Creativity And Expression. Part 1

There are several things that can help players get over feeling uncreative, uninspired or otherwise not very expressive musically.

Ultimate Guitar

"Okay Tom, I am finally starting to feel a little more comfortable with the physical aspect of my playing, but I have a hard time being creative. I can't seem to write songs or improvise at the same level as I can play my guitar. Everything I do sounds stiff, or typical and not very creative or expressive. Am I just not a creative person? Is there anything that I can do about this?"

That question is a very typical one that I (and probably most people who have ever taught guitar) am very often asked. Before I go into detail to answer it I need to say that in order to completely overcome such a problem will require one to work at it for a long time. And I strongly suggest working with an excellent teacher to help you through this. He/she will save you a lot of time, effort, aggravation, etc.

Most players have, at some time in their musical development, felt uncreative, uninspired or otherwise not very expressive musically. Fortunately, there are several things that can help one get over this. The problem is in being creative and expressive as a musician not as a human being, it is important to recognize the difference. We are all creative and expressive as people (that's a big part of what makes us human). One's perceived lack of creativity and expressiveness is most likely not due to a lack of creativity or expression at all, but rather a lack of fundamental musical skills. Typically the problem is caused by a combination of factors such as those in the following list:

Theory Problems

  • Not knowing your fretboard well enough so that you don't need to think about where the notes are as you are playing, improvising and writing music.
  • Not having memorized all the notes in the key(s) you're working with.
  • Not knowing what notes are in what chords.
  • Not knowing what notes are consonant and what notes are dissonant in any given situation (and more importantly, how to control dissonance in theory!)

    Aural Skills (Ear training) Problems

  • Not listening closely enough to recognize consonance and dissonance.
  • Not knowing how to use and control dissonance aurally.
  • Not knowing what notes and chords are going to sound like before you play them!
  • Not being able to aurally (by ear) understand the emotional function of each individual pitch in a scale and a chord.\

    Technique Problems

  • Not having enough physical technique developed on your instrument to do the types of things that will allow you to be creative. If you are severely restricted musically by what your hands are able to do (or rather, what your hands are not able to do), it will be physically hard (or impossible) to do certain creative things.
  • Not knowing how or when to control your technique.
  • Thinking too much about what your hands can do instead of what you want them to be able to do in order to execute your creative possibilities.

    If you have any of the above problems, work on fixing them because those things, although not really elements of creativity itself, are the basic skills that one must posses to be creative/expressive on an instrument. The human mind is amazing and can do several simultaneous operations, but the more things you ask your mind to do at the same time, the more difficult it becomes to do any of them well. To really be creative and musically expressive, you need as much of your conscious brain energy as possible to be concentrating on being creative/expressive. If you don't really understand what notes you can use in a given situation to produce desirable results, and at the same time your mind has no idea what the notes are going to sound like before you play them, and at the same time, you are struggling with the limitations of what you can physically play, and at the same time, you don't know how to control dissonance, etc., how much conscious brain power do you actually have left to think about improvising an expressive guitar solo, create an original melody, or to write a song with new ideas? I would bet that the majority of those of you reading this have this problem to some extent. I suggest to make it a priority to get these basic skills under your belt as soon as you can. Once you have (or if you have) a good amount of control over the basic musicianship skills, you are ready to go deeper into the creative aspects of playing / writing.

    I usually find that my most creative musical ideas don't come from thinking about music at all. I look at other forms of art (and nature) to find new ways to see creativity. Once I have an interesting idea or concept in mind, I look to find all the possible ways that I may be able to adapt that into musical form to suit my musical needs. Following is an example of what I am talking about.

    A few years ago I began thinking about the similarities and differences in the different processes that are used in separate art forms (painting, music, poetry, stone or marble sculpture, etc.) Of the four I just mentioned, only stone cut and marble cut sculpture starts with something (the raw materials of stone or marble) and then the artist destructively eliminates materials to create the art. Poetry, music and painting generally are created from nothing (no materials from which to take away from) thus the artist creates the music constuctively (adding materials - letters, words, musical pitches, rhythms, brush strokes of wet paint, etc.). I once made this simple analysis of the stone sculpture process, I knew that its importance would be significant and valuable to me eventually. After almost a year of thinking about a way in which I could apply the principle of destructive creation (versus constructive creation), I finally had some brand new ideas (at least they were brand new ideas to me) for a new creative way (process) to write music. I found ways to apply this to general musical compositional processes and form. I'm sure there are more ways to apply the principal that I have not yet thought of. If I told you my own discoveries it might hinder you from discovering your own and going beyond what I was able to do. I encourage you to think deeply about how you might be able to apply destructive creation into new musical writing processes.

