The Reality of Music and Creativity

According to Władysław Tatarkiewicz (1977, p. 53), the concept of creativity didn’t belong to the arts until the beginning of the 19th century, and beginning in the 20th century, the sciences borrowed the concept of creativity from the arts. If the sciences borrow creativity from the arts deservedly, then I would propose that with exception to composing and true improvisation, music borrows the concept of creativity undeservedly by cleverly disguising itself as one of the “creative arts.” With exception to study of composition and improvisation, musical study (which, in today’s public K-12 education system, consists mostly of music performance void of interpretation or improvisation) has no special power to nurture creativity beyond that of other disciplines.

Music composition is a lot more part of the creative arts than music performance is, so the notion of “creative arts” is vague at best and deceptive at worst. But you still get examples ctvtysuch as University of Miami considering its performing arts series to be part of its School of Creative Arts, Wright State University including their music programs in their creative arts building, or the Wellsville Creative Arts Center advertising Live Music as the central feature of their creative arts. Thankfully, there are also those who make a distinction between music and creative arts by their very titles, such as First Baptist Church Music and Creative Arts, Creative Arts & Music Center, or San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts. University of St. Francis also gets it right – their creative arts include music technology, but not music performance. Music performance is a hitchhiker on the creative arts highway.

Making this argument very clear isn’t easy to do. It only takes one or two phrases or sentences to promote a fallacy, but even the simplest of fallacies can sometimes take hours of thought and paragraphs of writing to unravel. First, I will begin with definitions and discussions of creative, creative arts and create, then I will introduce my own ideas about creative potential, creative products and teaching creativity. I will conclude with a discussion of creativity in music education and implications on music advocacy.


Let’s think about what “creative” really means in the question, “Is music creative?” Merriam-Webster online (2/8/13) offers two definitions of creative1 that are relevant to this discussion (the third has to do with intentional deception, such as “creative accounting”). The first is:

Creative – (adj.) marked by the ability or power to create: given to creating <the creative impulse>

Obviously, composers cannot write music that can write music, so music (or any discipline) in this sense cannot be “creative”. The other definition is:

Creative – (adj.) having the quality of something created rather than imitated: imaginative <the creative arts>

This is the sense in which music can be creative, but only in reference to particular pieces of music. Oddly, the writers of this definition’s example weren’t thinking carefully about how well the example matches the definition since abstract concepts like “the arts,” “music” and “dance” themselves do not have “the quality of something created rather than imitative”; it is the products that result from these broad areas that may or may not demonstrate creativity. A much better example would have been, “a creative piece of music.”

My own (third) definition might be better to clarify what is truly meant by creative when people say, “the creative arts”:

Creative – (adj.) distinguished for nurturing or demanding creativity: making creativity likely

I believe this is what we all really mean when we say, “Music is creative.” People mean to say that music is a discipline or activity that demands creativity – one that makes creativity likely (a claim this article will challenge). So it appears the word creative can refer to people, their feelings (creative impulse), their actions, the products of their actions, and (with my third definition) disciplines that require creativity. It is already hugely helpful to make this distinction in our minds whenever we use the word.

Creative Arts

Continuing to think about the “creative arts,” notice that the adjective “creative” is in the attributive position, and in this case, our attention is drawn to the noun (our focus is on the arts). We can also put the adjective in the predicative position: “those arts that are creative,” which draws our attention to the adjective. What’s the difference? Consider these two questions:

  1. Do you consider music to be among the creative arts?
  2. Do you consider music to be among those arts that are creative?

They’re different, aren’t they? This is because creative arts is a common phrase that gets thrown around so much that some people might forget that the first word “creative” is even there. In other words, asking the first question with the word “creative” omitted would be the same question to many people. But the second way of asking the question forces us to take it more literally and consider the reality that not all arts offer equal creative opportunity.

The reality is that some of the arts lend themselves to creativity far more than others, because some arts offer the mere possibility of creation, while other arts are defined by creation. Performance-oriented arts such as playing piano or dancing do not require creation to take place; students can and usually do experience performances that are nothing more than exact duplications of previously-rehearsed actions. Only our most rare, gifted students actually put genuine spontaneity into their performances and/or independently engage in thoughtful interpretation of the score. Other arts such as painting and composing would cease to exist without creation.

In fact, if we conducted a study of computer programmers and orchestra players to see which group of people is truly more “creative,” who would come out on top? The requirement of learning music and following the conductor’s lead requires a lot less daily creativity than the requirement of telling computers how to help solve human problems. And yet we consider music performance to be part of the “creative arts” while we consider computer programming to be a mere branch of science. Even our concept of the word arts is mistaken if an elegant and powerful masterpiece of computer code is not considered a piece of art, while a flawless regurgitation of someone else’s creation somehow is. There is something seriously broken with our concept of creativity, and it needs to be fixed.

