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14 September 2010

Creativity in Musical Composition

Richard Willgoss Image: Richard Willgoss  

This article gives some background to the way creativity in musical composition is being explored. It attempts to show that method is a core issue in finding ways to agree on the value attached to music that we compose, play, hear and analyse, when we say that it is creative. It reviews methods and concepts that have potential and limitations for explaining creativity in a musical context. In particular, definition is seen as counterproductive in encapsulating what creativity is like and how it is used. This leads to five axioms that the writer believes need to be satisfied if we are to gain any prospect of advancing our understanding of musical creativity. Invitations are being made to composers to contribute to and benefit from the project via personal interview with the writer.

Music permeates all societies and cultures in one form or another. Whether 'world music' - blending all musics - really exists is often debated [Howard, 2010]. Western art music in the 21st century is, in reality, a modest innovation within the wide spectrum of musics. Pluralism undermines comparison of one music in reference to others, so that finding worth and value via a universal touchstone of musical creativity may not be possible across musics. In addition, even within Western art music itself, divisions occur if new works are regarded as one-offs, rather than contributing to a recognised genre, structure or form.

Yet we all 'judge' art music, new or otherwise, often by whether the composer and performers were creative in bringing music to the listener. The analyst and listener can also perceive creatively. So why concentrate on trying to find a workable usage for 'creativity in musical composition'? I think to do so might find a valuable and oft-hidden methodology.

But what constitutes method here? Attempting to be definitive about musical creativity seems sensible at first, but definitions emerge from consensus and this means creativity would be subsumed into convention, which is an oxymoron.

A fugue can evolve in new ways without having to rely on a formal definition beforehand, and musos are good at recognising fugue-like features. A concept in the mind becomes a score and/or performance, but that does not represent everything the work can offer. No matter how many times we play or hear some works, they generate newness for us, which can then be related to creative content.

Persuasion is a vital part of musical methods and can come from both the generator and the receiver. The cadence is a persuasion to conclusion, but can be achieved in so many different ways. Constellation, juxtaposition, spectralism, silence and minimalism are now vital means of creating interest in music. Collage assembles objects and montage assembles film and movement. Similarly, sontage assembles sounds, and the creativity in all these '-ages' is crucially in the arrangement chosen. Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments is a sontage, persuading by juxtaposition.

Composing that includes creativity is also not necessarily reasonable or rational, for creativity comes from a work altering our sense of the logical. When we inevitably get used to the creativity, the work becomes banal. The rate at which banality sets in is most probably in inverse proportion to the creative content of the work in the first place.

Finding how we can identify creativity in musical compositions, in conjunction with their performance, can lead to better value judgements on all types of music. Success comes from a more coherent understanding of how canon is being made and how a consensual base on worth is being formed. No precision is possible here, but achievements may be prophetic in predicting where new music might next be made. But good method still needs to be found.

Science is objective and lacks the nuance of human value judgement, even in a social science context. A new composition is not judged true or false, and, in music, we do not try to refute a hypothesis. In the converse, a purely subjective and aesthetic judgement lacks because it is a product of an elite, often determined by faction and personality.

In an attempt to choose method that avoids both limitations, I am interacting with a group of contemporary composers, getting to know them, interviewing them, and examining some of their works, as well as composing myself (invitations to be interviewed for this program are being made all the time - if you would like to take part as a composer, please send me email at rwil7157@uni.sydney.edu au). I am noting how these composers arrive at their composing stance and what or who motivates them. In particular, they have been asked from many different directions what they think is creative in their work and what is generating 'good process, product and behaviour' Sometimes they have seen the words 'composing' and 'creating' as synonymous.

I am primarily dealing with instrumental works in which meaning is not present until a composer, performer or listener places it there. Choral works are included but their meaning is often prescribed by words already chosen. Formal analytic methods such as Schenkerian analysis, Forte's pitch class sets, Nattiez's discretisation, Morris's semiology, Adorno's authority and sovereignty, historicity, authenticity and fidelity to composers' intentions, are no longer sufficient. Critical theory and postmodernism, for better or worse, have rendered such paradigms and (para)metrics too constricting. Each needs to be assessed meta-methodically as to whether it generates substantive and relevant judgements on new works. I think that method must now satisfy a number of axioms to justify usage by relating them closely to what we term creativity.

