Creativity in Constraint: Exploiting the Boundaries

Daniel LevitinIf one were to Google “This Is Your Brain On…”(fill in the blank), they would find everything from drugs, to football, to Jane Austen. This Is Your Brain On Music spent over a year on the New York Times bestseller list. Empathetic humans have a basic need and survival tendency to understand ourselves, and our behavior. Music has proven to be somewhat of an outlier and unifier simply due to the capability for a universal method of notation and expression. The expansion and sharing of music leaps from country to country, from people group to the academy and back again like wildfire. In culture, it is often a greatest common factor.

On July 11, 2013, Stanford University’s Center for the Advanced Study of Behavioral Sciences held its second annual Behavioral Science Summit. The daylong, invite-only event examines the state of behavioral science and its role in technology, the arts, business, and society as seen through the lens of creativity and innovation. Over the duration of the summit, fifteen noted speakers gave presentations on the arts, technology, neuroscience, culture, product design and workplace productivity.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) delivered the opening keynote. The recurring theme of the summit proved to be collaboration, integration and originality. Kahneman explains that in order to develop new methodologies and vocabularies to bring to their home institutions and fields, innovators across a wide variety of professions have begun coming together to exchange ideas, and open up a dialogue.

Following the keynote, Daniel Levitin (This Is Your Brain On Music) took the stage. His talk, entitled “Creativity in music: Constraints and innovation” was of particular interest to the creativity gurus in attendance. He began with a simple definition of creativity. “Works of art that we judge to be the most creative involve the artists working under constraints to produce something novel, or something that pushes the edges of these assumed constraints.” Levitin brings up an interesting point: Some of the most creative music has come to exist not in result of revolution, but by way of evolution. It’s not really true invention, but a wide blending of previous work. Levitin reminds us that Mozart didn’t invent the symphony or the sonata-what Mozart is recognized for is his ability to work within the tight constraints provided, and yet still be able to come up with such ground-breaking musical statements.

To illustrate his point, Levitin gave a series of examples in order to showcase his theory regarding evolution v. revolution.

  • “Rocket 88” – Jackie Brenston, 1951
  • “Sweet Little 16” – Chuck Berry, 1957
  • “Surfin’ U.S.A.” – The Beach Boys 1963
  • “Back In The U.S.S.R.” – The Beatles, 1968

When listening and comparing these examples, even the untrained ear is hard pressed not to note the similarities from beginning to end. The journey of these songs is very clearly not revolution, but evolution. By taking similar (or in Brian Wilson’s case, nearly identical) chord structures and progressions, the songwriter is able to reinvent a past work with a fresh perspective. The Beatles are notorious for this, having released countless records that may be unashamedly traced back to artists such as Buddy Holly, Elvis and The Beach Boys. Levitin elaborates, “New concepts are anchored in terms of old concepts. That’s why we so appreciate music that’s built on something that came before.” He went on to explain that links between pieces associated with preexisting others tends to be stronger than novel and isolated links in memory. By acknowledging and exercising limitations in the formative process, the creator is able to push limits in a more precise scope, often resulting in unique creative inspiration via unambiguous problem solving.

Regarding individuality in musicianship and songwriting, Levitin calls attention to the large role boundaries play in identity. “An individual musician’s style varies to the extent that you recognize Ella Fitzgerald or Paul McCartney or Arthur Rubinstein because of their own limitations. If every musician were flawless, they’d have less personality. Musicians sound the way they do because they can’t do everything they want to be able to do, and they do it in this flawed, human way. Many of the musicians we find most compelling – Springsteen, Neil Young, Bob Dylan – the really emotive singers – were responding to vast constraints to their technical ability, and you hear them fighting against it.”

How does one then use constraint to stimulate creativity? The Behavioral Science Summit aims to unite and diversify varies field strategies and project tactics. The question we need to be asking is this: How can creative persons benefit from adhering to traditional business models such as the process of phasing out, minimizing scope creep and avoiding uncontrollable expansion? William James states it well: “Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task (letter to Carl Stumpf, 1886). Without an ultimate goal, creativity left unchecked may spin out of control, only to end in the failure to produce a tangible work. Music is not idiosyncratic in terms of how creativity is addressed or assessed – this subtle concept is utilized over many different arenas. Every song in the Western world comes from a chromatic scale of but twelve notes. Every mixed and melted color comes from red, blue and yellow; every sonnet from a mere fourteen lines.

In a recent post in Forbes magazine, entitled “Creativity: How Constraints Drive Genius” David Sturt (VP, O.C. Tanner ) calls attention to a study undertaken on 1.7 million people with award-winning work. Based on O.C. Tanner’s findings, it seems that “people who create new value on the job are often inspired by their constraints” (Sturt, 2013). When Frank Gehry set out to design the Guggenheim in Bilbao or the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, he reported limitations and constraints as the most inspirational tools in his work. When an artist, project manager or designer sits down to create a work, they must begin by asking, “What problem am I trying to solve?” In doing this we are able to better perceive that true freedom can only be exerted within limits. Not unlike the music theory student setting out to compose within a tight set of guidelines, one must first learn and observe specific statutes. Once understood, we may begin looking beyond the rules, embracing the “benefit of limitations and necessity of structure to the creative process” (Gutierrez, 2013).

In conclusion, we are left then with the following: Regarding individuals with IQs categorized as genius or savant, we must ask ourselves if some of the most celebrated inventions in technology, medicine and the arts would exist with a ceiling. Can constraint be a catalyst, or is it necessary to defy the norm in order to achieve true greatness? Imitation versus innovation, evolution or revolution, restriction and an endless realm of possibilities remain to ponder. Looking back to the creativity of Beethoven versus Mozart, Picasso versus Monet, and Baryshnikov versus Fosse, these hypotheses are no longer so transparent. Is constraint essential for effective creative production, or have our greatest visions come from pushing the limits?

(Photo Credit: Matt Beardsley

Diana Hereld (@christypaffgen) is a Los Angeles based singer-songwriter, music educator and music psychology/neuroscience researcher. She blogs at As The Spirit Wanes The Form Appears.


4 thoughts on “Creativity in Constraint: Exploiting the Boundaries

  1. The trick is to discern the balance, especially in education, as most theory students I see exhibit the inverse of the William James’ quote- fatigue that comes with the completion of endless tasks that appear to lack any relevance to their creativity.

    Not all constrains are the good kind, and now more than ever it seems vital for educators to reevaluate the ‘forms and structures’ of their particular subjects and be sure to present only those that are poignant, and necessary- really separating the invaluable ‘traditions’ that propel creativity from the deviating ‘traditionalism’ that can divert and discourage so much creative energy.

  2. This is good stuff. I’m really liking the theme about constraints and limitations playing a pivotal, positive role in creativity. It’s a very dialectical idea, that tension and frustration are what inherently produce progress, not necessarily radical novelty. Mick Jagger was always trying (and failing) to sound like Muddy Waters, Rubber Soul was a sad, misfired attempt to recreate the urgency of early Dylan (and brilliant for that very reason), Beefheart and Howlin’ Wolf. The list goes on.

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