What is broken, exactly? I believe the main contributing factor is that people are simply using the term “creative arts” to refer to these arts when what they really mean is “expressive arts” (as in the expression of emotion). It is tempting to assume that every time we emotionally express ourselves, we’re being creative, but this simply isn’t true. Music performance, dancing and acting may express emotion artistically, but they don’t necessarily involve creation. It’s also easy to assume that we’re not being creative when we’re not expressing ourselves emotionally, but this also isn’t true. An incredibly creative computer programmer does not produce computer code as an extension of emotional expression, and yet even the shortest computer programs can be tremendously creative. The artistry lies in the elegance, uniqueness and usefulness of the code, and the beauty of this art is difficult for someone to understand when they have never written a single line of computer code.2


I’ve heard the argument that since students are said to “make” music when they perform, performing music is therefore also a “creative” process. Again turning to Merriam Webster (2/9/13), we have that create means:

1 : to bring into existence <God created the heaven and the earth — Genesis 1:1(Authorized Version)>

2a: to invest with a new form, office, or rank <was created a lieutenant>

b: to produce or bring about by a course of action or behavior <her arrival created a terrible fuss> <create new jobs>

3: cause, occasion <famine creates high food prices>

4 a: to produce through imaginative skill <create a painting> b: design <creates dresses>

A composer both brings a composition (the abstract idea that constitutes the creation and the sheet music if notated) into existence (first definition) and produces through imaginative skill (fourth definition). A non-improvising and non-spontaneous performer satisfies only the first definition since he brings a composition into existence (that is, the manifestation of it into present experiential reality, not the abstract idea) but does not do so through imaginative skill. If we can call ourselves “creative” just because we can perform from sheet music, then by that logic, it is no less creative to install an electronic can opener using an instruction booklet.

There is nothing wrong with saying that performers “make” music; what is wrong is to conclude from this that the discipline of music performance is therefore “creative” only because “make” and “create” can be synonyms. This is a subtle example of the linguistic fallacy of equivocation, where words or phrases with two or more meanings produce nonsensical results when the meanings are commingled. An entertaining example of this would be the following double syllogism, which I’m proud to say I came up with myself. Read it slowly:

My neighborhood has 50 homes, each with two yards [front and back].

One yard equals three feet.

Every two feet requires one pair of shoes.

Therefore, my neighborhood requires 150 pairs of shoes.

The make-create syllogism would be:

All performers make music.

To make is to create.

To create is to use imagination.

Therefore, all performers use imagination.

Similarly, we cannot jump to the conclusion that an entire field of study is a “creative” field (a field that requires creativity) just because the masters at the top of the field (those who interpret, improvise, compose and teach music) are being creative, especially when the most common context for promoting the idea of music being creative is in the context of developing student creativity in school.

Creative Potential

Remembering that “creative arts” refers to those arts that makes creativity likely, how do we evaluate the creative potential of activities in school? What makes one activity generally more likely to produce creative results than another activity? I believe creative potential is related to both the person (skill level) and the activity (possible outcomes). To give examples:

  • Skill Level: A student who studied piano for six years will be far more capable of composing a creative piece of music at the piano than another student who just had his first piano lesson.
  • Possible Outcomes: There are an infinite number of stories one could make up to explain the equation 3 + 4 = 7, such as, “For the final event before the end of the world, God arranged a mud wrestling tournament between the three wise men and the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Out of seven total competitors, only one would prevail.” This limitless range of possible outcomes means the undertaking of explaining 3 + 4 = 7 has high creative potential. But there are an extremely limited number of rhythmic ways a student can respond during a typical elementary school “call and response” music activity since the response must not only conform to the meter but must also sound like it matches or fits the call in some way – this has low creative potential3.

Keeping in mind that the teacher is the only person in the classroom who can change the number of possible outcomes for a given classroom activity, we could also look at these two factors slightly differently: creative potential is related to both the student (skill level) and the teacher (providing creative opportunities).

Let’s see what is most likely to result from combinations of these factors:

 Low Skill LevelHigh Skill Level
Many Possible OutcomesModerate Creative Potential (A)High Creative Potential (B)
Few Possible OutcomesLow Creative Potential (C)Low Creative Potential (D)

Regarding the development of skill, despite the high level of creativity required to write poetry, a master poet still had to learn the alphabet, and there is nothing “creative” about having a 4-year-old sing the Alphabet Song 100 times. The foundation of almost any discipline will consist of very simple, factual, uncreative information and skills that must be assimilated and built upon over the years (e.g. alphabet, letter sounds, spelling, grammar, form). As these building blocks accumulate and become more complex, a matrix of connections between these blocks form over time. The more blocks and connections there are (the higher the skill level), the greater the possibility for creation to be meaningful (teachers can give assignments that have more possible outcomes). In his book, Orientations, Pierre Boulez writes:

“Creative mechanisms [in music composition] are nothing without imagination, but they are also nothing without the training that immeasurably strengthens them and perpetually enriches the means at their disposal.” (p. 125)

Creativity, after all, cannot exist in a vacuum. In order for divergent thinking to take place, there must be something to diverge from.

