Originality (When And How)
by Tom Hess
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The very fact that you have begun to read this article indicates that you probably think originality is important. But is being original a worthy goal to have? I think most people would answer yes (in theory at least). My answer would certainly not be yes or no, but rather maybe. I say maybe, because it always depends on the situation.
Consider this: In classical music, styles of playing and composition changed very slowly. Mozart, Haydn and J.S. Bach did not care about originality. I know that for those of you who have not studied music history in depth, that may sound strange, but it is the truth. They were not great because they were original, they were simply superior composers. To be great (or even the best) at what you do often has little to do with originality. If being innovative was the key to success then no two great musicians would sound anything alike. We all know this is not true.
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J.S. Bach only cared about writing the best crafted music for God. Craftsmanship (musical skill) and expression of his love, respect, etc. for God was all that he cared about really. He didn't need to be innovative in order to reach his musical goals because the music of his time could fulfill that. There was no need to innovate to reach his goals. Many of Bach's contemporaries were far more original than he was, but it is Bach that is the master we remember and is taught in every classical music university program in the world.
Mozart and Haydn (who lived after Bach) only cared about making money and serving their patrons. They were basically servants who later made bigger names for themselves. These composers wanted to make money, they wanted to fill concert halls and please the patrons who employed them. That was their goal and being original was not important to achieving that goal, in fact, too much innovation would have hurt their careers in those days.
Originality didn’t really become a major factor in music until Beethoven (about 50 years after Bach's death). By the time Beethoven began composing, he was already a famous pianist and financially secure. He did not need to compose the standard music of the day to feed himself. Especially later in his life, he could do whatever he wanted musically. His main goal was to express himself, not to make money (since he already had enough money). But he found himself in a situation where composing music in the conventional way just couldn't express his thoughts and feelings. That's when it became critical to innovate and become original. Beethoven's originality was needed to serve his goal of self expression. He didn't seek innovation just to be different, it was a necessity.
When I asked you the question, "Is being original a worthy goal to have?" I said maybe. I hope now you are beginning to see when (in my opinion at least) it is important and when it is not. Sometimes the roles of innovation and originality are critical, other times it is not needed at all.
There are plenty of guitar players who go to great lengths to be different, just to be different. Many times the result is not very successful, why? Because originality, in and of itself, has little or no real and lasting value because it's just a novelty or a gimmick.
Originality as a part of the whole big picture, where everything else is balanced and in place, can be a wonderful and valuable thing indeed. When it has a definite purpose to express something that cannot be done by conventional means it is special, and those types of innovations are far more effective, powerful and beautiful.
My advice to my students has always has been this: Never avoid doing something ordinary or common out of fear that your idea won't be original. Because if you do, your musical expression and creativity will suffer for it. You can use everything, new or old, don't restrict your options. Seek not to be the same as others. Seek not to be different than others. Be yourself and express that, whether that calls for innovation or ordinary ideas.
Now that I have expressed my perspective on the role of originality, let’s look at some ways in which you can start to achieve some originality in your playing, songwriting/composing, improvising, etc. so that you will have it, if and when you need it.
Listen and study other guitarists whom you like and respect. Listen to non-guitar music as well. Analyze what they are doing, how they are doing it and how you might use the knowledge in your own way. If you are not sure how to do this effectively, find a good teacher to help you. Check out my free guide on How To Find a Guitar Teacher.
Listen to other styles of music besides what you usually listen to. There you will find new techniques and new ways of applying old techniques. I listened to some really great singers to add new ideas to my vibrato and phrasing. I looked to the 19th century Romantic era composers (mainly Chopin) for harmony and chord progressions, modulations that are not easily found in modern music of today. Mike Walsh (the other guitarist in HESS) looked to Eastern music for his exoticism. He also studied all the major woodwind and brass instruments in college, which is where his original sounding legato phrasing comes, in part, from.
If you are seeking truly original ideas, look outside music. There exists an infinite wealth of inspiring ideas in other forms of art and literature, science, religions, instincts, cultures but most importantly - your own emotions, thoughts, desires, scars, etc.
While I was a composition student at Roosevelt University in Chicago, I took a class called Great Ideas. This was basically a study of great literary works. One of the books I read was Goethe's "The Sorrows of Young Werther". The literary form (structure) was quite different from the other books I have read. Without going into an in-depth analysis of the book, I'll just tell you here that the bulk of the story is told through a series of letters. I thought about how well this worked in expressing the story from this unique perspective. I thought about how this concept may work in music. I found several other ideas in this book, and other books, that could be used in other forms of art (such as music) with some creative imagination and adaptation. I soon realized that there exists a huge resource of musical ideas in so many non-musical things.
I sincerely hope you will look to both musical and non-musical influences. Keep an open and creative mind to all that you see, read, feel, think, hear and you will find, in your own way, new treasures that exist there.