Imagine. You’re a rebellious youngster, willing to express your emotions through rock music. Unfortunately, you don’t have the skills to play any instrument and your vocal talents are limited to just chase away the birds. Now what?
Sure, nowadays there are options. And they’re vast, because digital has radically innovated the way music is made today. But that’s not my point. Let me take you at least 40 years back, say mid-seventies, where successful rock bands like Pink Floyd, Genesis, Deep Purple, The Who, Jethro Tull and Yes (to only name a few) were all composed by very talented singers, guitar heroes, nimble-fingered keyboard players, fabulous drummers, etc. Let’s face it, quite frustrating as a starting point for any unskilled would-be rockstar, isn’t it?
But then there was punk. Hallelujah! Three or four chords on a guitar, that’s all you needed. Bye bye virtuosity. You sing out of tune? Fuck it! Couldn’t care less. And all in all… isn’t that just wonderful? The initial constraints – not being a true musician – does not withhold you anymore to create music, to express your emotions and share it with the world.
Bye bye virtuosity. You sing out of tune? Fuck it! Couldn’t care less.
In fact, punk had to deal with two kinds of constraints: on the one side, it was the ultimate reaction to the established society with all its intrinsic constraints, while on the other side it needed to express itself through means that had quite some constraints themselves. Not only the music, but also the clothing, the artwork, the accessories, the hairstyle… Punk has fucked it all! You could go as far as saying that without constraints, punk would never have happened.
And what’s more? Not only music, but society itself has seldom been more disruptively innovated. Turned upside down, inside out to the bone by a movement that initially was against the established society with all its constraints. Simply by consciously breaking these constraints. How deliciously sweet.
The above example is one way how music has evolved through constraints. Punkers didn’t accept the fact that you need to be a skilled musician to make music. Inherent to their culture’s philosophy, they clearly broke the rules and teared down all constraints. And by doing that, they redefined the definition of music itself. But tearing down is not the only way to deal with constraints in music. You can do just the opposite. Many musicians and composers have enfolded constraints to stimulate their creativity.
Punkers didn’t accept the fact that you need to be a skilled musician to make music.
Since at least the 18th century’s, self-imposed constraints have been used to shake things up in Western music. For instance, there was the musical dice game: a game in which composers literally rolled the dice to choose a predetermined option for a given measure. The dice rolls randomly selected small sections of music, which would be patched together to create a musical piece. Nobody less than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart himself occasionally played the game and used it as a kind of experiment and inspiration to write some of his great masterpieces.
More recently - in pop music – we also find artists who intentionally restrict their possibilities to come up with more creative compositions. For instance: why not trying to avoid a certain instrument that would be expected in the genre? Peter Gabriel did. In his untitled album commonly called Melt he did not use any cymbals. Another example is Prince. His classic song “When Doves Cry” has no bass line. These kinds of restrictions force one’s creative process into new directions. If an entire functional role is missing, how do you fill the gap? In the case of Melt, Gabriel had to find ways to drive time forward without relying on backbones like hi-hats or ride cymbals. His solution was a range of alternative percussion instruments. In the case of “When Doves Cry,” Prince chooses to simply leave the sonic space unfilled.
If an entire functional role is missing, how do you fill the gap?
From making a whole new genre of music by trashing constraints (punk) to music composing by forcing constraints intentionally (Mozart, Stravinsky, Gabriel and Prince), there’s a big gap. Sometimes constraints are just inevitable and you cannot simply ignore them. In that case, you need to find a way around to reach your goal alternatively. But that doesn’t mean you have to downsize on creativity.
Finally, quite some musicians have turned limitations into innovative styles of playing an instrument. Django Reinhardt was a Belgian-born, Romani French jazz guitarist and composer, regarded as one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century. Django accidentally fused two of his fingers together in an accident at an early age. He relearned to play the guitar using the two remaining fingers and is an acknowledged genius in his genre. Or Rick Allen, the drummer who has played for the hard rock band Def Leppard since 1978. He overcame the amputation of his left arm in 1985 and continued to play with the band, which subsequently went on to its most commercially successful phase. Fans call him "The Thunder God". With loads of perseverance and hard work, both musicians have not only found a way to deal with their physical constraint, but above all they've influenced a bunch of other musicians with their innovative style that came out of it.