Through the Lens of Music: Engineering Creativity

I thought that creativity was one of those things people were born with, something I didn’t have. Everything cool was either already thought of, or somebody would think of it before me. Is it even possible to think of new things? Everything seems like it’s been thought of before. It’s not just me though, many times I hear people saying “Why didn’t I think of this before?” after something has been invented. Especially now, as creativity is seen as a valuable commodity for certain jobs, many people might feel the pressure to try to become more creative. That’s why there are tons of articles floating around listing “10 things creative people do differently”, etc.

I’ve always seen creativity as something nebulous, something that happens when somebody is staring into space — then click… a new idea is formed!

Can creativity be engineered?

Can it be broken down so that people can build their creativity? After getting my feet wet in the world of musical improv, I’ve grown to see how creativity can in fact be created. My curiosity in musical improv began with this video: it’s a video of Kyle Landry playing the piano, improvising on top of Canon in D – Pachelbel. My first reaction was — WTF? I know how to play that song, but I could never imagine myself playing it like that. No sheet music or anything for the improvised parts. Just like with jazz, I was always awestruck by people that could come up with cool solos off the top of their heads.

My next question was — How can I do that?

I searched YouTube for tutorials, and found that almost all tutorials were based on chords and scales: pentatonic, major, aeolian, blues, etc. I practiced iterating over simple chord progressions: D Major > B Major > G minor. I could play the chords in my left hand, and I was slowly experimenting ways to play the melody in the treble clef. In the beginning I couldn’t think of things to play on my left hand. I could only make one note melodies: go up and down a scale, I even felt frustrated because with over 10+ years of piano experience, I couldn’t do more then walk up and down a scale or play triads. It was also somewhat embarrassing playing what I thought sounded cool in my head out loud, voicing it out to the world. But usually after about 20 minutes of getting into my groove, I would loosen up and get into state of “musical drunkness”. I was more confident in my ability to create rhythms and melodies, but what is interesting is that every phrase I was playing was part of a particular piece of music that I had listened to or played before.

My favorite pieces by Chopin and Liszt were recurring tropes within my improvisations. But after studying chord progressions and learning the technicalities of consonance and dissonance, I began to grasp the freedom I could have within these pieces. I started to play with the structure of a peaceful song like Yiruma’s “River flows in You” to make it more march-y and violent like a waterfall crashing down. What perhaps was more interesting was testing the freedom that I couldn’t have. Trying to mash sounds together that weren’t socially “harmonious.” Something like a G major > C# minor.

Creativity really comes into play here: experimenting to see what you can make by mashing two things together: Listening to what happens when you thread a rubato filled romantic melody with the demanding technicalities of a baroque bass.

Something cool that Kyle Landry does as well, can be seen in this video, is that he has a big variety in his “improvisation arsenal.” He has a background playing classical, romantic, jazz, disney, and video game music. And throughout his improvisations, he can call upon the tropes in those genres of music to convey different things. The cool part is that different sounds resonate with unique emotions for different people. For example, I see a jazzy chromatic progression as kind of rebellious and sassy way to say something. In a way, listening to somebody write music is experiencing their past with them, experiencing the memories they grew to associate with certain sounds.

Everything starts from something before it. Improvisation cannot happen without exposure to other music. Only then you can draw on specific elements from separate genres, songs, phrases, even scaling down to as small as rubato patterns and the sound of 2 notes played together.

So how can you get more creative?

Expose yourself to every form of music. I’ve never been into jazz in the past, but after listening to it more and more, I’m starting to grow a liking towards it. What is most important though, is that you don’t see this exposure to other fields of music as a stepping stone.

It is imperative that you live and experience the time you are spending inside a genre, as forming those resonant, emotional links with the music is what’s going to be added to your “improvisation arsenal.” It’s not just about the breadth of exposure, it’s also important (and fun!) to go in depth into the nuances, finer details, and ornaments from each era: rubato in romantic, chordal structure in pop, swing in jazz, chromatic progressions in jazz and contemporary, etc. An exercise that I find really helps is trying to imagine a song you already know in a different genre. Like in this video. Scott plays Twinkle Twinkle Little Star across different eras in music: waltz, reggae, jazz, rock, and even dubstep.

Taking off the lens
This post was actually a way for me to experiment talking about a concept that’s been on my mind but through a different perspective: music. Like Scott playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in ragtime, thinking about topics in a variety of lenses like this could build our creativity.

Author: Sam Shih

Hi I'm Sam! I'm a recent graduate of Swarthmore College with a BA in both Computer Science and Asian Studies.

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