However, not all disciplines have an equal learning curve for developing enough background to make high creative potential possible. Many fourth graders have a decent command of the English language already (we all start learning spoken language as newborns), so fourth graders can start exploring poetry and creative writing. But musically, they’re like toddlers who are still learning their ABCs. Since most kids do not start private musical study from an early age, asking fourth graders to engage in a musical activity with high creative potential (many possible outcomes) would result in outcomes that would either be simplistically trivial or difficult to distinguish from ugly randomness.

I must pause in the middle of this argument for a two-paragraph caveat. I need to draw a distinction between absolute creativity and relative creativity (my own terms). An artistic creation demonstrating absolute creativity would be like high art; it would be universally recognizable as high-quality, intelligent and unique to anyone who experiences the art. An artistic creation demonstrating relative creativity would be like the piano composition of a child with no musical training. I would hear countless problems in the writing when judged against high art, but relative to the student’s skill level, the product might still be extremely creative. Absolute creativity evaluates art from the “possible outcomes” point of view (how good the creation is compared to all the other infinite things it could have been), while relative creativity evaluates art from the “skill level” point of view (how good the creation is compared to what we might expect from any student of that skill). Evaluating absolute creativity involves evaluation of the creative product, while in evaluating relative creativity (if any evaluation occurs at all), it makes more sense to evaluate the creative process.

A child with no artistic skill can still produce a recognizable, intelligent drawing, while the same child with no musical skill will have a much more difficult time producing an intelligent piece of music. Music has a special learning curve that other artistic disciplines do not have, because music does not seek to imitate our familiar reality in any direct way; it is an abstract art form. This is why I believe relative creativity and absolute creativity demonstrate so much more contrast in the realm of music than they do in visual and literary arts. When imitating reality through visual or literary arts, even the most failed attempts will still make some sense to others who observe the art. But a failed attempt to write music won’t necessarily make any sense at all to anyone but the composer. Thus, the idea of relative vs. absolute creativity is naturally of more concern to music educators than it is to educators of creative writing and visual arts.4

With this caveat in mind, outcomes demonstrating simple triviality and/or ugly randomness are exactly why fourth graders are never asked to compose music, and yet without any formal artistic instruction, they’re asked to produce drawings all the time. K-12 music educators obviously don’t believe that striving for relative creativity in music is enough like it is in most other arts (despite the fact that less musically-trained students may enjoy composing more than more musically-trained students – Carlin, p. 11); they believe the best activities to nurture musical creativity are those that also strive for absolute creativity, and this can only be accomplished through severe use of restrictive parameters. As one music teacher at an extremely well-funded elementary school puts it when asked what creative musical activities she provides to her students, “Little is left to chance.”5 This is a double-whammy. Not only do we have students with a very low skill level, we have activities that have very few possible outcomes. Thus we have that the most creative activity in music class (a class we already tend to think of as being among the most creative in school) places us in section C of the table, where creative potential is the lowest.

The table again:

 Low Skill LevelHigh Skill Level
Many Possible OutcomesModerate Creative Potential (A)High Creative Potential (B)
Few Possible OutcomesLow Creative Potential (C)Low Creative Potential (D)

This isn’t to say that music teachers like the one I quoted aren’t striving to nurture creativity. They are! It also isn’t to say they shouldn’t continue to do what they do – and more – in music class. They should! The point is that parents, journalists, county school boards and federal legislators are led through music advocacy to believe that elementary music programs as they currently exist are nurturing creativity in kids better than in other disciplines, when the reality is that students’ lack of skill in music and music’s abstract nature place limitations on their absolute creativity that don’t exist in most other school subjects. If students had musical skill comparable to the skill they have in other subjects (and if creative musical endeavors could focus more on relative creativity and not worry so much about absolute creativity), this would enable music teachers to construct activities that allow for exponentially more outcomes, and therefore greater creative potential.

The Creative Product

“Creative problem-solving abilities are useless if one lacks the desire to solve the problem. Thus, motivation can be considered as another essential ingredient to creative behavior.” (Lubart & Mouchiroud, p. 133)

Taking analysis of creative potential even further, let’s add a Z-axis that represents what happens when creative potential meets creative urge:


Note that if we liken urge to “intrinsic motivation,” then higher creative urge yields more creativity (Priest, p. 48-50). Notes about relative and absolute creativity:

  1. Absolute creativity is affected by all three axes (possible outcomes, skill level, urge to create).
  2. The four closest squares demonstrate low relative creativity, and the four farthest squares demonstrate high relative creativity. In other words, the Z-axis would represent relative creativity potential since someone with a low urge to create is not going to demonstrate great creativity relative to their skill and possible outcomes.

Our urge to create within a certain discipline has more to do with ourselves than it has to do with the discipline. I feel great urge to be creative when I’m around music, while I feel no urge whatsoever to create when someone gives me a paint brush and blank canvas. I know others who are inspired to create great computer software and who don’t have even the faintest urge to create music, poetry or painting. This is why I believe the above 3D graph will look the same in most disciplines, assuming teachers in each discipline are putting forth equal effort to give students creative opportunities.

