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creativity

What I learned from Electroacoustic music

Can you make music out of the sound of a pen squeaking against a whiteboard? What about from the sounds of stones banging together, metal trays being smashed together, or the loud click of someone’s knuckle joints?

You absolutely can -and by trying it you might learn some new ways to think of your own sognwriting.

Electroacoustic/Acousmatic

When I was a student I studied a few different methods of composition – one of which was electroacoustic (sometimes called acousmatic) music or Musique Concrete. This kind of music has a history as long as recording technology, but the French composer Pierre Scheaffer is often credited with starting it in the early 20th Century with his Five Studies of Noise.

Musique Concrete literally means ‘real music’ – music created from real sounds that might otherwise not be considered music. It involves taking source recordings, the chugging of a steam train perhaps, or the sound of birds singing, and manipulating the recordings in various ways to create music.

My tutor in electroacoustic music was a composer named Alan Stones – Here’s a piece by him:-

That’s not songwriting!

No, depending on your definition of songwriting, the pieces above aren’t songs. But by studying this music, and creating some of my own, I learnt some very important lessons about how to shape music.

Finding ideas – Branching variations

Alan taught us one approach to creating music that I found very useful.

1st you would take a sound source, and original recording, something from an effects library – anything interesting.
Then you would use an audio manipulator to make variations. You could reverse it, time stretch or transpose, cut and paste, apply processes or effects. Each time you came up with a new sound, you’d save it, and then move on.

This would give you a bank of new sounds, based on the one original sound source.

You’d then take those new sounds and repeat the process, creating tens, or perhaps hundreds of variations on those variations, branching out until you had a whole tree of different possible sounds, related to each other but still different and interesting.

These sounds would then form the material with which you would create your piece.

Can that be applied to songwriting?

Absolutely it can. The same process can be applied to any musical or lyrical idea. After all, once you have an idea, it’s relatively simple to create variations. With enough experimentation you should be able to find variations that work. For example, if you have a riff or ostinato repeating – does it have to repeat? Why not have different versions?

More importantly, creating lots of small (or large) variations forces you to really explore your material. You’ve voiced the chords one way – but is that the best way? You’ve put the words in that order – but is being literal and clear the right approach?

Gesture and Texture

We’re used to to thinking of music in terms of harmony, melody, accompaniment. Much electroacoustic material simply can’t be though of in those terms – there might be tones, but they aren’t necessarily going to be tuned notes. There might be foreground and background, but accompaniment and melody aren’t the right terms. Instead we can think of gesture and texture.

Gesture is almost analogious to melody – it’s those sounds that are focused, moving, perhaps in the foreground – almost a solo voice that moves through time.

Texture is more likely to be in the background, perhaps more static – a feeling that stays for a time rather than a moving foreground sound.

Can these ideas be applied to songwriting?

Absolutely. Particularly the idea of texture. Rather than thinking of chords, harmony, rhythm, why not create textures and backdrops to your melodies. Think less about notes and more about timbre and feeling. Make liberal use of effects and studio techniques.

Music as sculpture

The biggest lesson I took from having a go at this kind of music was in putting all those seperate sound together into one piece. With harmony, melody, rhythm and all the ‘normal’ musical ideas out of the window, I found that my main concerns were things like pace and shape. It seemed sensible to leave long pauses of silence, or to worry about whether the gestural material joins together properly. Tiny details seemed incredibly important, and much use was made of the volume and panning automation in Logic.

Thinking of gestural or melodic material as having shape is a very useful metaphor – it makes you think of the highs and lows your music goes through and the overall feeling of the piece.

In Conclusion

Learning about electroacoustic music took me out of my comfort zone. It made me really explore some of the things that can be done with technology, and made music seem more than notes and chords – it’s also about timbre and shape and feeling and texture.

Trying out new things is almost a good thing, and I’d urge any songwriter to explore new kinds of music. Making music from squeaky pens, clanking chains and rustling leaves is great fun and can teach you a lot about how music works.