    Another example of taking creative processes from other forms came when I was watching a Disney movie on DVD. There was a special features section after the movie on the DVD in which the film makers showed diagrams and charts called story boards. The purpose of these story boards was to communicate more clearly the ideas from the writers and producers of the movie to the artists who were creating the animation for the film. I thought about how this might be applied to my advantage when writing the music for my "Opus 2" CD. Since I had in my mind all of the things I wanted to express in the music, I used this story board technique to better communicate between the right side of my brain and the left side of my brain. I charted out with diagrams, charts, elemental lists, etc. all of my non musical ideas (emotions, thoughts, ideals, experiences, etc.) that I wanted expressed in the music. The plans were much more organized now, I could clearly see what I wanted to be expressed at what moment during the music. This helped to keep me on track musically. I was very pleased with the final result. There many other processes that I used in composing "Opus 2" (and "Opus 1"), but this general principal is one that I think any composer or songwriter can use no matter how advanced or basic one's music writing skills are.

    As the previous example illustrates, I typically think about what I want to express before I think about writing the music. That is something that surprisingly not a lot (probably most) songwriters don't really do much (especially in the non classical music world.) I'm not saying that my ways and processes for writing music are better than someone else's way (because I believe all methods are legitimate), I'm just offering here one of my ways of composing which may be a new approach for you.

    Tom Hess is a professional virtuoso guitarist, recording artist, touring musician and teacher. See Tom Hess on the HolyHell world tour in 2006. To find out more, check out the official Tom Hess web site.

