How limitations can spark up your musical creativity
Have you ever thought about trying to create a new song with only one VST/instrument? For example, imagine if all you could use in a song is a bass guitar, how could your song sound complete with that? Can you see a way how this limited scenario would actually boost your music creativity?
Or, imagine if you had only one hour to finish a complete song, how could this make you more creative?
I’ve been asking myself these questions lately and this thought came to mind during a recent trip. During it, I was watching a video from Thomas Frank, where he was talking about his favorite book of 2019, ‘How Music Works’ by David Byrne, one of the founding members of Talking Heads:
During the video, Thomas shares his #1 lesson learned from the book: “Limitations make you more creative and productive”. Let’s dig into this statement… shall we?
What kind of limitations are we talking about?
Anything that grounds you into a certain path is a limitation.
Time, gear, song direction (mainstream/underground), genre, duration of the track, elements… Any limitation that you can impose on yourself (internal) or have them imposed by someone (external) can improve your musical creativity.
For example, you can say: “I’m going to make a progressive house track, around 6 min long, one break, two drops which are around 1 min long, which is the standard structure of a progressive house track as analyzed in this post. I want this song to be a mainstream song, which “requires” you to add certain elements to achieve this mainstream, like a vocal.
Or your label may say: “You have one week to finish this.”
Having a goal, for example, is a limitation. It limits the amount of effort you’re going to put towards other activities because it focuses your work on achieving that goal, right?
In a way, these limitations are narrowing your options, regardless of what kind it is, and they are constraining your resources. With limited resources, you have less to think about and can end up more focused as a result.
Why not setting limits is a bad idea?
Austin Kleon is the author of one of my favorite game-changer books: “Steal Like an Artist”. In his book, Austin says why he embraces limitations during his work:
- “Nothing is more paralyzing than the idea of limitless possibilities.”
- “The idea that you can do anything is absolutely terrifying.”
Having endless possibilities can eventually lead you to overthink, which can lead you to decision paralysis, which can lead to inaction or “over-reaction”.
Think about the mixing stage… how many times have you been stuck at it to the point that you started to hate the song? It happens to all of us, but why? Because we don’t set limits or don’t know what we’re looking for, i.e., have a goal for that mix.
Therefore, since we don’t know where to stop because we don’t know where we want to go, every time we touch the mix, we change it completely, until the point we don’t like anymore.
The same can happen to your music creativity. If you don’t have a limit of what you’re trying to make, even if it is as simple as I’m going to create something on F#minor, this can lead you to paralysis, which can lead you to think you have writer’s block.
But, no, you don’t have that, the problem is that you need to develop limitations.
Develop limitations, internal or external.
Brian Eno, an amazing English Musician, says during an interview that he develops limitations before starting his project. He starts it by saying: “this piece is going to be three minutes and nineteen seconds long and it’s going to have changes here, here and here, and there’s going to be a convolution of events here, and there’s going to be a very fast rhythm here with a very slow moving part over the top of it”.
Brian has a compelling example in which he is creating limitations to his new work, but, in a way, it’s creating a clear path of what he has to do with this new song, something that I try to do in all my tracks.
Before starting any track, I make a Spotify playlist with a couple of songs that follow a similar path or have similar elements to what I want to do. I try some melodies out and, when something sticks, I map out the whole arrangement of this new track (you can see this in the picture below).
In addition, I started this song by saying “I want to have this kind of bass line in my drop” (i.e. limitation), which helped me find the melody. In the end, these limitations gave a guide to what I had to do next, what elements, and how things had to sound like, putting me in a flow state to create it.
What kind of limits should you set for your tracks?
Let’s do a quick exercise deciding how my next track is going to be. Quick and painless, just throwing something on paper, but I’ll give you some coordinates of what I would do:
- Decide your goals with this track before starting: I want to do a mainstream track like MK, but I want the drop to be a little bit more intense and not so piano-driven;
- Track Structure: Since I want a vocal to shine during the break, I think I should do a track like this: Intro – Break – Drop – Break – Drop – Outro;
- Time Limits: I don’t want to spend 10 days on this track and no more than 10 hours as the total amount of time spent;
- Track duration limits: Similar tracks of what I want to do are 5 min long, so your track can’t be bigger than 5 min;
- Elements/gear Restrictions: The focus should be on the Vocal as the main element and a piano as a secondary main element;
- Genre: House Music;
- Similar artists: MK, Sigala, Sonny Fodera.
- Track goal: Radio, with hints of club sounds;
- Key: F# minor
I haven’t even started this track, but look at how we’ve set a good outline for this song even though I wrote it in less than 5 min.
By doing this to your tracks, not only will this guide you in your creative part when looking for a melody, but it will also help you choose what elements, where they are going to appear, and how intense they need. Some takeaways from this exercise that will influence my songwriting and creative process:
- I know that I need a break that is empty enough for a vocal to shine through;
- I can’t make the chord progression move too much, otherwise it could clash with the vocal;
- A Mainstream track would require a vocalist with a tone more aligned to POP music;
- Since my track can’t be bigger than 5 min, 45s intro and outro, 45s breaks, and 30s drops. This would give a total of 4 minutes;
- I chose F# minor because I know the key inside out so it would be easier to come up with chords;
- If I have any problems creating melodies, I have to listen to MK, Sigala, or Sonny Fodera to get more in the essence of what I need to make;
- Piano will be an important element, but not the main element. So, I could start with a pad or string and later transition to a piano;
- A cool arp could come in during the second 8 bar loop of the drop.
By making these decisions even before starting the track, you will know what you have to do, and once you have the composition ready, arranging it will be following what you’ve already decided. You didn’t start the composition process yet, but you’ve limited tremendously, and now it will be much easier for you to complete this song.
The main reason for that is that you won’t have to think “What do I do next?” and create, which could lead you to overthink and stop creating, and then could make you lose momentum. Now, you would have the time to just create within your limits, which would make you finish songs faster and more effectively.