Have you ever spent hours in a video store, completely unable to decide what movie you want to watch? Have you ever felt overwhelmed just setting foot into a bookstore or a supermarket? How about this, do you feel like you have a wealth of creative ideas inside your head, but when you sit down to work you feel blocked and unable to get it out? It turns out, there are physiological reasons for all of this. Our brains can only process a surprisingly small amount of information at one time. Too many options, especially options of relatively equal value, and our brains literally become overloaded.
And talk about options. In this day and age, we have historically unprecedented choice in almost every category of life. There are millions of products to buy; millions of movies, tv shows, magazines, and other media to chose from . We have greater freedom than ever before to pick our career, where we live, who we befriend, who we spend our lives with. In an increasingly secular society, we must also choose our own belief systems, and moral principles. It is even possible to choose our gender or to surgically alter our appearance. Is it any wonder that along with this wealth of options comes unprecedented levels of depression and mental illness?
In music as well, we are in the midst of a renaissance of opportunity and choice. It is now possible to walk around town with days and days of music on one mp3 player. It is more and more common for musicians draw inspiration from multiple genres and traditions. As electronic musicians, our options have expanded exponentially due to the advent of new technologies. With the hundreds of sample libraries on the market, we can choose from thousands of instruments or we can synthesize and re-synthesize completely new instruments. The possibilities for new music are endless and potentially very overwhelming.
The show Radio Lab recently did an episode dedicated to the issue of choice. One of the points of this show is that while the rational mind can whittle down our options, in the end we rely on our emotions to make the final choice. It is no wonder then, that those of us with highly analytical minds, are much more susceptible to succumbing to option overload – the endless consideration of choices of similar value.
Option overload is something I am intimately aquatinted with. It used to prevent me from getting anything done at all, but over the years I have found a few helpful techniques.
1) Create deadlines – I don’t know how many times I’ve read interviews with composers who speak of the joy, yes joy, of working under a tight deadline. It’s often astonishing the quality of work we can turn out when forced to make quick decisions. Somehow it doesn’t work as well when the deadlines are self imposed, but it helps.
2) Create limitations – This is largely what this blog is about. Hopefully I have demonstrated the creative explosion that takes place under strict limitations.
3) Have a vision – Try making decisions before you even start writing a song. Pick instrumentation, form, length, as much as possible, and stick with it. You’ll thank yourself later.
2) Pick a genre – What is genre but a set of limitations on music? The traits of a genre reduce many of the larger decisions (instrumentation, rhythm, feel, harmonic vocabulary, form etc) and allow the composer to focus on subtler matters.
3) Take a break – Walk away and come back to the problem later. It’s amazing the difference even five minutes can make.
4) Use the “Save As” option – Often, when I come to a significant crossroads in a song, I’ll save an extra copy. That way, I tell myself, I can always go back if I don’t like where the decision takes me. I almost never go back, but sometimes establishing a safety net is the only way I can make big decisions. Does the non-destructive nature of digital editing help with, or enable indecisiveness?
5) Focus – I am reminded of the truism “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.” You might have dozens and dozens of plugins at your disposal but how well do you know how to use them all? Sometimes it’s better to have a smaller toolset that you are well acquainted with then a large one you barely know how to use.
5) Trust your gut – The emotional portions of our brains are actually much much more powerful than our analytical minds. I tend to distrust my emotional mind for being too um…emotional; subject to making decisions based on habit or irrational association. However, I am increasingly forced to conclude that the key to effective decision making has much more to do with intuition than analysis.
6) Get over it – Some people just don’t have a problem with option overload and to them this probably all seems silly. For others it’s just not that simple.
The instrument for this week attempts to find a balance between choice and randomization. Instead of creating a drum kit with twenty five different sounds on twenty five different keys, I clumped the sounds into categories and mapped them to just five keys. Playing a C for instance will play once of five bass heavy sounds, F# one of five clicky sounds. So you can choose what type of sound you want to play, but you have little control over the exact file that will be triggered. Here’s what this sounds like on it’s own -
And here it is in the context of a song -
The drum kit, which was made from recordings of items found at the radio station where I work, is available on the downloads page along with the Koto sounding instrument.