September 30, 2009

Creativity is a Balance of Freedom and Control

About a year ago, I took up playing a middle-eastern instrument called the oud.

One of the characteristic forms of music for the oud is called a taqsim , which is a short improvisation. I’ve always loved improvisational musical styles, and this was part of the draw of the oud for me.

Improvisational music can be a very pure form of spontaneous creativity, and when it is going well, it gives a powerful feeling of freedom and self-expression.

Many people who don’t play an instrument or who play an instrument only by reading sheet music often ask me how one can possibly make up music on the fly, and I always tell them it is easier than it sounds.

A common misconception is that to be creative means that you throw all rules and restraints out the window, pulling great stuff out of thin air, as if by magic. Many people think that creativity is somehow inherently chaotic and random. But a simple example can show that this is false.

Have you ever listened to a small child with no musical training hammer away at a piano? Based on the “creativity is chaos” misconception, this should be the height of creative expression, since the child is following no structures or rules aside from the physical limits of the piano. But most people would agree that the result is not music, but rather irritating noise.

The first thing that many piano methods do with our budding creative genius is to teach the scales. This is because these are the basic structures that underpin western music. To be either a competent listener or a competent player of western-style music begins by internalizing the sound landscape that is defined by the diatonic (or pentatonic) scales and the melodic and harmonic palette they imply.

After learning even one of the scales, our enriched child could hammer away the same as before, but restrict the hammering to the notes of that scale. Because there is some musical structure, most people would judge the result as more musical, and in that sense morecreative.

This is the trick with improvisation: you aren’t really making up something from scratch. All common forms of musical improvisation I’ve ever studied (Indian classical raga , the blues , Middle Eastern maqamat and Jazz , for example) actually have a lot of structure to begin with: there are specific scales, rhythms, sequences and patterns that have to be learned and internalized or else the result won’t sound like music, or at least not the kind of music you are trying to play.

Once the player (or the listener) has internalized all the rules and structure, then freedom from rules comes back into play. If you have too many rules followed too rigidly, the results become boring and predictable and the music loses its vitality. Great improvisers know where their freedom lies and know where and how to break the rules to produce something fresh and unexpected, and it is this quality that can make improvised music so vital and exciting for players and listeners. So-so improvisers sometimes fall flat on their face by going too far away from the basic structure and have to scurry back to it. But even this freedom to fail is part of the process.

What is true for music seems to be true for other domains with complex structure that require creative solutions: software development, management, politics and economics, for example.

In any of these domains, too few rules results in inharmonious chaos, and too many stifles inventive and effective approaches.

Any approach to these problem areas that looks only at adding regulation or only at removing regulation is probably missing the boat.

The real question always is: “How do you plan to balance freedom and control to maximize harmonious creativity?” Any philosophy of these domains that can’t answer this question is probably not worth considering.