Creativity Workouts: Helping Students Build the Creative Muscles to Compose

creativity workouts

Fear of Composing

“I couldn’t be a composer. I’m just not a creative person. It’s difficult to come up with good ideas!” Have you ever engaged in this kind of negative self-talk? I have. Many times! Thankfully, none of these statements are true. The fact is that everyone on the planet is highly creative. Creativity is what defines us as humans. If you’ve ever had to solve a problem, and we all have, then you’ve engaged in the creative process. If you’ve ever taken unrelated things and put them together to make something new, you’ve engaged in the creative process. I want to assure you that you are, indeed, very creative.

So why do we think we’re not? Our creativity muscles are out of shape. If you were going to be a bodybuilder you wouldn’t expect to be able to lift heavy weights after just one workout at the gym. You have to workout daily and you wouldn’t even see any noticeable results for a long time. Well, if you want strong creativity muscles you have to workout daily and being out of “creative shape” doesn’t make us feel too confident.

Ideas are Cheap

In a another article I quoted Merlin Mann who said, “Ideas are cheap. Making them into something awesome is super hard!” I believe what Merlin is saying is that creative ideas are plentiful (not that they don’t have value) but developing them into a work of art takes a lot more time and effort. I agree with Merlin. I’m often surprised at the amount of ideas I have when starting a new piece. This may seem hard to believe because we tend to judge our ideas too soon.

Perhaps we think we have to compose a piece perfectly from start to finish the first time. When we try this approach we often (always?) second guess ourselves and this can lead to a belief that we are not creative. There is a point in the creative process where we do need to evaluate our ideas but that point is not during the initial brainstorming stage. We simply need to generate as many ideas as possible without judgement. Just get them all out on the table. Only then can we sit back and start to prioritize and evaluate. More on this later.

Theory is Not Music Creation

Perhaps you’ve thought, I can’t compose music, I don’t know enough theory. Theory is important and if you are going to get serious about composition, you’ll have to engage with it eventually. Let me tell you, theory is not the same thing as music creation. I repeat, theory is not the same thing as music creation. Music creation (composition) is about two things: 1) thinking in sound and 2) organizing sound. That’s it! This is what every composer does on a daily basis so it makes sense that if you want to get good at composition, to build strong creativity muscles, you have to workout daily. Enter Creativity Workouts.

Teaching Tip: Try these Creative Workouts as class assignments using MakeMusic Cloud’s Compose app!

Creativity Workout #1 – Write What You See/Hear

So, this is Creativity Workout #1. Whatever you are listening to, do two things: 1) Note what images the music is evoking in your mind and/or what emotional or physiological changes you are experiencing and 2) Listen again (multiple times if necessary) and note what, specifically, you are hearing. What instruments do you hear, e.g., brass, strings, etc. How did the composer increase or decrease the intensity level? Is the tempo fast or slow (did it change? If so, when?), are the dynamics loud or soft (did they change?), is the texture (layering of instruments) thick or thin (did it change? When, how?)? 

Constantly asking these questions about the music you are hearing will teach you a great deal about how composers organize sound and, pretty soon, you will begin to use these tools yourself.

Music Can Change Your State

Have you ever listened to a piece of music and noticed that it changed your emotional and/or physiological state? You were feeling normal and then, while listening, you felt sad or happy, or perhaps your pulse increased, you started tapping your foot, or you had a rush of goosebumps because of a beautiful harmony. As a kid, this happened to me frequently. Still does! I heard a lot of great classical and big band recordings as a kid. Every time my state would change, I would think, “How do composers know how to organize those ink spots on the page” so that they affect me like this. I started trying to figure out what I was hearing. I did this so often that it just became a habit. When we do this regularly, an interesting thing happens. We build up a musical cause-and-effect library in our mind. To get this sound, put these instrumental colours together. To elicit this emotion, try this harmony, etc. We have all done this but how often do we pay attention to it. This is why Creativity Workout No. 1 is so important. Listen, analyze, imitate!

Creativity Workout #2 – Thinking in Sound

If you were paid one million dollars (now there’s motivation!) to compose a piece of music with the title TIME by next week, no doubt you could do it, but what would it sound like? Close your eyes and for 10 seconds, think in sound. What, specifically, you are hearing, e.g., strings, winds, percussion? Describe the tempo, dynamics, and texture. Did any of these elements change?

If so, when?

Let’s try another one. This time let’s do 20 seconds (and 2 million?) and the title is “JOURNEY.” Close your eyes, think in sound. Ask yourself the same questions: What are you hearing (instrumental colours, tempo, dynamics, texture)? Ok, one more, 30 seconds (3 million? Ok let’s not get greedy). Close your eyes and think in sound. Again, theory is important but (you guessed it) it’s not the same as music creation. The study of theory, harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration is essential, just as learning the alphabet and the rules of grammar was when you were young, but doing creativity workouts daily is just as critical in your journey as a composer.

Creativity Workout #3 – Melodic Contour

When we speak in a monotone (every word on the same pitch) it gets boring and difficult to listen to. The same with melodies. To be interesting, to engage the listener, the melody needs to have an interesting shape, one that leads the listener forward. This isn’t theory but rather, a simple technique you can put in your composer toolbox. Whether you sit at the piano or are capturing your thoughts on manuscript, try writing a melody every day. It doesn’t matter if it’s two bars or thirty-two. Just write regularly and pay attention to the melodic contour. Experiment! Take some musical risks. Are you listening daily as well? Sigh! So much to do, so little time!