“Creativity can be observed in virtually any domain, including arts, science, mathematics, social problem solving, business, teaching, and everyday life.” (Lubart & Mouchiroud, p. 136)

That is why, if we truly want to nurture greater creativity in our students, we need to recognize that the problem isn’t so much which subjects we’re teaching as much as it is how we’re teaching the subjects. It is up to the teacher to construct assignments that not only teach the required curriculum, but also encourage students to be creative in the process and be able to share that creativity with others. Math, physics and chemistry teachers should have students create word problems and experiments for their classmates to solve/conduct. English teachers should have students alternate between creating one-page stories and tandem stories using that week’s list of vocabulary words, and English students should be asked to create grammatically-flawed sentences for their classmates to fix. English teachers should also have contests for creating the best and worst analogies, metaphors, similes and poetry possible (have other classes vote so that nobody votes manipulatively), with discussion following the vote to analyze what makes them so good or bad. History and literature teachers should lecture in such a way that debates among students occur frequently in class. Biology teachers should have students create an animal that would survive in such-and-such an environment, or should have students pick two topics from a hat (each topic would be some kind of animal or organism) and report to the class 10 biological similarities between these two organisms. (Even more interesting, do this assignment the first week of the year, then do it again the last week of the year to see the difference in sophistication – read back the students’ original reports right after they deliver their second presentation.)

The real beauty of all these suggestions is that they all open up great possibility (and really, inevitability) of humor in the classroom, and humor undeniably helps students’ attention spans. Not only that, I am a firm believer that humor is one of the greatest ways we can nurture creativity. I give my 10th grade English teacher an ‘F minus’ in this department. She gave me an F on a grammar assignment in which I was supposed to fix dangling participles. To fix a sentence like, “I listened to the radio eating breakfast,” I wrote, “While the radio ate breakfast, I listened to it.” This teacher mistook my creativity for disrespect, even though I completed the assignment in a way that not only proved I understood the concept but also required an equal amount of work on my part as everyone else in the class. I responded by threatening to involve the principle, and she changed my grade to an A, but sternly warned me, “Don’t ever pull something like that again.” I’m not alone:

“…research documents that teachers dislike students who exhibit curiosity and creative thinking even though teachers acknowledge creativity as an important educational goal.” (Mueller, et al., p. 3)

Even before my story took place, I had the impression that this teacher was a very uncreative person herself, so it came to no surprise to me to read in the same paper that creative people are better able to recognize and assess creativity (p. 10). It would be a good start to inform these teachers that humor is highly correlated to both intelligence and creativity. It is teachers like this, not the variety of subjects students study in school, that are the greatest hindrance to the nurturing of creativity in school. A good second step might be to read the following passage to all school teachers:

“The traits characterizing an ideal student for elementary school teachers were [In studies by Kaltsounis and Torrance] not at all similar to creativity experts’ descriptions of an ideal creative child’s profile. Kaltsounis reported that there was only 4% of shared variance between the rankings given by teachers and creativity researchers. Another study involving student teachers showed that they valued highly ‘obedience / submission to authority’ and did not value ‘unwillingness to accept things on mere say-so.'” (Lubart & Mouchiroud, p. 142)

Creativity In Music Education

I corresponded with an excellent elementary school music teacher at a well-funded elementary school (referenced above) and asked her to tell me what creative things the students do in music class. For clarity, I’m going to separate the quotation into four parts:

“Fourth graders will compose a simple melody. The rhythm is given, as are the available notes from a pentatonic scale. This is their first experience [composing], so I leave little to chance.”

“Improvisation at the early levels is as simple as call and response….create a response on the drum to my call.”

“In third and fourth grade, we improvise on a given rhythmic pattern.”

“I teach the students a poem. They put the rhythm of that poem into a pentatonic scale.”

All four of these activities confirm implementation of Kodály and Orff philosophies in the classroom. But to say that the number of possible outcomes for these activities is limited would be an understatement. Students either don’t have the option of changing pitch, or when they work with pitch, it is restricted to the very limiting pentatonic scale6 while being given no rhythmic choices at all. This would be similar to giving students a poem with 10 or 15 words missing, or a picture with a few lines missing, telling them to fill in the missing words or lines. I wouldn’t say these activities are not creative, but their creative potential is extremely low compared to the creative potential for assignments in other subject areas.

In fact, it’s possible that these musical activities in standard public education may even be detrimental to student creativity. Dr. Maud Hickey writes about the improvisation currently employed in elementary school programs:

“The current methods do not ‘teach’ improvisation per se and, I believe, are more likely to hamper any creative disposition to improvise freely.” (p. 292)

Dr. Hickey reaches this conclusion because students must follow a path that is prescribed or directed by the teacher in which very limited choices guarantee tonal or rhythmic “success,” advocating for K-12 music education to utilize free exploration. Charles Cleall also advocates the same (1981), suggesting that as we mature, we perceive a greater and greater difference between our absolute and relative creative potential, which artificially dampens our urge to create, implying that perhaps kids should be less restricted in their musical exploration so that more than just a small handful of elites create music. Timothy Jones (1986) also agrees that current improvisation methods hamper creativity, but from the polar opposite viewpoint that K-12 music education should consist only of building skill and exclude creative activities. He argues that since children are incapable of producing products that demonstrate absolute creativity, so-called “creative” activities in classrooms do nothing more than provide instant gratification while failing to effectively build musical skill (and without musical skill, absolute creativity is impossible).

