Practice Creativity through the Power of Limits

“I believe creativity comes from limits, not freedom.”

This is not a quote about music. It’s how Jon Stewart describes preparing for the The Daily Show with his team of writers (from an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air).

Stravinsky employed a similar process:

My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.

Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons

Courtesy of Museum of Making Music

Although it seems counterintuitive, self-imposed limitations can inspire greater freedom. It’s a proven technique for inspiring creative work across many disciplines. Creative writing prompts inspire authors and poets to generate new work, and actors generate new material through theater games. You’ve probably seen reality cooking shows test the creativity of the chefs by asking them to improvise new recipes with a surprise ingredient.

When we have all tools at our disposal, creating something out of nothing can feel overwhelming. Self-imposed limitations are effective because they force us to be more resourceful in other areas to produce interesting work.

As improvisers and composers, some of the musical tools we may limit are:

  • Pitch
  • Rhythm
  • Harmony
  • Dynamics
  • Register
  • Tone Color
  • Form
  • Melodic shape
  • Mood
  • Silence
  • Instrumentation

Two Rules

In Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, Stephen Nachmanovitch suggests “two rules are more than enough. If we have a rule concerning harmony and another concerning rhythms, if we have a rule concerning mood and another concerning the use of silence, we don’t need any more. The unconscious has infinite repertoires of structure already; all it needs is a little external structure on which to crystallize.”

As a starting point, let’s structure one-minute free improvisations that have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Choose two musical tools from the list above and limit them in any way. It doesn’t matter how clever or interesting the limitations are. The magic comes from how you transcend the limitations.

Here are a few examples:

Register and dynamics

  • Play in the lowest register of your instrument
  • Gradually transition from fff to ppp throughout the improvisation

Pitch and silence

  • Limit your pitches to D, G, A, C#
  • After each phrase, rest for at lest five seconds

Form and articulation

  • Improvise a piece with an ABA form
  • A is legato, B is staccato

Individual and collective free improvisation with musical limitations is the focus of Chapter Three of my book The Living Jazz Tradition.

Here are a few ways the power of limits have impacted me as a student.


In a composition workshop, Dave Douglas asked a large group of musicians to each compose a piece with the following guidelines:

  • Write three single-line parts on separate staves
  • The entire piece needs to fit on one page
  • Write for flexible instrumentation
  • No chord symbols

The next day, musicians from all around the world shared a diverse group of compelling compositions. Although we were all working with the same framework, no two compositions were alike. (My composition evolved into “Inner Sounds, Part 1” from my album Center Song, which you can listen to here.).

Trombone and composition legend Bob Brookmeyer asked his private students to compose many pages of single line melodies using only white keys. This exercise helped students refine the skill of crafting strong melodies through shape, thematic development, sequence, and lyricism.


In a lesson, saxophonist Chris Cheek asked me to play a four-minute improvisation on a single pitch. He encouraged me to explore the depth of my sonic palette to make it interesting. By the end of four minutes, I discovered saxophone timbres I had never played before.

Saxophonist and author Jerry Bergonzi helped me unlock creativity while improvising on standard jazz tunes. A few limitations he gave me were:

  • Short phrases, short rests
  • Long phrases, long rests
  • Stay within the range of a perfect fifth
  • Play three notes per bar
  • Lyrical phrases
  • Angular phrases
  • Ascending phrases
  • Descending phrases
  • All eighth notes
  • No eighth notes
  • Comping rhythms – try to play like a big band trombone section
  • Start each phrase by repeating the end of the previous phrase


Improvisation is not breaking with forms and limitations just to be “free,” but using them as the very means of transcending ourselves. If form is mechanically applied, it may indeed result in work that is conventional, if not pedantic or stupid. But form used well can become the very vehicle of freedom, of discovering the creative surprises that liberate mind-at-play.

Stephen Nachmanovitch, Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, from the chapter “The Power of Limits”

– ST

Get free downloads of drum groove and drone tracks from my book when you subscribe to my email newsletter

Subscribe to the Creative Music Blog to receive new posts by email