Creativity And Expression - Part 1

by Tom Hess

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"Okay Tom, I am finally starting to feel a little more comfortable with the physical aspect of my playing, but I have a hard time being creative. I can't seem to write songs or improvise at the same level as I can play my guitar. Everything I do sounds stiff, or typical and not very creative or expressive. Am I just not a creative person? Is there anything that I can do about this?"

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That question is a very typical one that I (and probably most people who have ever taught guitar) am very often asked. Before I go into detail to answer it I need to say that in order to completely overcome such a problem will require one to work at it for a long time. And I strongly suggest working with an excellent teacher to help you through this. He/she will save you a lot of time, effort, aggravation, etc. (Refer to my previous article on "Choosing A Teacher".)

Most players have, at some time in their musical development, felt uncreative, uninspired or otherwise not very expressive musically. Fortunately, there are several things that can help one get over this. The problem is in being creative and expressive as a musician not as a human being, it is important to recognize the difference. We are all creative and expressive as people (that's a big part of what makes us human). One's perceived lack of creativity and expressiveness is most likely not due to a lack of creativity or expression at all, but rather a lack of fundamental musical skills. Typically the problem is caused by a combination of factors such as those in the following list:

Music Theory Problems

  • Not knowing your fretboard well enough so that you don't need to think about where the notes are as you are playing, improvising and writing music.
  • Not having memorized all the notes in the key(s) you're working with.
  • Not knowing what notes are in what chords.
  • Not knowing what notes are consonant and what notes are dissonant in any given situation (and more importantly, how to control dissonance in theory!)

Aural Skills (Ear training) Problems

  • Not listening closely enough to recognize consonance and dissonance.
  • Not knowing how to use and control dissonance aurally.
  • Not knowing what notes and chords are going to sound like before you play them!
  • Not being able to aurally (by ear) understand the emotional function of each individual pitch in a scale and a chord.

Guitar Technique Problems

  • Not having enough physical guitar technique developed on your instrument to do the types of things that will allow you to be creative. If you are severely restricted musically by what your hands are able to do (or rather, what your hands are not able to do), it will be physically hard (or impossible) to do certain creative things.
  • Not knowing how or when to control your technique.
  • Thinking too much about what your hands can do instead of what you want them to be able to do in order to execute your creative possibilities.

If you have any of the above problems, work on fixing them because those things, although not really elements of creativity itself, are the basic skills that one must possess to be creative/expressive on an instrument. The human mind is amazing and can do several simultaneous operations, but the more things you ask your mind to do at the same time, the more difficult it becomes to do any of them well. To really be creative and musically expressive, you need as much of your conscious brain energy as possible to be concentrating on being creative/expressive. If you don't really understand what notes you can use in a given situation to produce desirable results, and at the same time your mind has no idea what the notes are going to sound like before you play them, and at the same time, you are struggling with the limitations of what you can physically play, and at the same time, you don't know how to control dissonance, etc., how much conscious brain power do you actually have left to think about improvising an expressive guitar solo, create an original melody, or to write a song with new ideas? I would bet that the majority of those of you reading this have this problem to some extent. I suggest to make it a priority to get these basic skills under your belt as soon as you can.

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Once you have (or if you have) a good amount of control over the basic musicianship skills, you are ready to go deeper into the creative aspects of playing / writing.

I usually find that my most creative musical ideas don't come from thinking about music at all. I look at other forms of art (and nature) to find new ways to see creativity. Once I have an interesting idea or concept in mind, I look to find all the possible ways that I may be able to adapt that into musical form to suit my musical needs. Following is an example of what I am talking about.

A few years ago I began thinking about the similarities and differences in the different processes that are used in separate art forms (painting, music, poetry, stone or marble sculpture, etc.) Of the four I just mentioned, only stone cut and marble cut sculpture starts with something (the raw materials of stone or marble) and then the artist destructively eliminates materials to create the art. Poetry, music and painting generally are created from nothing (no materials from which to take away from) thus the artist creates the art constructively (adding materials such as letters, words, musical pitches, rhythms, brush strokes of wet paint, etc.). I once made this simple analysis of the stone sculpture process, I knew that its importance would be significant and valuable to me eventually. After almost a year of thinking about a way in which I could apply the principle of destructive creation (versus constructive creation), I finally had some brand new ideas (at least they were brand new ideas to me) for a new creative way to write songs. I found ways to apply this to general musical compositional processes and form. I'm sure there are more ways to apply the principle that I have not yet thought of. If I told you my own discoveries it might hinder you from discovering your own and going beyond what I was able to do. I encourage you to think deeply about how you might be able to apply destructive creation into new musical writing processes.

Another example of taking creative processes from other forms came when I was watching a Disney movie on DVD. There was a special features section after the movie on the DVD in which the film makers showed diagrams and charts called story boards. The purpose of these story boards was to communicate more clearly the ideas from the writers and producers of the movie to the artists who were creating the animation for the film. I thought about how this might be applied to my advantage when writing the music for my "Opus 2" CD. Since I had in my mind all of the things I wanted to express in the music, I used this story board technique to better communicate between the right side of my brain and the left side of my brain. I charted out with diagrams, charts, elemental lists, etc. all of my non musical ideas (emotions, thoughts, ideals, experiences, etc.) that I wanted expressed in the music. The plans were much more organized now, I could clearly see what I wanted to be expressed at what moment during the music. This helped to keep me on track musically. I was very pleased with the final result. There many other processes that I used in composing "Opus 2" (and "Opus 1"), but this general principal is one that I think any composer or songwriter can use no matter how advanced or basic one's music writing skills are.

As the previous example illustrates, I typically think about what I want to express before I think about writing the music. That is something that surprisingly not a lot (probably most) songwriters don't really do much (especially in the non classical music world.) I'm not saying that my ways and processes for writing music are better than someone else's way (because I believe all methods are legitimate), I'm just offering here one of my ways of composing which may be a new approach for you.

Creativity And Expression - Part 2

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