Many teachers are aware that children enjoy composing in the classroom, but they report that limitations of class size, noise, and time make it difficult to incorporate composition into the classroom more than on rare occasion (Strand, 2006). As one teacher writes in a survey from another study by the same author:

“I only see my students once a week for forty minutes, and there just aren’t enough hours in the year to have my students learn to sing, play instruments, read, learn about great music and musicians, and create! I know that composing is supposed to be part of their musical learning, but I just can’t fit it in.” (Strand & Newberry, p. 14)

A 2002 study by Evelyn Orman found that only 4.41% of class time is devoted to anything requiring creative decision making on the part of students in the Indiana school system:

“All the standards that required creative and/or artistic skills received the lowest proportion of class time. Improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments (3.09%), composing and arranging music within specific guidelines (1.03%), and evaluating music and music performances (0.29%) are all standards that require creative decision making and those that many would place at the very core of our discipline.” (p. 162)

The results of this study were confirmed in another 2006 study: “…singing received the greatest instructional time, while improvisation and composition received the least.” (Schmidt, et al., p. 36).

In middle school and high school, students’ musical proficiency greatly increases, and their musical experience becomes focused on individual performance within an ensemble. They are asked to play dynamics, articulation marks, etc., but the students are left out of the interpretive process, which is the only part of performance that involves imaginative creativity (performers are ” ‘re-creators’ of other people’s music,” in the words of Kampmeier, p. 23). So, despite their increased set of musical skills, their musical experience is actually less nurturing for creativity than it was in elementary school. This is corroborated by Dr. Hickey (p. 293) when she says (and demonstrates with a graph) that as students mature through the K-12 public school system, their experiences nurturing musical creativity become more and more limited.

Let’s step back for a second and gain a larger perspective on the implications of what we’ve covered so far:

  • Students demonstrate a severe lack of musical skill in their elementary years relative to other subjects in school, reducing creative potential.
  • Music has an especially high learning curve since it does not imitate any familiar realities like other arts, making it difficult for students to overcome lack of skill to achieve absolute creativity in music.
  • It is possible that activities given to nurture creativity under these conditions may actually hinder creativity.
  • Due to severely limited time and other constraints, very little class time is devoted to these creative activities.
  • As students progress through school, their musical experiences become less creative over time since they have to focus more and more on performance.

And yet, by some miracle, today’s K-12 music education still manages to be successfully promoted as one of the greatest ways to nurture creativity in our students! This is an especially unfortunate argument considering that there are numerous other truthful reasons why music should be taught in our schools, a subject I will tackle in a future post.

Teaching Creativity?

“Creative activity is a type of learning process where the teacher and pupil are located in the same individual.” – Arthur Koestler, Drinkers of Infinity: Essays 1955-1967

In his Can You Teach Creativity? video, Chris Staley offers his opinion that you can teach creativity, and the main supporting point is that fear gets in the way of creativity, implying that if you can get around students’ fear to create, they will be creative. While fear is certainly a pitfall to avoid in nurturing creativity, this doesn’t actually tell the viewer how to “teach creativity” (much less prove that creativity can be taught at all, a proof that has yet to be presented to mankind). Having no fear does not guarantee creativity; a student might instead have no interest or insufficient skill.

I agree with the main premise of Dr. Hickey’s paper: improvising simply cannot be taught; it can only be nurtured, and school music curriculum would have to be completely redesigned with this in mind if creativity really were the primary goal of musical instruction. Ken Robinson seems to agree in his TED Talk How Schools Kill Creativity, in which he argues that today’s education system is still based on the philosophy of producing good workers, a philosophy that originated from the industrial revolution. 7

Edwin Gordon also argues more generally in his paper Audiation, Music Learning Theory, Music Aptitude, and Creativity that musical creativity cannot be taught. I would extend these beliefs to the concept of creativity in general – we can nurture creativity but cannot teach it. Some define the trait of creativity as divergent thinking, and with this in mind, perhaps an act of creativity could be defined as a divergent idea, keeping in mind Lucas Foss’s definition of idea:

An idea occurs when there is chaos, and suddenly you see relationships; when you find meaning where you’ve looked before and there seemed to be only disorder. (Lapidaki, 2007)

This might be another way to convey the American Psychological Association’s notion of creativity (2/26/13), which includes two parts: originality (divergence) and functionality (idea). We cannot teach students to form divergent relationships and meanings out of chaos. We can only arm them with tools and inspire them with demonstrations.