Creativity Workout #4 – Repetition and Variation

Did you know that human beings are pattern recognition experts. Have you ever walked into a room and had the feeling you’ve been there before. Or perhaps, an unexpected aroma reminds you of someone you once knew. No different in music. Your ear is constantly aware of musical ideas (motifs, rhythms, harmonies, timbres) you’ve previously heard. If every measure of the melody was exactly the same, it would be boring. If every measure was completely different from every other, it would be confusing and eventually we would lose interest. So, how do composers know how much to repeat an idea and when to change it up? Composers are constantly working to find a balance between repetition and variation and a classic example is the opening movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. Listen to how many times the Master uses that four-note motif and when, and how, he varies it to keep things interesting. The balance between repetition and variation cannot be taught but you can learn it by just actively listening (A LOT!!). The great thing is, you can find this relationship in pretty much every piece ever written. Incidentally, things like sequence, elongation, and diminution are also musical devices (tools) to listen for. 

Take one of your themes or any other musical element (rhythm, harmony, texture) of a piece you are working on and experiment with an eye to the balance between repetition and variation. Try moving things around. How does using a sequence, elongation, or diminution change the balance. These tools shouldn’t be used indiscriminately but always with the goal of making a piece musical and expressive.

Creativity Workout #5 – Resolving Vision

“Creativity is the process of resolving vision.”

—Kourosh Dini

Much of the angst or fear of composing can stem from an unclear vision. What is your piece about? What’s the inspiration? This is the part of the creative process where we begin to organize sound. It’s difficult to organize sound if your vision or concept of the work isn’t clear and you will experience more stress than you’d like. The blank page can induce a great deal of fear but it doesn’t need to stay blank for very long. Poems, pictures, and stories can help because they often provide a lot of vivid imagery (remember workout #1, write what you see?). The practice of connecting images to sound is a great help in clarifying vision. Thinking in sound (workout #2) gets much easier the more we do this.

Mind Maps

Mind mapping is a great way to work towards clarifying your vision. Remember, ideas are plentiful so just start generating them and don’t worry if they aren’t perfect. As I said earlier, we often try to write a piece perfectly from start to finish and in the process wind up with a lot of discarded ideas crumpled up in our mental waste paper basket. It is so much easier to not evaluate ideas in the initial stages of music creation. Just capture each one and wait for your brain to offer up the next idea. Start with a word or concept that you feel the piece “could” be about. Write it down. That will make you think of a related word. Connect them with a line. It’s important to actually do this with paper and pencil.

Play the word association game. Even if you aren’t sure the words are connected, just write them down. Remember, do not evaluate. It doesn’t matter if the words aren’t music related (though you may eventually be quite surprised at the number of words you write that are). Just keep writing them down and when it seems there aren’t any more ideas flowing, then you can look at your list and decide which to focus on. The point is that evaluation comes later, after you are finished brainstorming. If you tell your brain that every idea it offers you isn’t “perfect” it will stop generating them. Professor Gerard Puccio, Professor at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State University, tells us that “It’s only after we exhaust that which is familiar to us, do we start to really generate novel and unusual options.” Makes sense! Your mind map should literally look messy because of the sheer number of ideas your brain has generated. The more options you have, the better your choices will be. So, see what’s inside the box first, then when you’ve seen everything there, see what’s outside of it.

Mindmap often. I do this with every new piece. I highly recommend it!



I do need to mention that reflection is an essential part of the creative process. Yes, composers think in, and organize, sound but if they don’t have an opinion about that sound, then it just won’t be a work with any authenticity or artistic honesty. So experiment, create, and reflect. It’s a constant cycle until you come to a point where you know the piece is done.

Final Measures

Well, that’s about it for now. Five very effective workouts that, if done regularly, will help your creativity muscles to get in great shape. To recap, they are 1) write what you see and hear 2) think in sound 3) write melodies daily 4) experiment with the balance between repetition and variation balance and 5) mind map regularly to help resolve your vision. Remember, regular workouts are vital to the creative health of students AND teachers so be a great role model. Encourage kids to do creativity workouts regularly. We do scale warmups, why not creativity warmups as well? Don’t stop!

You’ll soon be on fire! Keep it going. These workouts will prove beneficial even in your non-music life. Hey wait a sec…there’s no such thing!

An Alfred Music author since 2006, Vince Gassi is a much sought-after composer, conductor, and clinician. With over 100 published titles to his credit, Vince’s creative and energetic style has made him a favorite with young musicians. His works, both challenging and musically rewarding, appear on many international concert and contest lists.
For twenty-five years Vince has taught Instrumental Music at the elementary and secondary school levels. He is in frequent demand as a guest conductor, adjudicator, and clinician throughout the United States and Canada. His Cool Ideas and Arranging Concepts seminars focus on ways to engage students and teachers in the creative process. Vince’s new workshop, Digital Workflows for Music Directors, offers cutting-edge strategies empowering music directors to achieve peak performance.

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