Creative Limitation Menus

This is a preview of new book Creativity Triggers for Musicians. Reserve a free digital copy.

Practicing can be a game, the goal is a deeper knowing of musical sound. One strategy is to draw the greatest variety of music from the smallest amount of material . . . [These] games are the kind master and beginner can play with skill.

– W. A. Mathieu, The Listening Book: Discovering Your Own Music

This chapter introduces Creativity Triggers, frameworks for improvisation that draw from the eight creative practices in Chapter One. Creativity Triggers are similar to creative writing prompts and improv theater games—these exercises help us narrow our focus and generate new ideas through experimentation and play.

Menus

When my wife and I were planning our wedding, our minister could sense we didn’t have a clear vision for our ceremony. She offered us her “Chinese Takeout Menu of Wedding Ceremonies,” which listed options for openings, readings, vows, and closings. This menu was a huge relief and helped us put together a personal and meaningful ceremony.

The Creative Limitation Menus list limitations for structuring improvised pieces. The challenge is to create interesting music within a narrow set of musical restrictions. Unlike a restaurant menu, you are free to change menu items and add your own.


Creativity Trigger: Pick Two

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.”

  • Choose two limitations from different categories.
  • Staying within these limitations, play a short improvisation (30-60 seconds) that has a clear beginning, middle, and end.
  • As W. A. Mathieu suggests, treat the limitations as a musical game.

The magic comes from experimenting with the musical elements that aren’t restricted. For instance, if your two limitations are “choose two pitches” and “slow pulse,” you can drastically alter the dynamics, rhythmic values, articulation, and tone color.

More Creativity Triggers

Three Movement Piece
Choose three sets of limitations to structure a three movement improvisation.

Themed Improvisation
Think of a person, place, emotion, object, or story to serve as the theme for an improvised piece. Choose limitations that will effectively express your theme.

Chance Piece
Choose limitations randomly.

Groove
Improvise with a drum groove from the Drumgenius mobile app. The app features 400 jazz, rock, and Latin American drum loops.

Free Play
When creative writers “free write,” they write continuously without editing, judging, or censoring. Similarly, we can “free play” music. Set a timer for 5, 10, or 20 minutes and play continuously. Record your free play because you may find material to develop in future improvisations or compositions

Extreme Interpretation
Experiment with mood, rhythm, and/or tone color limitations to play extreme interpretations of a notated piece.

Much more in Chapter Two of Creativity Triggers for Musicians. Reserve a free digital copy.

– ST