Here’s something I composed and recorded as a student:

Beats and Crazies by Tom Slatter

Creativity, Divergent thinking and Hunting Sky-kraken

Here’s a little story of how I wrote a song about hunting Sky-kraken

Sitting down with my acoustic guitar, I just started playing. I didn’t know what I was going to play except that I wanted to write something new.

Lately my fingers have been finding E lydian rather too easily, so I started with an E major 7 chord and a few twiddlings with the scale – not enough to be called a melody, just a bit of noodling.

I carried on playing, entirely aimlessly…

Alun Vaughun a fantastic solo bass player had recently turned me onto the music of Mike Kineally. His songs use lots of complicated chords, I decided I wanted something harmonically lush – so some 9th chords worked their way into my guitar part. Nothing like Kineally really, but that memory triggered the chords.

A few more moments noodling…

The last big gig I went to was Opeth at the Royal Albert hall – some Opeth-like chords appeared under my fingers – but I remembered Kineally and for some reason that meant I had to play a little melodic run that didn’t sound like Opeth at all.

I had been reading PZ Myers over at science blogs – he likes Cephalopods. This combined with my recent obsession with Steampunk and suddenly the song was about hunting Sky-kraken in an Airship.

Steampunk led to memories of Radiohead’s video for There There, which led to a chorus ripping that off – and now the Kraken was winning because the chorus melody was about the bewitching power of it’s ink and tentacles.

All of this occurred at a far less conscious level than I’m making it appear, and it resulted in this song (which isn’t finished yet, but you get the idea):

The Beast of the Air

Divergent Thinking

Divergent, unrelated solutions to the problem of how to write a song making their way in from the outskirts of my mind, unleashed by the practice of jamming without any structure.

I’ve been writing, reading and thinking about creativity a lot recently. Divergent thinking, the ability to find lots of of unrelated possibilities from different disciplines is very important to creativity. What I was doing when I sat down with no idea other than to play and see what happened was the musical equivalent of the free writing a novelist might do to get the brain working – it’s also similar to brainstorming or mind mapping – letting the brain run and sifting through what turns up.

Divergent thinking has been shown to be a skill that musicians are particularly good at, but I’m aware that I don’t make as much effort at it as I could. Too often I try to structure my composition, rather than making time for exploring possibilities and creating the circumstances in which the mind can find these possibilities.

What can you do to encourage divergent thinking?

  • Mind-map – sit down with pen and paper, write down a central idea then surround it with related ideas…
  • Free write – Just start writing prose and see what turns up.
  • List possiblities – what are all the possible ways of startign a song? What are all the possible chord sequences, or lyrical subjects that you could write about?
  • Just play – sit down with your instrument and start playing with no aim except to see what happens. You never know, you might end up with a song about hunting Sky-Kraken too.

Starry Night – One Way To Be Creative

A few posts ago I wrote about creativity, and decided the definition of creativity I liked best was Ken Russell’s: ‘The process of having original ideas that have value’

I also listed a few of the characteristics of a creative songwriter (Take a look at the post for more detail):

You’re not afraid to fail
You make unexpected connections
You challenge the listener
You have a wide musical pallette
Your style changes
You’re childish

This post is going to look at how you might use your skills of creativity to find inspiration from a given source. It takes inspiration from a teaching exercise I’ll tell you about below, but also from this blog post about creativity and how limitations can help.

Starry Starry Night

The Vincent Van Gogh picture at the top of the post famously provided inspiration for Don McLean’s ‘Vincent’. It was also used by my head of department at work to challenge us to be creative. We were shown the picture and asked to come up with teaching tasks, for any subject, based on the picture.

There are lots of obvious tasks – in music or art you could use the picture for inspiration as McLean did, painting in the same style, or writing a piece inspired by the scene or painter.

Once we’d exhausted the obvious list we were challenged to go further. Ideas we came up with included:

Music – split the piece into horizontal strips and play it like a graphic score.

– You could plot the stars and other points onto a score and use those points for the contour of a melody or rhythm.

