Creativity’s Conditions

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“Necessity is the mother of invention.” This handy phrase, attributed to Irish dramatist George Farquhar, reminds us that human inventiveness is not purposeless or entirely self-generated. Creativity in any enterprise is spurred on by some perceived need, the type and magnitude of which are usually proportional to the issue being addressed and the field in which the innovation is taking place. Anthropologists point to a slew of social and environmental factors that determine the presence and rate of innovation in a given society. Among them are population density, area of inhabitance, natural resources, inter-group interaction and societal organization (bands, tribes, chiefdoms and states). Certain combinations of factors encourage invention, while others do not. As Jared Diamond writes in Guns, Germs, and Steel: “All human societies contain inventive people. It’s just that some environments provide more starting materials, and more favorable conditions for utilizing inventiveness, than do other environments.”

This rule applies equally to inventions that are practical, artistic or a combination of the two. Where necessity is absent, so is ingenuity. This is why, for example, slow technological development is a hallmark of indigenous hunter-gatherers, while rapid advancements characterize post-industrial societies. Hunter-gatherers are continually on the move, following the animals on which they depend and migrating to where the plants they use are available. These small and mobile populations lack the motivating circumstances to devise new and potentially cumbersome tools, and have little of the downtime necessary to experiment with technologies. In contrast, producing new ideas is the main way to grow the diverse, globally connected, information-rich and service-based economies of the post-industrial world.

Musical innovation follows a similar pattern. Societies that are small, isolated and relatively uniform generally do not demand fresh musical styles or forms. Their music is almost entirely of a functional sort, serving practical aims such as warfare, ritual and storytelling. There is room for improvisation, but musical customs tend to be conservative, operating within longstanding and typically limited musicways. In other words, their music is consistent with the rest of their lifestyle.

The opposite occurs in first-world societies, where everything seems in constant flux and there is seemingly unlimited access to the world’s music library. With endless musical influences comes virtually endless musical possibilities, particularly in (sub)cultures that demand continuous output. Moreover, larger populations produce larger numbers of musical innovators, as well as larger audiences to appreciate the innovations.

The crucial role of human and natural environments in musical creativity is not just evident when we compare radically divergent populations, like hunter-gatherers and denizens of an American metropolis. Historically and cross-culturally, those climates most conducive to musical creativity have yielded the greatest inventive flourishes. It is no coincidence that chronological lists of famous Western composers are heavily represented by a few countries, or that certain performers living in certain places are more popular and prolific than others stationed in similar societies elsewhere on the globe.

This discussion and its supporting examples could go on and on. The specific ingredients favorable for musical creativity or non-creativity vary from cultural setting to cultural setting. However, there is a simple formula that can be used to make the broader point: Creativity has conditions; innovation has inducements.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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2 thoughts on “Creativity’s Conditions

  1. Pingback: Creativity's Conditions | creative process or w...

  2. Pingback: Creativity’s Conditions | Stan Stewart's Blog

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