Innovation, Creativity, and Emotion: Let it Flow

By Stephen Webber

Stephen Webber
Stephen Webber
Melissa Kolaks Broaddus

Like many musicians, artists, and Berklee faculty colleagues, if someone says it can’t be done, it’s hard for me not to take that as a challenge and try to prove them wrong. “You can’t teach emotion,” was one of the axioms that tended to make me raise an eyebrow. As a young music student at North Texas State University, I heard so many teachers throw this mantra out as accepted conventional wisdom that it made me curious, and eventually determined.

Certainly, the teaching of technique and theory is massively important, and much less subjective to quantify; but given the importance of the emotional element of music, shouldn’t we at least be spending some time exploring the topic?

For more than 10 years, I’ve been searching out, designing, iterating, and refining a series of exercises, observation techniques, tools, and strategies that students can use to explore the emotional impact of music, and the results have been satisfying. Students and alumni have reported that this awareness has been helpful in composition, arranging, production, and performance.

A few weeks ago in the lobby of Berklee Valencia, one of my online students with whom I was meeting in person for the first time, told me with some urgency: “I wanted to tell you,” she proclaimed, “I’ve earned bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in music, and your Music Production Analysis course was the first time in my studies that anyone ever asked me to consider how a piece of music made me feel.” We both let that sink in for a moment. “That’s terrifying,” I finally said. She and her husband nodded in agreement.

As I took up the challenge to help shepherd the creation of the curriculum for the Music Production, Technology and Innovation masters program (MPTI) a couple years ago, I was once again faced with topics that some said could not be taught. Is innovation a discipline? Can creativity be taught? I was determined to find out. I was just as determined to mold the Music Technology Innovation Seminar, MPTI’s pivotal offering, into a practical class. I wanted to fill it with exercises, projects, science, and meaningful work that would instill an innovation mind-set in the students, and stir their creative juices.

I poured myself into the literature on creativity and innovation. Much of what I found came from business schools: entrepreneurship courses at Stanford and MIT, technical programs that stress prototyping and iteration, design firms like IDEO where prototyping and incorporating feedback effectively and swiftly are taken to ninja levels.

The more I researched how “to succeed in business” by applying creativity and innovation, the more I realized that the very same skills are what so often lead to success in the music world.

Innovation often consists of combining existing elements in new ways. Henry Ford appropriated the effective workflow he observed at a Kansas City meat-packing plant and modulated it into an assembly line for building automobiles. Ray Charles appropriated the emotionally riveting gospel music styles he learned playing in church and adapted them into secular radio hits.

Some think of creativity as being a “soft” skill; the lightning strike of a great idea that some people are blessed with, and others are too busy to notice. In practice, adopting a creative mind-set has less to do with strikes of lightning and more with staying on the edge of learning new skills day after day, a little at a time, while keeping one’s mind open to magic. Of course, there will be false starts and dead ends, and they all have something to teach us if we are listening.

For something to be considered creative, it is generally agreed that there should be something novel about it. This means exhaustively studying what has come before, to make sure you are not re-inventing the wheel, or (worse) thinking you are being creative as you fall into the same traps that countless others have fallen into.

If you’re driving into Boston on Route 2 and hit a traffic jam, you may believe you’re thinking creatively by taking the Belmont exit and wending your way on the surface roads. However, if hundreds of other drivers take this route at the same time and you’re still jammed in traffic on the surface roads, this solution starts to look decidedly less creative and more common. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t know that hundreds of others had exactly the same idea at the same time, the commonness of the solution stands in the way of its success and prevents it from being novel or creative.

There are many examples of this phenomenon that Berklee faculty members experience with practically every new crop of students: neophyte songwriters who believe they are the first to discover throwing out all semblance of song form in favor of wandering around haplessly in pursuit of a “through composed” song. Or first-semester metal guitarists who decide they will be the first to unleash crunchy distorted major-seventh chords instead of power chords because they just learned how to play a major-seventh chord and they’ve never heard anyone do that before.

In all disciplines there is low-hanging fruit that just doesn’t taste very good. Blazing through these intelligently and swiftly is part of the process. If an idea is deemed worth pursuing, one of the first steps is to find out what has already been done. It’s less than ideal to spend copious hours in a vacuum developing an idea that you believe is creative, only to discover that you’ve re-invented the wheel for the umpteenth time.

Getting into a truly innovative and creative mind-set is energizing. Once we get the ball rolling through scheduling time to actively explore, so many new ideas and concepts start to show up that we get the feeling that anything is possible. The energy that comes from generating all these great new ideas is welcome, because with each new idea, there is the prospect of deciding what to do with it.

Imagine an interactive musical ping-pong table, fitted with sensors that trigger musical events with every bounce of the ball. Each player is represented by a unique set of sounds, and a new musical sequence is created by every game played. Liam Neeson announces the score, the tempo increases with each point, and when one player comes within two points of winning the game, he or she automatically starts stealing notes away from the opponent’s sequence.

Imagine walking through a space as vast as a Boeing jumbo jet factory on a glass floor where you see whales swimming below. This immersive, three-dimensional virtual space is filled with hundreds of critters and statues acknowledging you as you pass, each emitting a unique musical sound. These resonances combine to create a luscious soundscape that is never the same twice, as you journey toward a four-story tall statue of Buddha, presiding over one end of the great hall.

Imagine the rich and varied traditional music of Ecuador, lovingly immersed in the grooves of electronica, interlacing with live musicians, singers, DJs, interactive lighting, and digital video of the country’s ecological wonders and indigenous people.

Imagine an interactive digital conducting system that senses your movements in space. As you conduct, a lush virtual orchestra follows your tempo and dynamics, mimicking the characteristics of the famous orchestras it has been programmed to imitate. A musical robot performs the solo for the concerto you are conducting, also responding to your direction.

All these were culminating experience projects executed by talented students in the MTI master’s program at Berklee Valencia. They all represent creative thinking and contain countless innovations in their execution. And they are all the result of plenty of hard work.

Twyla Tharp, perhaps the leading choreographer of her generation, reminds us that, “Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is the result of good work habits.” Work hard, stay open, and have fun.

Stephen Webber is the program director for music production, technology and innovation and the senior advisor for technology and strategy at Berklee’s Valencia Campus.