Firstly, music is. If method detracts from a composition being composed, performed and experienced by anybody who wishes, in their own way, it is a hindrance. There is no rightness or wrongness in form, structure or style or how to create or hear music. Commodification of contemporary art music is based on economic rationalism and makes no comment - aesthetic, ethical, artistic or otherwise - on value except as money. Artistically creative people are not necessarily motivated primarily by money but some would hastily add that finance does help.

Secondly, 'polished' music is not ultimately an experiment. We may experiment to find a finished form, structure or style (or none at all), on which to base our composition. But when composer and performers 'let go' of the work, it is finished for better or worse, notwithstanding revisions and the like, which are also new and finished in their own right. Sketches are experimentation, but we do not perform sketches. Artistically creative people do experiment with form and the like to find effective formulae. However, the form should support their inspiration not the reverse, for if it did, the result would itself be formulaic and no more creative than for the plot of Movie Title N, where N is greater than one.

Thirdly, musicological analytics of any kind shoe-horn music into a constrictive definition mainly for the benefit of the analyser, but always leaves remainders that are unexplained, ill understood or misrepresented. Creative people open up open-ended paths, so that remainder is a vital element in the understanding of how creative the composer was. For it is the remainder that is the source of ongoing interest and enjoyment in the work, delaying the onset of banality.

Fourthly, a transcendental dimension to assessment cannot be ruled out. Emotions are, as Meyer claimed, an inextricable component to music and the stuff of inspiration. To look for the meaning of emotions in the phenomenal alone is to bake the soufflé, appreciate the aromas, but not benefit by consuming it.

Fifthly, music is not language in the verbal sense. It can communicate in ways that words cannot. A verbal explanation does not need to be added to a performance to experience its worth - being there is enough. This also raises the problem of what real benefit recordings are. Though recordings are invaluable in tracing historical and developmental aspects of music, giving access to those who otherwise cannot experience performance, they are but a reflection on live music, the essence of which is an attendant immediacy and uniqueness of the moment. Musical archive as analysis and recording is helpmate, not authority, and the merits of these two opposites are being frequently debated by historians.

Musical zeitgeist cannot now be said to be devoid of 'world music', whatever that means. We all travel and communicate so much more than previously and have become frequented with music around the world that inexorably invades our creative space. That will out in compositions in one way or another, and to deny that such hybrid influences and products take place is Canutish. Music in the 21st century contains the postmodern, even though postmodernism's death is frequently announced. New music also contains increasing formula via algorithm and computerisation, generating inestimable capacity for 'new' sounds.

Bennett [2008] found that composers quite rightly showed that each was prepared to interpret what terms like postmodern meant to them and to reflect as such in their music. But what is the creativity of such offerings? Is it in the development of algorithm (more and more enacted by computer), the invention of a new algorithmic base, a Derrida-type difference or 'differance' heard by the ear - or what? Is it in the facilitation of means way beyond that which was possible via the purely mechanical - extending human control yet again? But, more importantly, in my frame of reference, what is creative and valued in musical terms?

Critical theorists state that any basis of assessment has itself to be questioned too. We also know that no method chosen will guarantee us achieving the goal. But by adopting a pose that looks for the creative in music, by whatever means can be made to work, we will take a step nearer to making some sense of how to appreciate the value of new musical offerings and to appreciate the immense musical heritage already available to us.


Bennett, D. (2008). Sounding Postmodernism. Sydney: Australian Music Centre.

Howard, K. (2010). What is World Music? Whose World and Whose Music?. University of Sydney: Conservatorium of Music, Public Lecture Series: Contexts. 23 April 2010.

Richard Willgoss has been researching creativity for around ten years, adding it into an already long academic engineering career. His interest in the topic deepened when studying for a BMus and BA in philosophy at the University of New South Wales recently. He then extended that interest into how musical works are termed ‘creative’, in conjunction with composing himself and having a few works performed publicly. He is now studying for a doctorate on this topic with Anne Boyd and Keith Howard at the Sydney University Conservatorium of Music.


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