Maths – Draw triangles between the stars and use them to teach about triangle theory

Science – Astronomy of course, but also something about colour perception or synesthesia

PE – the shapes could be used to plot an obstacle course

Food Tech – Design and cook the menu that Van Gogh might have eaten while looking out at that scene


Now to Songwriting

How could we apply this exercise to songwriting? As we sat staring at the picture I found myself doing some very clear and simply things: I systematically went through the possible subjects we teach at our school, attempting to find an activity for each of them. I also turned the picture round to see it from different angles, treating it sometimes as abstract shapes, sometimes making use of it’s possible meanings.

To generalise that to music, rather than subjects we might use different elements of the song and ask, how can we get a melody from the picture? A chord sequence? A structure? A lyric? A rhythm? An arrangement?

As well as the musical ideas I’ve already mentioned, here are some more ideas:

You could have a musical idea to represent different parts of the picture. So a regular, structured back beat or riff could represent the buildings, a swirling melody could represent the swirls of colour in the sky and lush unexpected chords could punctuate that melody as the stars do. If I was to compose that I’d probably produce a loop based piece with different layers appearing to represent the different parts of the picture.

Moving left to right the stars follow this sequence – 1 low, 1 high, I low, 2 high, 3 at the same time, 1 high, pause…. high low high. That could easily be turned into a loop or melodic idea that could be developed.

Chords? Rotate the picture 90 degrees clockwise and take just the top portion – there are five patches of colour, the third and fourth of which are a very similar shade of blue. Perhaps each patch of colour is a different chord, darker shades minor and light shades major, with the two similar sections representing the same chord?

Lyrics? Of course there are all sorts of characters who might be looking out at this scene – Van Gogh might be well known but you could always imagine another character and tell their story. You could describe the scene, or get more creative and take inspiration from the names of the things painted: Building, sky, star, blue, tree, hill, church, spire.

The possibilities are endless, and will be coloured by the attitude you have to music. For me, being as far from a visual thinker as one can get, this was a real challenge but a rewarding one. It forced me to think and to find ideas in places I usually wouldn’t look.

How would you use this picture to inspire you?

Creativity for Songwriters

Creativity‘The process of having original ideas that have value’Ken Robinson – TED 2006.

I’ve been thinking lately about creativity. As songwriters we are trying to create new music, to compose something that has never before been heard. What is the best way to do this? Is creativity innate, easy to some, impossible to others?

In the TED lecture linked to above, Ken Robinson argues that education systems around the world are designed to suppress creativity because they were invented to meet the needs of the industrial revolution and so work along manufacturing lines. Identical children are created along linear lines, each the same as the last. Exactly the kind of approach that creativity is not.

What is creativity?

I like Robinson’s definition of creativity – ‘The process of having original ideas that have value’ – but what form does that process take for a succesful songwriter, and how do we judge whether our songs have value?

Probably the second of those is easier to answer. A song is valuable if you find it valuable. Perhaps it makes you feel happy, or relieved. Perhaps it fits a brief you’ve been given, or gets the audience clapping, dancing and singing along. It might express something you couldn’t otherwise say, or perhaps it expresses nothing but in five musical minutes allows you to transcend normal life and loose yourself in music.

Value is subjective. How could it not be? Music that is vital to some is meaningless to others.

There is a danger in the word ‘value’ – that it could be confused with monetary ideas. As Errol over at Elumir.com says, if ‘value’ is defined as a commodity that the masses are willing to pay money for, I don’t think that creative thought needs to have this value.’

Value is whatever you define it as, after all we’re talking about your songs, not someone elses. Whether a new song is creative is therefore in part a subjective thing.

Whether your song is original is less subjective. That chord progression or lyrical idea, that melody or structure might have been used a hundred times, and that is something we can judge, but has it been used in that context? Have these ideas been juxtaposed in exactly this way before?

Often creativity is about showing us a new angle on the familiar, in fact I’d argue creativity often has to build on what has gone before if it is to have value. Twentieth century classical music, for example, saw composers take huge leaps in originality, but some of it’s achievements were so far divorced from what had gone before that they lost all value.

