986. It was during the peak of The Talking Heads’ popularity, and Warner Brothers decided to let Byrne make a movie. It ended up as a critically-acclaimed flop, making less than $2.5 million in the box office. As a Talking Heads fan, I had to see it. The movie is as bizarre and disjointed as you may expect, but it’s thoughtful and sweet too. Also, the endlessly likable John Goodman is in it. So yeah, give it a watch.

Anyway, the quote I opened with about forgetting has ironically been burned into my memory ever since seeing the movie. Initially, I had applied to my creative endeavors: a large portion of being an audio engineer is being able to listen attentively but dispassionately. The engineer needs to forget that this is a song, or a beloved musician, or an instrument they dislike and just hear it for what it is. At times, an audio engineer needs to listen to a mix and not hear a song, but hear a series of puzzle pieces. If an engineer allows themselves to get swept up in the emotions of the music, then they aren’t able to objectively identify problems in the mix. Of course, an engineer that only listens attentively and dispassionately may make a technically superb mix, but it could be completely devoid of emotion. Whoops. Now, the reason I advocate focusing on forgetting is not because I prefer sterile mixes, but it’s because if I don’t focus on forgetting, I never get past the emotional components of music, and I can’t mix well.

But now I see relevance in this quote beyond my creative endeavors. There’s a benefit to forgetting when doing research, too. I don’t mean “forget to email your IRB paperwork to your adviser” kind of forgetting, but instead allowing yourself to reanalyze a situation/idea/problem for the first time again. By setting aside everything you think you know, or everything you thought you saw/heard/read, you just might find a crucial detail that was previously glossed over.

Funnily enough, I find that some of the same techniques I use to forget what I (think I) know also help me as an audio engineer and musician can also help me as a researcher. They just might work for you too.

  • Always listen in different environments. Listen in the studio. Listen in the car. Listen on headphones. These environmental changes will shine a light into different corners of the mix. Sometimes a high hat will sound great in the studio, but will be The High Hat That Ate New York! in headphones.
  • Don’t get caught up in your perceived value of the playback. My studio monitors are subjectively and objectively a superior playback system to my car, especially in terms of stereo separation (c’mon, Kia!) so it’s easy to assume that there’s no reason to try out other playback systems. But that’s not right. Those imperfections in the car stereo can turn my argument for how the mix should sound on its side and force me to reevaluate my choices. Good advice can come from anywhere.
  • Love what you do, but sometimes put yourself in taxi-cab mode. Taxi-cab mode is a concept I learned from one of my mentors while pursuing my undergrad. His angle was this: Some days you get your “A” rate, other days you earn your “C” rate. In other words, you don’t always get to do what you love. So just imagine yourself as a cab driver. Are you having fun? No, but the meter is running and you’re getting paid. We’ve all been there, but I’ve also found value in putting myself in taxi-cab mode. When I set aside my enjoyment of the work, even for a few moments, I have clearer vision.
  • Put it on the shelf for a week. I’ve definitely gotten stuck in a mix before where I know where I want to go, but I can’t figure out how to get there. Nothing is working. I’m learning to stop myself sooner, before I get frustrated, and walking away for a week or so. Then, problems that seemed insurmountable are suddenly clearly solved.
  • Fear ear fatigue. Don’t work too many hours at a time – your ears get tired and you make bad choices.
  • Use lateral thinking. Sometimes when I feel like I’m in a rut and I need a fresh perspective, I turn to some lateral thinking exercises. Lateral thinking embraces that while the shortest distance between two points may be a straight line (let’s keep it Euclidean, folks); it isn’t necessarily the best path. By purposefully going off course, you might be able to circumvent the problem entirely. From wikipedia:

    Critical thinking is primarily concerned with judging the true value of statements and seeking errors. Lateral thinking is more concerned with the “movement value” of statements and ideas. A person uses lateral thinking to move from one known idea to creating new ideas. Edward de Bono defines four types of thinking tools:

    1. idea-generating tools intended to break current thinking patterns—routine patterns, the status quo
    2. focus tools intended to broaden where to search for new ideas
    3. harvest tools intended to ensure more value is received from idea generating output
    4. treatment tools that promote consideration of real-world constraints, resources, and support

So there you have it. Those are some of my tools that I use to forget myself and what I think I know so that I can approach a problem/situation/challenge with a fresh perspective. Hopefully they can be helpful to you too.

As a parting thought, here’s a song about remembering too much. The protagonist is haunted by what he’s seen – or are they hallucinations? This is the 2008 ‘remix’ of Bowie’s 1987 single “Time Will Crawl.” Large portions of the instruments have been rerecorded for this version to showcase the song. The original arrangement was… uninspired, but still a strong song lived on underneath it. Maybe, in time, people will forget the 1987 version all together.