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In regards to Flow and its applications in music composition View Raw Firki

The following lyceum article is currently a straight copy and paste of this forum post and, as such, will contain references to conversation made in that topic; a proper formatting of this article that neutralizes the language to a more general tone may come at a later time.

Original post by johnfn, in response to the forum thread "p̶e̶t̶i̶t̶i̶o̶n̶:̶ ̶d̶e̶ now just a general thread for ppl to talk abt their general ohb experiences i guess" which was formerly named "petition: d̶e̶s̶t̶r̶o̶y̶ neuter the badge system".

i am going to write up my thoughts on reclaiming the creativity you used to have. this is gonna be long but i hope that you will read it anyways, because i've been thinking about it for a very long time!


i totally understand where you are coming from. i have thought about this for a while to try to understand it better. this is the state of my thoughts so far.

essentially, the problem that you/i/a lot of musicians have is that when they begin writing music, getting into the zone is effortless. as we progress, we become better musicians, but ironically the process of getting into the zone becomes more and more difficult. i would constantly find myself frustrated that i had a lot of ability but lacked any interesting material to use it on! why is that?

first, you should understand that "the zone" is actually a scientifically studied phenomenon. it's called "flow", and a scientist named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (quite a mouthful) has written a book called "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience" which is all about it and how to understand it. if you don't want to read the whole book, i'll summarize (though maybe you should)

first of all, flow IS THE ZONE. if you are in flow, you are in the zone. you are really enjoying what you're doing, and you're doing it effortlessly. the other important thing is that - and this isnt in the book, just my own experience, but i'm pretty sure its true -


you don't sit down at the DAW and immediately come up with the most beautiful melody and chord progression and whatever. instead, you fiddle around for a while, get into flow, and THEN once you're in the zone you start to produce good and meaningful stuff.

his basic argument is that you get into flow when the difficulty of the task strikes the right balance between too easy (which is boring) and too hard (which produces anxiety).

i think what happens to a lot of musicians - or at least what happened to me - is that they start to be unable to get into flow because the difficulty of sitting down and creating capital a Art (as they believe they should be doing) is too high. you sit down, try to write something, and it doesn't work, it's not art, and you're like wtf i suck at this, and then you close your daw and you wonder how you ever enjoyed writing music in the first place.

how did we get into flow so effortlessly when we just started out? there are many reasons. a big one is of course that we weren't holding ourselves to such high standards at the beginning. and another one is, everything is so novel! why novelty is important is something i'll get into in a bit.

now the problem is, how do you strike the right level of difficulty? writing a song is writing a song. you can't exactly make it easier. and i hate people who say "just dont hold yourself to high standards, and it'll be easier" oh great i'm glad that works for you, must be awesome, but for me it's not a switch i can just turn off. i wish it were!

(and that's why a lot of people advocate for OHCs, because they allow you to turn that 'self criticism' switch of because "hey bro it was just done in an hour!" okay great, but now i've done hundreds of OHCs, and even my OHC output is pretty good, so now i'm judging myself on that, and we're back to square one. OHCs as a "creativity enhancer" are just as flawed as almost everything else)

the way that i've found to sort of flip off the switch of self criticism and expectation and get into flow is to work on something very trivially easy and engrossing until i do get into flow, and then move into more difficult stuff.

i think one of the most important things i've found is that getting into flow/the zone isn't something magical and amazing. in fact, getting into flow is a pretty mundane process! (we often think that flow is magical, because the things we produce when we are in it are in fact magical and amazing! but dont get the things we make confused with the process by which we get there).

what kind of stuff works to kickstart getting into the zone? Csikszentmihalyi's "level of difficulty" is a good template, but not prescriptive enough. here's what i personally find works for me:

1. it has to be something that i can't judge myself over
2. it has to be something that i have to spend at least 15-20 minutes on to get it done
3. it has to have some degree of experimenting to it. it cant be "just follow these steps"
4. you need to actually be making changes you can hear.

for example, i find melody/progression very difficult to do without judging myself, so i'll never start there. instead, i will open up a project and start fiddling with a drumline or pad rhythm or something. these can be fun and engrossing but i'll never judge myself over not being able to get an interesting one. or i'll start off simply by copying ideas from another song, which is again something really easy to do and is basically impossible to have high expectations for yourself while doing it because you're just copying another song.

it's really really important that this stuff takes a good bit of time to do. it takes at least 20 minutes of this sort of process for me to really get into the zone.

just making a change - ANY change - is often a good way to ease into the process. in writing, writers often combat writers block by writing x hundred words a day, completely disregarding if they're any good. this is #4 to a tee. (of course, by the process of writing dumb stuff, you get into flow, and then you start to write good stuff. this is why the process works.) in programming, i can FEEL myself becoming more motivated as i add features which i can see.

in music, i can FEEL the motivation as i make changes to the song which i like. and contrarily i can FEEL myself getting demotivated when i try to add something, then go "nah" and delete it, etc. maybe you're thinking "but that just means you're not feeling creative that day!" no - you've got it backwards! (along with basically every person who's ever thought about it!)

