Why Music is like Tekken!

 April 25, 2020

By  alswainger


When I’m not making music one of the things I like to do is play video games. I recently became slightly obsessed with playing Tekken. For those of you that don’t know what that is :

Players choose a character to engage in hand-to-hand combat with an opponent. Tekken dedicates a button to each limb of the character (4 buttons total) with 8 possible movement directions. These are then combined in different combinations for different effects. Although the underlying principles are the same for all characters, each one has its own specific variations on what these button combinations will produce – which encourages you to specialise to achieve maximum success. Not that different to playing an instrument really…!

Essentially it’s a glorified form of ‘rock, paper, scissors’…
…although in this version it’s like one player has ‘rock, paper, scissors, dinosaur, giraffe, lamp post’ and another has ‘rock, paper, scissors, skeleton, jelly, goat’ etc

(why music making is more like ‘rock, paper, scisscors’ than you’d think is an article for another day…)

The more I played this game the more I spotted parallels with music making; with improvised music making in particular. This has been heightened for me by the current ability to play online against other ‘real people’ rather than the traditional ‘artificial intelligence’ of the computer.

Depending on how you play the game it can either be about asserting dominance through digital violence or an elegant exercise in collaborative creativity. My attraction is generally towards creativity but it’s not always my choice (and sometimes I just want to let off some steam too)! Both particpants have to agree to collaborate, if one plays to wreak havok then it’s unavoidable.

Collected over a period of time, here are my thoughts and observations. I’ll leave it to you to make the leap into how these might relate to the music you make (or any other area of your life).

Winning vs Creativity

Is winning more important than creativity or interest?

  • Some players provide an elegant back and forth conversation. Others feel like a problem to be solved.
  • The best scenarios are those where you are afforded the patience to experiment – which minimises the importance of winning or losing.
  • We need to let go of the necessity to win in order to truly develop. Losing is of no importance if we are striving for greater creative freedom.
  • Being confident that you have a wide variety of possible approaches at your disposal builds a greater capacity for patience.
  • Pausing between moves leads to curiosity.
  • A variety of approaches maintain interest and help build respect.
  • The patterns of others force you to adopt reciprocal patterns that match. You can be robbed of creativity because varying the patterns beyond a specific narrow response may not work if another player refuses (or is unaware how) to be creative in their approach.
  • It can be hard not to fall into ‘winning’ patterns once you discover them.
  • The same winning move used over and over again quickly becomes tedious.
  • An unimaginative player may win again and again through discovering the weakness of their opponent but that doesn’t necessarily make them interesting or informed. They may well come unstuck if you shift the emphasis into less familiar territory.

Power and Dominance

  • If we both bust out our hardest hitting chops all the time there is little room for subtlety.
  • A succession of moves delivered at speed can lead to stock responses as there is no time for thought.
  • While lengthy combinations of moves can demonstrate dominance and a command of linear vocabulary they also tend to rule out interaction from the other player. They deny the possibility that your counterpart has something valid to contribute by removing the opportunity.
  • It’s hard to be imaginative or elegant if a pattern forms that enforces the idea that you will be crushed in your explorations.
  • Knowing the stats/ranking/reputation of the other player colours how difficult we perceive the encounter is going to be. If we think it’s going to be difficult because they are high powered, it probably will be as we tense up to deal with the perceived level of difficulty. If we think it’s going to be easy it often is for the same reasons (or we get a nasty surprise)!
  • Our fortunes can easily change if our perception of the difficulty level alters significantly during the course of the encounter for whatever reason.
  • If it becomes apparent that a player has devoted all of their resources to ‘Power’ then you know that they are more interested in winning the game than in playing it.
  • If something goes wrong, being given no time to recover quickly leads to frustration and tension.

Tension vs Relaxation

  • Unexpectedly poor performance, a high level of perceived difficulty, tiredness or lack of physical comfort all tend to lead to tension.

The result of physical tension is generally apparent through :

  • Pressing buttons harder and gripping muscles unnecessarily, which is entirely counter-productive. Unfortunately the increased effort is often habitual and we intuitively feel that the more effort we put in the better we must be doing something. ‘No pain, no gain’ – but this really isn’t true in most cases.
  • Just because we can become conscious of our tension it doesn’t automatically mean that we can choose not to do it.

An unexpectedly good performance, a low level of perceived difficulty, being well rested or physically comfortable can lead to a calm and relaxed outlook.

  • In this instance we feel happier, more positive and appear to have more time to react and think. This can in itself provide a positive feedback loop for enhanced performance.

We don’t exist in a bubble though and our interactions with others can easily push us one way or the other without a high level of experience, awareness and control to compensate.


  • From the perspective of the character I specialise in I have a special affinity with other players of the same character. This can reveal new techniques that wouldn’t necessarily have occurred to me.
  • While I can learn a certain amount about the capabilities of other characters from interaction and observation I need to study the character firsthand to gain true understanding.
  • The combination of different players with different characters provides vastly more variety than simply one player with one character can offer.

Some general conclusions :

  • As we acclimatise to a situation we unconsciously form habits to cope.
  • Not every situation benefits from the same habits.
  • We need to know what our habits are before we can make a choice.
  • We need a variety of experiences to grow and explore the value of different potential habits.


​Al has performed, recorded and taught all over the country and internationally for more than 25 years.

Highlights include sessions, tours and workshops with :

Peter King, Grice, Paul Jones, P.P. Arnold, Scott Hamilton, Siobhan McCrudden, Gary Bamford, Gilad Atzmon, Mike Outram, Alan Barnes, Ant Law and many more as well as h​is own projects :

Pointless Beauty, Biophosmos, Snow Giants and Mahatmosphere.

As an educator he has taught for schools, colleges and privately for more than 25 years and has a BA (Hons) / PGCE in Music.

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