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Creativity and Expression
by Tom Hess
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?
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
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:
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- Not having enough physical 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
- 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
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 posses 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. etc. etc. how much conscious brain
power do you actually have left to think about improvising an
expressive guitar solo, 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.
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. Here 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 music CONSTRUCTIVELY (adding materials - 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 (process) to write music.
I found ways to apply this to general musical compositional processes
and form. I'm sure there are more ways to apply the principal
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
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 of
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.
All rights reserved @2004 Tom Hess
Used By Permission
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