Note that “teach” in this case is being used in a strict sense, as a separate activity from the activity of “nurture”. For example, I advertise that I “teach composition,” even though I don’t believe composition can be “taught.” I give students assignments that are most likely to nurture their creativity, but there is absolutely nothing I can do to make the student fulfill those assignments in a creative (high-quality, intelligent and imaginative) fashion. As soon as I try to teach the student how to be creative in his assignment, I have defeated the purpose of my endeavor, possibly even hampering the student’s creativity. Dr. Hickey (p. 292) points out that this creates a dilemma, because when we train students to be more skilled at musical improvisation, it makes the improvisation more “sterile”, but creativity “dries up” if one doesn’t have the skill to support creative desires.

Granted, we do “show” students how to be creative all the time; students love to see how a master solves a problem and may opt to use the same strategy in the future when confronted with a similar problem. But make no mistake: by doing this, the master is giving the student a tool. If the student uses the tool in exactly the same way in the future, the student is merely mimicking. Only the student has the power to use that tool creatively in the future.

Aaron Copland seems to imply agreement with this in his book What to Listen for in Music:

“The composer starts with his theme; and the theme is a gift from Heaven. He doesn’t know where it comes from – has no control over it… That’s why he keeps a book very often and writes themes down whenever they come. He collects musical ideas. You can’t do anything about that element of composing.”

The best hope for the argument of music performance education developing creativity would be the argument that since reading sheet music is perhaps the most complicated human activity we engage in (involving horizontal reading, vertical reading, perceiving pitch/rhythm/expression, translating all of this into physical movements, and evaluating the sound that results), this stretching of the brain wires one for greater creative potential. At first this argument has great promise, because I do believe the closest we can come to “teaching” creativity is to have students constantly work with tasks that are of great mental challenge (to build our “brain muscle,” if you will). This in turn further enables students to solve problems, and solving problems (especially with divergent ideas) is the essence of all creativity. That is why I believe mathematics and computer programming are among the very best disciplines for creative development.

But this argument breaks down from the fact that K-6 music students probably cannot sight-read a simple melody with correct pitch and rhythm on any instrument, much less read a piano score that also includes harmonic accompaniment. The intensity of their training is very low and is not even supported with practice requirements outside of class. Perhaps this argument would have some merit if all students were to receive at least one 20-minute piano lesson in school each week and were asked to practice 10-20 minutes per day. But in today’s once-per-week classroom music setting, it is impossible to produce musicians who are even remotely musically literate by sixth grade.

As students progress through grades 7-12 and their creative musical experiences become more limited, ironically, this could also be the years when their creativity is nurtured best through music, because this is where students finally start reading musical scores. The reading isn’t as intense as with piano, marimba or organ since band, orchestra and choir members can only perform one note at a time, which limits them to a single linear melody (no vertical reading of the score). Still, the integration of rhythm, pitch, expression and physical coordination holds promise for nurturing creativity. The real question is: does it hold more promise in teaching creativity than creative assignments given in other disciplines? We don’t have our answer yet, and if a study is published to show that music nurtures creativity, we need to immediately ask, “But how does this benefit compare with the benefits of other activities that nurture creativity, such as learning computer programming, playing certain creative video games, or participating in a math club?” If music’s potential to develop creativity does not exceed that of other disciplines in a significant way, then musical study has no special claim to the creativity argument.

Music Advocacy

It is difficult to find healthy skepticism when examining research on secondary benefits of musical study (creativity always being number one). As one example, one study found that musicians show increased divergent thinking, enhanced creative personality, full scale IQs and verbal IQs when compared with non-musicians (Gibson, et al., 2009). The discussion in the study asks the question, “Why are musicians better at divergent thinking than nonmusicians?” Rather than listing many possible explanations, the authors only list the single explanation, “One possibility is that some aspects of music training may enhance cognitive and neural mechanisms that are recruited for divergent thinking.” This overlooks two explanations that I believe are even more likely in a way that is fairly typical of this kind of research:

  1. Is divergent thinking the result of musical study, or is musical study (and, for that matter, extracurricular study of math, computer programming or chess) the result of divergent thinking? I am a big believer in the latter. Causation needs to be shown, not mere correlation. For a lot more on this, see my article, The Genetic Basis of Talent (especially the last half).
  2. The study selected 20 musicians who have already gone through an average of over 11 years of training [we must assume private study] with a musical instrument, while the non-musicians were required to not have any musical training other than normal K-12 curriculum. What if we held a divergent thinking contest between 20 students who had completed 11+ years of intense extracurricular involvement with chess tournaments, computer programming or math clubs, vs. 20 students with 11+ years of musical training? The results of such a study would be very informative. The problem is that the non-musicians (the control group) were not required to have any special extra-curricular training in any other disciplines, creative or not. Given this design, how could this experiment possibly come out any other way?

