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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

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