it's not that you're not creative, so you can't make good changes. it's that you're not making changes, SO YOU DONT BECOME CREATIVE.

do you see why it's really easy to NOT get into flow now? when i was a bad musician years ago, it would take me at least 20 minutes to do a really trivial task, like put down a baseline. i'd experiment with all the different rhythms before finally finding one, and then i'd have to select a proper bass instrument, etc, etc, etc. i'd be spending a ton of time concentrating on this task, and that was enough to move my mind over into the zone. now that i'm more experienced as both a daw user and a musician, i've got the process SO STREAMLINED that I DONT TAKE LONG ENOUGH ON IT TO GET INTO FLOW.

do you see now why it was so easy to get into flow when you were just starting out? EVERYTHING was the kind of thing that could get you into flow. you'd spend tons of time on some trivial task because you'd have no pre-established notions about how to do it, and then after a while boom you'd be in flow, because that's exactly how flow works.

do you see why it's such common advice to "try doing something totally new" when asking for help about creativity? because people are subconsciously realizing that doing something new leads you back into that magic type of task that will get you into the zone.

do you see what's happening here? BECOMING A BETTER AND MORE EFFICIENT MUSICIAN ACTUALLY MAKES YOU WORSE AT BEING CREATIVE, BECAUSE YOU DONT WORK LONG ENOUGH ON A TASK TO GET INTO THE ZONE. it's really and truly insane, and completely counterintuitive.

when you, sqwerty, and others are saying that you are spiraling inwards creatively, i think that this is the essential problem you're running into: the tasks you used to be bad at (and therefore got into flow while doing) you have now streamlined so well that you dont get into flow while doing them. flow is what you enjoy - not getting into flow means not enjoying what you're doing any more. so you move to something else you're not good at, and you do it for a while, and its fun, and then you get good at it and then you dont get into flow any more, and its not fun. sound familiar?

first of all, notice how well this conforms to our own experiences. i hear from many musicians that if you're working on the same track for >20hr and its not working out, you should scrap it, because you're not producing good music any more. why is this?

i'll explain by anecdote: i've noticed of myself that if i continue to work over the same piece for a long time, over many days, I STOP GETTING INTO FLOW. the process of creation is no longer happening, i'm just twiddling with stuff, not focusing on anything for long enough so of course i never get into flow, and since i'm not in flow, i'm not at my maximum creativity.

it's not some sort of inherent flaw with humans that they can only work on the same stuff for 20 hours (okay, there is definitely musical fatigue, and that's totally a thing too, but it's not the only factor at play here!) - it's rather that the default mode we get into when we're working on a piece we've been working on for a long time IS NOT A MODE CONDUCIVE TO BEING IN THE ZONE.

speaking from my own experience, i am both a musician and a programmer, and i have always found it weird that i can get into flow trivially easily while programming, but find it much more difficult to get into flow as a musician.

this theory actually explains this discrepancy very naturally: dang near every single thing you do as a programmer falls into the "mundane and easy" category, so almost every task is a springboard into flow. furthermore, you totally cant judge yourself as a programmer, because so much of programming is just doing stuff you've done before, so there's no nuance or creativity there. (not to write off the entire field of course, it still uses creativity at times, but it's a bit more rare!) as a musician, i would try to make myself do the toughest stuff - like melody writing - up front, and then never get into flow because it'd immediately be way too hard.

there's a bit of an unstated question here, which is: what happens if you get so good at everything that you can't find any in-roads into flow? to be honest, i think this is impossible. to speak about programming again (im a better programmer than musician, so i feel more comfortable explaining from that perspective), i've been programming for nearly 20 years and i've never hit this point and i _know_ i never will. the mechanics of flow are such that there are an infinite number of ways to get you there.

with respect to music, watching mr. bill produce music on youtube gives me hope. (if you're not sure what i'm talking about: mr. bill has 3 10-hour series where he produces an entire track from start to end. actual, good music.) the way that he does it is just bounce a bunch of weird audio and screw around with the sequencing of it until he gets to something he likes. if you want to see someone get into flow in real time, just watch him screw around on the 2nd episode of season 2. this process feels akin to the programming tasks i was talking about - you could do it in an infinite number of ways and it would always work.

for completion's sake, there is more than just getting into flow to being creative. there's also a large mood component. it's kind of like a wall - when i'm in a great mood, the wall is small (flow is really easy to get into), and when i'm in a terrible mood, well, it's still possible, but the wall you have to climb is much higher.

i wish i could tell you how to always be in a great mood so that you could always trivially get into flow, but unfortunately i still don't know how to do that. but i do know that the two feed off of each other. being in flow a lot puts you in a great mood, and being in a great mood means it's easier to get into flow, etc.


i dont think that not enjoying music comes with the territory of being a better musician. rather, i think it's that we forget how we used to produce music back when we liked it more, and that paradoxically spending more time fumbling around leads to getting into the zone more. sacrificing our father's lamb during the full moon is not a requisite to being creative again. we can recreate the situations required to get into the zone by working on tasks that fall into the category of "things we aren't particularly good at yet" or, failing that, "things that take a while and are a little interesting to do that we won't judge ourselves for doing"