Of course, if I chose a particular example to illustrate that point there would be hundreds of people who would disagree and say ‘no, that piece is creative, it has value to me’.

Consider this, from Jan Phillips at the Huffington Post:

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, says that creativity doesn’t happen in our heads but in the interaction between our imagination and our social context. It’s a matter of experience and response, a matter of relationship to others and a commentary on the significance of our encounters.

Context has a lot to do with whether a piece of music is original. A country musician using a country groove is hardly creative. A reggae band suddenly breaking into a country groove could be the height of creativity, depending on context (Or not. Merely juxtaposing different genres in unexpectedly isn’t necessarily creative. It all depends on how you do it)

The point stands I think, that for original ideas to have value, and therefore be creative, they are going to build on what we know.

Elizabeth King used this great picture to illustrate how we often think of creativity:

And then points out how inaccurate this is and instead quotes opera singer Dan Klein: “Creativity is the ability or process in which someone identifies the rules or traditions of a set paradigm and then goes about interpreting, breaking, or bending them to bring about a new or previously unexplored connection.”

I couldn’t agree more. Creativity depends on rules, context, expectations and how we play with them. Which is good news for us, as it means we needn’t to reinvent the wheel with every single song.

What are the characteristics of a Creative Songwriter?

Some ideas from others:

  • If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you won’t achieve… Most adults are afraid to be wrong. – Ken Robinson

  • Gary Ewer, writing on his Essential Secrets of Songwriting Blog recently, says ‘Unpredictability, weirdness, creativity – these are still the qualities I look for in good music. So I find myself ever turning to songwriters and composers that challenge my imagination and take me on journeys that stimulate my mind.
  • Matt Stevens, looping guitarist extraordinaire, says he consciously worries about being original when composing, and uses specific techniques, for example ‘I focus on using inversions to make it sound more clever than it actually is’.
  • All children are born artists – Pablo Picasso

There are some specifics to take from those quotes –

You’re not afraid to fail – Creating is risky, and to do it well (or at all) you need a safe place where mistakes don’t matter. This part of the process where you fail might happen well before your song is ever heard by others, or might happen there on stage, heard by you and the audience at the same time. Where you take the risk is up to you, but you have to take it? How do you know if an idea is any good until you’ve heard it?

You make unexpected connections – We don’t just need something new – the new idea has to connect to what we know, but in unexpected, suprising, delightful ways. We’ve all heard the soaring chorus, but not in that part of the song, not in this genre. We’ve used to four line melodies, but why not three or five lines? We know the chords in the key of C, but how can you work an Fsharp major chord into there?

You challenge the listener – You have enough respect for your audience that you don’t just give them what they’ve heard a thousand times before – because that’s not songwriting, it’s fast food. The reason so many of us grow out of the teenage pop songs we used to listen to isn’t because there’s anything inherently wrong with them, but because we’ve heard it all before, and top-forty pop rarely gives us something new. It’s the McDonalds burger of music.

You have a wide musical pallete – Matt Stevens knows his chord voicings. He also knows his time signatures and how to make the most out of limited resources (You should hear what he can do with one guitar and a couple of pedals). If as a songwriter you’re not constantly learning new chords, rhythms, lyrical ideas, melodic possibilities, then you’ll never have a wide enough pallette to write something truly creative.

(This is also why younger songwriters, who haven’t heard or learned enough to have a wide enough pallette, can still be creative in a way – Just because someone else has done it before doesn’t mean they didn’t just come up with it)

Your style changes
– the songs you wrote five years ago aren’t the same as the songs you write now, or the songs you’ll write tomorrow. You are never happy to repeat yourself, but instead try to take your songs to new places.

You’re childish
– or rather you retain the qualities that children have – a love of the new, an insatiable curiosity, the courage to try things out.

All of these things can be practiced and learned – creativity is a skill, not an innate ability. We can all learn how to create original ideas that have value.

A question for the comments – What can we do to improve our creativity as songwriters?

Related posts:

  1. 10 Tips for Songwriters