The Freedom of Limitation

For artists the battle has always raged between the desire for complete artistic freedom and the need (economic or otherwise) to work within a limiting set of rules. While some insist that creativity and limits are mutually exclusive, I would argue the opposite: people are never more creative than when forced to work within limitations. Limitations generate their own kind of creative freedom. They force original thinking - the wellspring of creativity.

As musicians and songwriters we face limitations all the time. They fall into two broad categories: those that are thrust upon us, and those that are self-imposed. In both cases musicians and artists have used these limitations as a springboard to new avenues of thought and art.

Those Thrust Upon Us
Inadequate equipment, musical ignorance, commercial necessity, and popular expectation are examples of limitations that are often beyond the immediate control of an artist. A poor guitarist may only be able to afford a budget instrument. A musician with a love for jazz may need to perform pop to find an audience. A beginning recordist may only have a single dynamic microphone. Within each of these challenges lies the opportunity for creative thinking. Perhaps the guitarist can develop a new technique or sound to exploit his less-than-ideal instrument. Perhaps the musician can find a way to incorporate jazz into his pop songs. Perhaps the recordist can discover new sounds by using his single microphone in ways others have never tried before.

The lesson is simple: if you are faced with limitations that you cannot easily overcome, work around them. Don't waste time pining for an expensive microphone, the newest VST plug-in, or a better keyboard. Instead look for creative ways to use what you have now. Don't wait for the public's musical tastes to change. Instead, find a way to merge your personal musical goals with what an audience wants. Limitless creative freedom is not necessary for you to make good music today. Exploit what you have now, while looking for ways to move towards your end goal.

Those Self-Imposed
Often you can enhance your creativity with a self-imposed set of rules. A limitless number of choices can sometimes cause an artist to freeze up - a condition sometimes called "option anxiety" or "analysis paralysis". Limiting your creative options allows you to focus more keenly in a specific creative direction. Sometimes this can be as simple as writing in a specific genre or song form. Other times the limitation itself becomes a creative choice.

Here are two examples of self-imposed creative limitations:

Alphabetic Africa by Walter Abish is a book in which the first chapter consists entirely of words beginning with the letter "A". Each successive chapter ads words beginning with the subsequent letter of the alphabet, until at last the author is free to use all words. Then the chapters begin a backwards progression, until finally the author is forced to conclude as he began; using words that begin only with "A".

Three Thieves' Tale, is a poem I wrote using a similar alliterative constraint. With a lot of thought I was able to create an entire poem that made sense, told a cohesive story, and even rhymed (loosely), using only words that began with the letter "T".

Creative Problem Solving
We're all artists, right? Artists are supposed to be creative thinkers, right? Let's embrace our limitations as an opportunity problem-solve creatively. I maintain that looking for creative solutions to "limitations" is where some of man's greatest art has come from. I've already shown how I used a limitation to come up with something cool. How have you? Bring it.

*Photo by And-rey


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