    Copyright 2006 by Tom Hess. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

  • 67 comments sorted by best / new / date

      interesting article and i discovered new problems i thought i never had which is kinda demoralising but now i can work on them and become more creative if what hes saying isn't bullsh*t
      here's my advice on the whole creativity thing... GET DRUNK AND FUCK AROUND!! after you learn theories more in-depth theres two ways to go for creativeness, think and map out your process( Tom Hess' way) or let loose and think only of makin kick ass tunes. Sometimes you just gotta have faith in your playing abilities and trust that something good will come out of that amp.
      i jusrt skimmed it but it's quite good...quite short though...but great anyway...
      Ha ha! Ramco must feel like a real jackass right now, lol! And he should. It was a great article, thanks Tom.
      eastern riffs is probably right... but still! It was a pretty good article, right? Even if he wasn't a pro it still would've been good. And Ramco still sucks. What a jackass.
      Ramco You're a jackass! Hess you're godsent! Also, It was a great article. Props
      Great im finally sure that i suck!..btw so does Ramco! Thx Tom! Cheers!
      Go to his site and look at the videos, it's ****ing arpeggios up and down, up and down!!! Is that what you call a virtuoso?
      haha. another tom hess article. i gotta say, that the article may actually make sense, but the concept of a teacher teaching you to be creative is bullshit. also, the little endig is actually pretty lame, and i've never heard of tom hess, except theres a guy with "hess" as a last name at my school and he's really shit fer brains. as is tho, tom hess kinda pisses me off. all of his articles are about shit that is supposed to vary from person to person, like creativity, inspiration, how to be original. but i gotta say, i'm sick of these tom hess articles, and i don't really give a rat's ass wether other people think im stupid.
      mangablade: s ure tom hess is good, but he aint no Chuck Norris!
      o and btw ur awsome bud.
      by the way good article man, I appreciate the fact that you take time to write these articles. I say rock on to ramco for speaking his mind, but you have no status whatsoever so for now shut the **** up
      A few people just dissed Hess and said Ramco is right. Hess is a bit of a self-promoter, but I for one still thing Ramco is a jackass.
      Sorry.. Can anyone briefly explain to me what are consonance and dissonance cos i don't understand.. Thx!!
      The Wicker Man2
      Pretty good article. Its the first tom hess article i've seen where he isn't constantly saying you will never acomplish anything and never become a great musician.
      Ramco wrote: Does anyone realize that we don't know and don't care who Tom Hess is, and nobody ever asked him to do an advice column on UG? Frankly I'd think someone of his age and ability would have much better things to do.
      you know, you're sort of a jackass, please kill yourself.
      good article, and be happy ramco that we get these free articles!!! and it improves us as a whole as musicians we all need to just strive to get better constantly and this shi t is free take it or leave it
      ya know, ramco, just because he and his ability would allow him to do other things doesn't mean that he can't help us UG people with articles that I find quite enlightening (considering I'm teaching myself). Tom Hess rocks!
      ramco, just because you are a stuck-up bastard doesnt mean you have to say sh!t abt ppl.
      well i can't say it din't help but it made me feel like an idiot .... i don't even know what dissonance or most of that other crap is
      Not trying to say anything bad about Hess, I'm sure he is a great guy and all. But I have to agree with Klistrad. He's just a lot of sweep-picking and arpeggios. I've heard much better guitarists, but his techinique is good. But then again, with time, I believe anyone could be. As the old saying goes, "Practice makes perfect!" Well, Thanks for the advice, I say be yourself and explore your own creativity man. Cheers
      hess is a egocentric bitch on his site. i looked at his "lesson application" where he asks u to answer kissass questions. like, " do u think some1 who has sold millions of records worldwide and has slain over 4000 nazi ninjas can help u play better?". hes a pompous @sswipe. but non-the-less it is a good article.
      RAMCO, the guy is giving his time to share his ideas, if you dont like them then why are you reading these columns anyway? and thanks for the article, tom, for guitarists in formation, like myself, golumns like these are very useful.
      Most of the guys here compliment Hess not because of his great article,but because he's a professional musician. I doubt if any normal UG member posted this same very article he would get those compliments like 'Hess is God' and 'You rock,Hess'.. It is understandable why this happens,and there is nothing to feel bad about it.Hess is a pro so his info seems much more reliable,even though it may be the same as anyone else would post. So,all I can say is,Keep it coming for Hess but keep it modest.
      ramco, shut up ya prick. This guys put some effort into writing a lesson for us. you think he had better things to do? well he might have done, shouldn't that make you more grateful? moron. and anyway what better things would he have to do with his time than educate hundreds of musicians at the same time through UG to try and make the general music world a more expressive place? well he is a guitar teacher so i think this is the best possible thing he could do with his time. now stopp being so damn ungrateful. thanks tom, got a lot out of that lesson
      Ramco, one would think you'd have something better to do than sit around on the internet, read articles that are designed to help people if they need it, and then try and put the author down for no reason whatsoever. Seriously, grow up and stop whining. Excellent article, I can't wait to hear more from Mr. Hess.
      Does anyone realize that we don't know and don't care who Tom Hess is, and nobody ever asked him to do an advice column on UG? Frankly I'd think someone of his age and ability would have much better things to do.
      You think he wrote this article just for UG? No, he probably posted the same article all over the web. You are obviously an idiot, or you would realize the reason he is posting this article everywhere is to entice people to take his correspondence lessons.
      Oh yeah, I forgot. Good article, I didn't read it through, but all the other ones you've written have been great.
      Does anyone realize that we don't know and don't care who Tom Hess is, and nobody ever asked him to do an advice column on UG? Frankly I'd think someone of his age and ability would have much better things to do.
      He is nice enough to write his articles and then publish them on multiple sites. He doesnt just come to this site acting big and bad. He puts the ending so peole know where he is coming from and can get in touch with him personally and can check out any article that he may have written but not posted on here. Tom Hess may not have even posted them on here, if you read the ending it says used by permission, someone probably though his articles were useful enough and asked if he could put it on here
      Does anyone realize that we don't know and don't care who Tom Hess is, and nobody ever asked him to do an advice column on UG? Frankly I'd think someone of his age and ability would have much better things to do.
      I really like your analogies, i can tell how creative you probably are at this point in your playing. Hopefully i can apply them to mine also! Thanks for the article man!