Practical Creativity

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Creativity is conventionally defined as the use of imagination for the purpose of  achieving something novel. The Romantics understood it as a supernal gift bestowed upon a select and superior few. In the present day, “creative genius” is generously recognized in almost anyone involved in an artistic or quasi-artistic pursuit. Whether framed as a rarified possession or a universal property, creativity is made out to be a disembodied quality, appearing in a flash of insight and removed from everyday matters. Forgotten in all of this is the utilitarian proverb: “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

This saying reverberates throughout music history. The acoustic demands and tolerances of a music-making venue—forest, cave, hut, chapel, cathedral, club, concert hall, amphitheater, stadium, living room—have done more to shape musical styles, instruments and ensemble configurations than any other single factor. Technological advances in the 1920s gave us the 10-inch 78 rpm gramophone disc, which played for just three minutes on each side and forced songwriters to invent the three-minute popular song form—still the industry norm. Architects of worship music often keep track of changing tastes of the general public, adjusting devotional sounds accordingly in hopes of filling the pews. Even jazz improvisation had a practical beginning. People wanted to continue dancing after the melodies were exhausted, so the musicians accommodated them by jamming over chord changes to stretch out their playing.

These and countless other musical developments were born of necessity. Their inspiration was more contextual than spiritual, more pragmatic than epiphanic. Like everything else, musical innovation is motivated by and responsive to perpetual forces: cause and effect, need and satiation, transition and mutation, problems and solutions. It is, then, better to think of creativity as an adaptive awareness than as something emerging from mythical nothingness.

Music is a living art. It is guided by evolutionary pressures. The survival of music in any of its myriad genres and forms requires that elements be modified and redirected to fit the social, physical and acoustic environment. When conditions are relatively static, music undergoes few and subtle alterations. When circumstances shift, musical creativity shifts along with them. These adaptive traits—technical, instrumental, presentational and other—are further tweaked as settings continue to morph. With the passage of time, and the technological advancements, trends and counter-trends that come along with it, some of these features persist and are absorbed into new mixtures, while others are rejected and replaced with new adaptations. And so it goes, down through the ages.

Need creates an opening for artistic maneuvering. Thus, at the risk of over-simplification, we might re-define creativity as the practical confrontation with necessity.

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

3 thoughts on “Practical Creativity

  1. John Morton

    I don’t argue with any of your points this time Jonathan. Of course, it was imagination and creativity that also singled out Einstein from his fellows because he wasn’t the best mathematician around at the time. I’m also struck by the idea that, if we had always possessed modern methods of transport and communication, individual pockets of culture and style, as we now know them, would be barely noticeable and the evolution you mention would have been be more linear. I’m also struck by your willingness, as a religious man, to accept other than spiritual explanations for ‘inspiration’. This is most interesting.

    1. jlfriedmann Post author

      Thanks, as always, for your insightful comments. You’ve detected something that is at the heart of my current thinking on music. I used to gravitate toward the Romantic poets who, as you know, wrote flowery expositions on artistic creativity and its supposed “otherworldly” origin. But the more I studied the development of music-cultures — and particularly Jewish folk traditions — the more I realized that music is generative: it follows an evolutionary pattern of reproduction, adaptation and modification. Culture itself is a form of imitation. I’ve also adopted a functionalist view of music (as I mentioned before), which sees value deriving from whether or not particular music works for a particular group and in a particular setting. Along those lines, I just read a synopsis of this book and am intrigued to read it:

  2. John Morton

    The existence or otherwise of a deity always lurks in the background of these puzzles regarding creative processes but I stay away from such problems because I know I’ll spend a lot of time and realize no practical benefit. It’s only by pondering ‘how’ rather than ‘why’ things work that I make progress.

    I’m reading through ‘The Emperor’s New Mind’ by English mathematician Roger Penrose. He believes that the human mind uses non-algorhythmic (non-computable) processing. Having no formal training in these matters (or in musicology, for that matter), I naturally rely on my own personal experiences as I come to terms with the extent to which so-called ‘creativity’ coexists with my own efforts to work with musical materials (architecture). The truth is that it’s a daily struggle to understand what’s going on.

    Your comments regarding an evolutionary pattern touch on an important part of music awareness. Standards of physical efficiency, by means of which we judge feasibility, or otherwise, are judged by the prevailing standards of the day. What goes up doesn’t necessarily come down these days although we retain an up-down sense of orientation except (possibly) in serial music. The family car can reach speeds that were once regarded as impossible in a few seconds.

    The most puzzling aspect of these matters is the way music affects particular groups in different ways which is something I wouldn’t expect if music really did reproduce our experiences of physical reality at a fundamental level.

    Having said that, we have no theory of consciousness or of perception, which affects many areas of debate.

    Thanks for your considered response.


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