Creative Freedom Using Self-Imposed Limitation
I would like to explore the topic of the power of setting a set of limitations at the beginning of creating a work of art. I’ll be relating this to songwriting and composing music but it is relevant to just about any creative endeavor.
This idea has been around for a very long time. The following are some quotes from the composer Igor Stravinsky in his Poetics of Music published in 1947.
“The creator’s function is to sift the elements he receives from [the muse] for human activity must impose limits upon itself. The more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free.” – Igor Stravinsky
“My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each one of my undertakings.” – Igor Stravinsky
I read this for the first time while at NTSU studying music composition. It was a huge eye opener for me. I was studying composing music in a contemporary style with all the different techniques of 12 tone music, atonality, sound mass composition, abstract this, and abstract that. The crippling problem is in atonal music every note you write can be followed by any other note. Yikes!!!!
As songwriters writing in one of several popular music styles we at least have the restriction of tonal harmony. But still the options are crazy and sometimes just make us lock up. How many of us have sat down with that blank piece of paper (or blank screen on a DAW) and thought “OK now what?”. I will admit that I have experienced more than once the amazing situation where the ideas are just flowing and I seem to be just dictating. I can’t write it down fast enough.
But for the rest of the time …..
What I propose is that we take Stravinsky’s idea and apply it to songwriting and producing. There is something very powerful about setting some limits before you start out. It takes the limitless dizzying array of possibilities off the table and reduces it to something manageable. I have followed Joe Gilder for a couple of years now. He runs Home Studio Corner (a great site and resource for amazing content on mixing and all aspects of creating music BTW). He setup a challenge to write a song in 30 minutes. And he even posted an uncut video of himself sitting down and doing just that. He finished it in 26 minutes. And it is a killer song. Look up his song Sing on Spotify and see for yourself.
Some ways you can create limits is to just limit yourself on time. What that does is stop the obsessive freaking out about the tiny bits and just getting a flow going because … well …. you’ve got 20 minutes left. I’m not advocating that you always work that way but it does build skills. And will quickly highlight how much time is wasted on stuff that really doesn’t matter.
Another way is to say something like, “I’m going to write a song for guitar vocal only.” That takes all the thoughts of production, keys, background vocals, drums, etc… out of the picture.
Some ways to set limits as a songwriting exercise:
Limit writing time
Length of song
Melodic range (could change between verse and chorus)
Number of lines in a stanza (3, 4, or 6 for example)
The whole idea of setting limits is that those limits let (no demand) that your imagination go into overdrive using a smaller set of possibilities. This frees you to be more creative because you don’t get stuck.
I hope this article has got you thinking of ways to set limits and thus free you to create your next killer song. Leave your ideas in the comments below. I’d love to hear what your come up with.
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As always, let’s go out there and make some music!