Creativity Is For Copycats

Saturday, September 01, 2007

cre·a·tive (kr-tv)

1. Having the ability or power to create: Human beings are creative animals.
2. Productive; creating.
3. Characterized by originality and expressiveness; imaginative: creative writing.

One who displays productive originality: the creatives in the advertising department.


I often get comments about how creative I am. These are usually uttered with a wistful look in the eye of the speaker, followed with something along the lines of "I wish I were that creative, but I don't have a creative bone in my body."

One of my friends, Christa D., told me once about something she heard regarding this very lament: we are all creative beings. Why? Because we were made in the image of the Creator.

Not long ago, I was thinking about the very essence of creativity. What does it mean to be creative? Isn't it just rearranging known variables in a new order, and maybe even throwing in one or two that no one seems to have combined with those before?

For example, in yesterday's post, I posted a video detailing the many variations of Pachelbel's Canon in D that have appeared in western music. Why is this? Well, let's think about it: There are only 12 different tones in our scale, covering almost eight octaves. There are only a finite number of chords that can be built with those tones. And to limit it further, our ears are trained to prefer only certain movements of those chords. For instance (bear with me as the music geek comes out for a minute), I think you would be hard-pressed to find a song on the radio today that does not end in a V-I chord combination, unless they chose to leave it deliberately unresolved. ("Clocks" is a good example of an unresolved song.) Without that good V-I punch at the end, the song does not feel "finished."

More than that, there are certain chords we like to hear more than the others. And we like them to move a certain way to other chords. With all of these "rules" to what makes a "good song," is it any wonder that there has been very little truly creative happen in pop music since Bach was writing fugues for his organ?

What?! you say in shock. Are you comparing bands like Nine Inch Nails, KISS, Enigma, and yes, even artists like Gordon Lightfoot and Shania Twain to classical music? Beethoven would roll over in his grave!

You think my statement too harsh? Remember, Beethoven wrote the popular music of his time, and if he wrote something a little too radical, it was not likely to earn him a lot of money--similar to artists of today.

Of course there has been plenty of creativity in music over the last four hundred years, even in "pop" music. However, you seldom see big jumps in style all at once. Usually it is a gradual change--each generation and artist building on the knowledge of the last, pushing the edges of the popular style envelope (but not too much!), but with a backbone that still very much resembles the original. We still use the same 12 tones. The same basic chords. Even Indian music, which also incorporates quarter tones, still has to deal within finite limitations. The generation after Bach wasn't suddenly shaking their hips to "Old Time Rock-and-Roll," for instance. And Mozart was considered a radical who died young--and broke.

We can see further clarification of this if we look at today's popular genres. (I keep emphasizing "popular", because the twentieth century saw some really far-out stuff, musically, that WAS a rather big jump away from what the masses were listening to--but on the other hand, the masses don't know the names of most of those composers, and it is the masses I am addressing, so we'll stick to popular music.) A country song sounds very different, stylistically, than a punk rock song. I have a friend who insists that country stopped evolving creatively about ten years ago, that they have hit a rut, and every song now follows the same basic formula that country has used for the last decade. He prefers heavy metal, because he says that at least there is still creativity being employed there.

Now, I'm not into metal myself, but I can appreciate his enthusiasm when he talks about such-and-such guitarist with jazz roots throwing jazz-based riffs into his guitar solos. Not only that, it would be ridiculous to try to write a song that would work for both country and heavy metal--not a style you often see "redone" in the other. (I only say "often" to cover my butt--I don't know of any, but that doesn't mean no one's ever tried it.) So, in other words, when someone sits down to write a song for a particular genre, there are rules which one must follow to be accepted as "creative" in that genre. Yes, you want to make it sound different enough from everything else out there that you don't land yourself in a plagiarism suit, but, as mentioned before, there are only so many methods you can employ to this purpose. Plagiarism is more easily recognized in lyrics than music, unless there is a certain riff that is in both the "new" and the "plagiarized" songs.

Anyway, let's get back to my point, which is this: anyone to whom the world refers as "creative" is actually and essentially a copycat--their creativity lies in being able to arrange the elements they are given in a way that is slightly different from everyone else's. The elements are the same, and certain formulas must still be applied in their arrangement. It is the arrangement itself which is the "x-factor", that makes it special.

Let's apply this to other things: Science. If I remember correctly, the atom bomb was invented almost simultaneously in three different places around the globe. These scientists rearranged the elements and knowledge that they were building on from those who went before in such a way that they discovered this super-destructive mechanism. The time was just right--all the elements were available, waiting for that "creative" x-factor to discover the secret they held. It could not even have happened before then, because the human race did not possess enough knowledge to have the correct elements of re-arrangement. But once they did, "creativity" took over.

In scrapbooking, everyone works with the same basic elements: photos, paper, glue, words, and embellishments. Even in scrapbooking, you see certain "rules". You often hear about "design rules" and "what looks best on a page," as well as different scrapbooking "styles." And just as often, you hear about "throwing out the rules". The beauty is, you don't have to be creative to scrapbook. Be a copycat. It's actually a hobby where blatant plagiarism is encouraged! (Well, in the actual layouts, so long as you are not making money off of them or something.) But it's also a hobby where you are free to be as creative as your imagination--and your nerve--allows. Rearrange those elements with wild abandon! The copycat part is that you are using the same basic tools that everyone else has available to them, in a medium that is pre-determined. The creativity comes in knowing that you can use any arrangement of those tools that you want--and you can't be wrong! It's your scrapbook--as long as you are happy with it, that's what counts!

Here's something even more basic: cooking. Whether you are scrambling eggs, or inventing a new pie recipe, there are certain restrictions placed upon you by the very definition of what you are trying to create--but you are free to combine any flavours that you wish within those restrictions. Your tongue (or your family) will tell you the outcome, but all you really need, all anyone really needs, is the bravery to try. To risk. To stick your neck out and rearrange the elements.

So c'mon. Be creative. Be a copycat!

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  1. Some great (creative) ideas on creativity!

    I do agree that the Creator is the source of everything good...

  2. Paul - Nice to see you here again. Thanks for the compliment!

    Colleen - :-) Not as clearly expressed I was hoping for, but I guess it'll have to do, now!

  3. Pocohantas, who has since passed away from a nasty and fatal tick born virus called cytozanosis (I think I spelled it right.....I definitely spelled it phonetically), would be honored to be posted to your blog!

  4. It takes time for thoughts to settle, congeal. Tweak, squint - there, that's more like it. I hadn't thought like this before and I like it. ♡


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