On July 11, Stanford University’s Center for the Advanced Study of Behavioral Sciences held its second annual Behavioral Science Summit. The event’s purpose was to analyze behavioral science’s role on society, specifically business, arts, culture, and technology. Daniel Levitin, scientist, music producer, and writer of the book This is Your Brain on Music, gave a talk entitled “Creativity in Music: Constraints and Innovation,” which went against some of the common themes of the summit including originality.

In his talk, Levitin defines creativity as “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.” Music, by nature, is constraining. Most western music is made of only the 12 notes in the chromatic scale, and many stay within the further constraints of tonality. He brings up the point that most musical progression is based strongly on what came before. Instead of revolution in music, he likened innovation to evolution. Instead of coming up with something completely new and different, most artists simply evolve – bend or push the boundaries – of previous musical genres or styles.

Here’s an excerpt from an article from Music Think Tank detailing Levitin’s talk.

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.

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 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.”

We are seeing this musical evolution brought to an even more literal interpretation with sampling. New works literally take old works and morph them into something completely new. Do you think current copyright law supports this evolutionary nature of musical innovation?

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3 replies
  1. Diana Christine Hereld says:

    I do think current copyright law supports it. Before covering the ASCAP expo this year, I never would have known, but after sitting in on various talks given to explain specifically that (loops, samples, even straight covers) I do feel that our current laws support it. Whether our songwriters are paid or given enough credence for their world is a completely different ballgame.

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