The Value of Limits in the Creative Process


Previously, I outlined some of the innate limits of human hearing. Rather than seeing such limits as a barrier, I see them as necessary to creativity. Human feeling needs freedom, but our perceptions and cognitions need limits. How well we learn within our limits defines our degrees of freedom.  The old philosophical argument regarding “free will vs determinism” is most often  posed as an either-or argument. We pictured ourselves as determined creatures who had free will, or creatures who had free will to choose to rise above our determined limits. To say we embody both, would be to accept that we cannot divide such processes. The fact is that we can learn within our limits without really knowing what those limits are in many cases.

It is through learning that we push the limits, and create greater freedom. In the world of art, those in the visual arts and those in the sonic arts have limits of seeing and hearing. But a visual artist dealing with a full-color spectrum has the freedom to develop a pallet relevant to her/his creative vision. In that sense, I see the visual artist freer than the musician who not only works within sonic limits, but further creates arbitrary limits — consciously or not — by doctrinally adhering to a fixed palette of pitches.

At one level man experiences freedom of choice; he feels himself to be a free agent seeking order and harmony. But at a deeper level, aware of more, he knows himself to be less than free, the instrument of forces greater than himself. There is no contradiction here. The old antithesis of free will and necessity vanishes in the hierarchical view of man. The “higher” levels of the mind express more specialized factors, the “lower” more general. At one level he experiences freedom of choice, but when he becomes aware of the deepest level of all, he loses free will and experiences the bliss of enjoying and serving a pervasive unity. For joy is simply vitality without discord.” — L.L. Whyte

Music is an analogue of human emotion. In this sense, music IS and emotion.  When creative, it’s a proper proportion of affective feeling, and cognitive evaluations. Without affective amplification, music becomes an exercise in mathematical logic and weak in emotional expression. Without cognitive transformation of feeling, music devolves into cliché and or into blind, chaotic improvisation. So our limits provide a fertile ground of shame and frustration that we seek to overcome in the creative process of making music. To the degree we gain insight out of the muck of those negative feelings and self-imposed limits, we are freer than before. In “Imagine” by Jonah Lehrer (p. 23) he writes, “Just look at poets, who often rely on literary forms with strict requirements, such as haikus and sonnets. At first glance, this writing method makes little sense, since the creative act then becomes much more difficult. Instead of composing freely, poets frustrate themselves with structural constraints.”

The Limit of Twelve in Equal Temperament

What do J.S. Bach, Claude Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Lady Gaga, Perry Como, and Lawrence Welk all have in common? A 12-tone equal interval source scale. Except for those who were there at the beginning, this source scale became an arrangement made without agreement by almost every musician who has played anything akin to the main stream of Western music in the last 300 years.

In the 20th century, much of the so-called “avant garde” of Western music eschewed conventions of form in an effort to widen the pallet of musically emotional expression.  Inevitably, this led to “anti-form” attitudes to avoid the path more traveled. How many ways can one use a diatonic triad? So let’s avoid it by using all 12 intervals in a democratic fashion. That was novel, but soon developed clichés of its own. So, have we reached the limits of our ability to creatively transcend the limits of the source system itself? I think so. Can we once again begin to enjoy “triads,” but in new ways? Again, I say yes.

In the West, twelve tone equal temperament has provided our intonational limits for about 300 years, and we can marvel at the brilliant abundance of great music that has emerged from it. In my estimation, its limits have moved from being a creative obstacle, to just being an obstacle.  One way of revitalizing it is to place it in a broader context. Erv Wilson presents us with an innovative option to this issue.

From Wikipedia:

“Twelve tone equal temperament took hold for a variety of reasons. It conveniently fit the existing keyboard design, and was a better approximation to just intonation than the nearby alternative equal temperaments. It permitted total harmonic freedom at the expense of just a little impurity in every interval. This allowed greater expression through enharmonic modulation, which became extremely important in the 18th century in music of such composers as Francesco Geminiani, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach and Johann Gottfried Müthel.

The progress of Equal Temperament from mid-18th century on is described with detail in quite a few modern scholarly publications: it was already the temperament of choice during the Classical era (second half of the 18th century), and it became standard during the Early Romantic era (first decade of the 19th century), except for organs that switched to it more gradually, completing only in the second decade of the 19th century. (In England, some cathedral organists and choirmasters held out against it even after that date; Samuel Sebastian Wesley, for instance, opposed it all along. He died in 1876.)”

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Gary David

Gary David, Ph.D. in epistemology, is currently engaged in a private counseling practice, as well as giving seminars teaching the role of the biology of emotion in the meaning-making processes of the whole human being. A former professional musician, he was the leader of an experimental jazz group called "The Sound of Feeling," and was one of the early, longtime students of Erv Wilson.

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1 Comment

  • Music i think has an interesting relationship with emotions in that on a personal basis it is the only place where i have experienced certain ones. Music in that sense makes certain emotions possible, hence contributing to our emotional experience by act of broadening them.
    Lately while accepting limitations in music, i have been trying to rephrase it is saying i am only going to use x in this piece, i am trying to say i am going to include ‘y’ [which is what one might have with when ‘x’ is taken away]. What we do being of more importance than what we don’t do. Erv used to say he was more interested in what someone did as opposed to what they didn’t do. We can say we are going to limit ourselves to a certain poetic meter or we can say we are going to use this meter. The latter might allow one venture outside of it which one might undermine it if we go to far. Pound thought that all art works had to have a constant and a variable and limitations are surely a constant. we are left with how constant must a constant be?
    Kandinsky pointed out that what liberates one day becomes the obstacle for future development and i agree that 12-tone equal temperament while fostering such great music has become an obstacle to the point where many artist have tried to avoid the question of pitch altogether. Texture and timbre provided music with much that was new, but now seems to have also exhausted as a resource. Wilson provides us with new resources that provide many historical approaches with new species of growth from which we are free to pick from and plant where and how we wish.

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