If researchers aren’t  mentioning these questions in their research, it is no surprise that music advocates aren’t either. The closest I can come to such research approaches the issue more indirectly. For example, Robert Root-Bernstein says that a common set of “tools of thinking” unify all disciplines. Similarly, some scholars point out great similarities between creative thinking and critical thinking (Webster & Richardson, 1994; Pogonowski, 1989), and of course critical thinking can be nurtured in any discipline. One study (Charyton & Snelbecker, 2007) goes even further to say:

“…various authors (Helson, 1996; Kersting, 2003; Simonton, 1999) have contended or suggested that artists have higher creativity levels than do scientists and engineers. But the present findings, although showing statistically significant differences on some measures, do not indicate that there are substantial creativity differences between engineers and musicians. Thus, it seems reasonable to explore whether some engineers or scientists may have higher levels of creativity, using the present measures, or through other measures.” (p. 222)

If it is true the creative thinking and critical thinking are so similar, why then does music need to have a special claim on creativity, above and beyond all other disciplines? I propose it doesn’t. Many people do not study music because they wish to be creative; they study music because they wish to enjoy themselves and be expressive. We educators need to accept and embrace the reality that the type of enjoyment that many people get out of musical study has nothing to do with a desire to create anything, and there is nothing wrong with that. (If I were speaking, I would repeat that sentence again, slowly.) In the spirit that all disciplines need to be taught by teachers who are continuously looking for opportunities to nurture creativity, I believe there should be more nurturing of creativity in music. But I cannot say the same out of any belief that musical study needs to be the paragon of all creative nurturing in school just because music is such an emotive outlet.

Advocacy cannot be based on what we wish were true; it must be based on the facts. This article serves as a supporting argument in my article We Need More Honesty In Music Advocacy.


Boulez, Pierre. Orientations. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Carlin, Joi. “Musical preference for compositions by selected students aged 9-15 years.” Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education 133 (1997): 9-13.

Charyton, Christine and Glenn Snelbecker. “General, Artistic and Scientific Creativity Attributes of Engineering and Music Students.” Creativity Research Journal 19:2-3 (2007): 213-225.

Cleall, Charles. “Notes toward the clarification of creativity in music education.” Psychology of Music 9:1 (1981): 44-47.

Copland, Aaron. What to Listen for in Music. New York: McGrow-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1957.

Gibson, Crystal, Bradley Folley, and Sohee Park. “Enhanced divergent thinking and creativity in musicians: A behavioral and near-infrared spectroscopy study.” Brain and Cognition 69 (2009): 162-169.

Hickey, Maud. “Can improvisation be ‘taught’?: A call for free improvisation in our school.” International Journal of Music Education 27.4 (2009): 285-299.

Jones, Timothy. “Education for Creativity.” British Journal Of Music Education 3.1 (1986): 63-78.

Kampmeier, Valerie. “Intuitive improvisation: A guide for beginners.” American Music Teacher 57.3 (2007): 22-23.

Lapidaki, Eleni. “Learning from Masters of Music Creativity.” Philosophy of Music Education Review 15.2 (2007): 93-117.

Lubart, Todd I. and Christophe Mouchiroud (Davidson, Janet E., and Robert J. Sternberg, eds.). “Creativity: A Source of Difficulty in Problem Solving.” The Psychology of Problem Solving. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003: 127-148.

Mueller, Jennifer, Shimul Melwani and Jack Goncalo. “The bias against creativity: Why people desire but reject creative ideas” [Electronic version]. Retrieved 2/26/2013, from Cornell University, ILR School (2011). Site:

Orman, Evelyn K. “Comparison of the national standards for music education and elementary music specialists’ use of class time.” Journal of Research in Music Education 50.2 (2002): 155-164.

Pogonowski, Lenore. “Critical thinking and music listening.” Music Educators Journal 76.1 (1989): 35-38.

Prével, M. “Emergent Patterning in children’s musical improvisations.” Canadian Music Educator 15 (1979): 13-15.

Priest, Thomas. “Self-evaluation, creativity, and musical achievement.” Psychology of music 34.1 (2006): 47-61.

Schmidt, Charles P., Rhonda Baker, Beth Hayes and Eva Kwan. “A descriptive study of public school music programs in Indiana.” Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education (2006): 25-37.

Strand, Katherine. “Survey of Indiana music teachers on using composition in the classroom.” Journal of Research in Music Education 54.2 (2006): 154-167.

Strand, Katherine, and Erica Newberry. “Teachers share practical advice on classroom composing.” General Music Today 20.2 (2007): 14-19.

Tatarkiewicz, Wladyslaw. “Creativity: History of the Concept.” Dialectics and Humanism 4.3 (1977): 48-63.

Webster, Peter, and Carol Richardson. “Asking children to think about music.” Research Studies in Music Education 2.1 (1994): 8-14.

(c) 2013 Cerebroom

  1. Note that the word creative is derivative of create, which means it is impossible to define creative without using create in the definition. Likewise, to define brownish, one would need to use brown in the definition.
  2. For greater understanding of the tremendous potential to nurture creativity through coding, see this excellent video. Resources for nurturing creativity through coding and video games: Scratch, Lego Mindstorms, Tekkit for Minecraft (Minecraft already has Creative Mode; Tekkit is an add-on for this), Python For Kids.
  3. Even when students can use eighth notes, there are only 256 rhythmic ways to play a single measure of 4/4 time, and mathematically speaking, this is still a very small number of possible outcomes for a creative activity. Many of these 256 rhythmic possibilities won’t be explored anyway, since the goal of call and response is to make the response sound like it “fits” the call.
  4. Music educators might like to take note that while children ultimately prefer scribbling on paper to “scribbling with sound,” kids prefer both activities equally when a recording of the sound exploration is produced (Prével, 1979). The recording provides the student with a tangible product, even if it is still abstract.
  5. To clarify what is meant by this phrase, this is the same as saying, “I rig the creative activities with so many restrictive parameters that it makes it virtually impossible for the creative product to sound aesthetically displeasing.”
  6. For those who don’t know what the pentatonic scale is, try holding the right pedal down on the piano and play nothing but random black notes. Notice that almost nothing you do short of using your forearm at the bottom of the piano will produce an aesthetically-displeasing sound.
  7. In all fairness, while this TED talk supports the point that school doesn’t do a very good job nurturing creativity, I would argue that a good education during any century or era will result in good workers, good people, and good citizens. Furthermore, I’m not convinced school itself even has the power to “kill” creativity – while it may not nurture it very well, I don’t believe anyone or anything has the power to rob another individual of their creativity.

About Chad

Chad is a pianist, composer, piano teacher and blogger with a Masters Degree in Piano Performance. He received the 2005 Nevada Arts Council Fellowship Grant for the composing and performing on his Ostinato CD.
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10 responses to The Reality of Music and Creativity

  1. Pingback: Cerebroom – We Need More Honesty in Music Advocacy

  2. Candy Hutchins

    Wow Chad! This is more of a dissertation than a simple blog! There is a lot of information to digest in your article. I will have to re-read it several times to fully understand it. But I believe we both agree that creative thinking is not limited to the arts. People can and will create something based upon their interests, experience and knowledge. The study of music in schools is too time limited to allow for creativity. And sadly that is the truth for my own private lessons.

    • I hear you, of course with the understanding that we can still find little creative opportunities for students, such as having them come up with their own dynamic/articulation plan in a piece of baroque music, which I do even from the first baroque piece studied (I only guide students when they make “bad” choices, and I help them to understand what makes a choice good or bad), or encouraging them to figure out unwritten dynamic phrasing shapes in a piece.

      But regarding your use of the word “sadly” in your last sentence, remember the italicized sentence the 2nd-to-last paragraph of the article! Whether this is a “sad” truth or not really depends on the goals of the student, and I honestly believe that the majority of people are involved with music in order to experience and enjoy what others have created, not necessarily to create it. Part of what my article may accomplish is to allow some teachers to stop beating themselves up for not turning music into some kind of hugely creative endeavor for all students. 🙂

      • Candy Hutchins

        True- it doesn’t have to be a sad situation. I have been inquiring casually if my students are interested in composing. Some frankly are appalled by the idea…probably because of bad experiences at school when they are demanded to create something that they have no interest in. And to consider it another way- most actors do not write or have any interest in writing their own material nor are they criticized for not doing so.

  3. Candy Hutchins

    Chad- I think we should use this article as the basis for a group discussion for next year’s GPC PMTA program. I have more thoughts on this, but would prefer discussing it in person. I wish you could have know our former member Elizabeth Burnett. She had her young students creating music weekly. If you ever get a chance to see her presentation at MTNA conference, you really should do so.

    • Thanks Candy, I do think this subject is one that will inspire hours of fascinating discussion among teachers. As for Elizabeth Burnett, I will be sure to keep my eyes out for her name.

  4. With the prevalence of a paint-by-number “read only” pedagogy in the last 50 years, I can agree with this article. However, many self-taught musicians or those who were lucky enough to find a teacher who led them into the fascinating world of chords, lead sheets, and improvisation would find music-making to be a very creative endeavor indeed.

    • Are we talking about the same article? This article isn’t referring to any kind of pedagogy in the private setting, it’s referring to K-12 public music education. My article also already acknowledges several times that composition and improvisation are far more creative endeavors than traditional study of music performance (whether private or public), so I’m not sure why you use the word “however” in your response.

      Also, music owns no special claim to the idea that self-teaching involves creativity. People who are able to teach themselves to play great tennis or program computers all on their own are also equally creative people. It’s the process of teaching oneself anything that is creative (see quote that begins “Teaching Creativity?” section), not the subject matter one chooses. I realize we all would love to believe that we’re the only ones in the world who are creative (or our area of expertise somehow is more “creative” because it has more of an “artistic air” about it than engineering and marketing), but that just isn’t the case…

  5. “We educators need to accept and embrace the reality that the type of enjoyment that many people get out of musical study has nothing to do with a desire to create anything, and there is nothing wrong with that.” Now that is radical thought. Good deal, I love it! I came to your article (and read a number of others, in full) via my attempt to subscribe to a series of daily motivational quotes. Your article is all the motivation I need to continue teaching “hobbyists” (which is all the music that most folks want, I’ve found) to use chords and keyboards, Thanks for this hard work.

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