Making Friends With Infinity

Why do so many people feel anxious when asked to improvise or compose music? There are a lot of reasons. Here’s one:

Consider the first six notes of Happy Birthday to You. How many six-note melodies like this can you make if you limit yourself to just two durations (eighth and quarter notes) and just five pitches (say, G, A, B, C, and D) which you can reuse?

Hundreds? Thousands? Tens of thousands? I’ll pause for a minute while you do the math.


6 note theme

The answer: one million. Hard to believe, isn’t it? (The math goes like this: 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 = 1,000,000.) If you play a different melody every ten seconds for two hours every day, five days a week, it will take nearly five-and-a-half years to play all those six-note melodies! If you allow for a nine-note melody with the same parameters, there are one billion different melodies possible! You couldn’t play them all in a lifetime. Now, allow yourself all the 88 keys on a piano and all sorts of durations and harmonic combinations… It’s like walking into an ice cream store with trillions and trillions of flavors!

In light of this, it’s understandable that the thought of creating music might cause some anxiety. At every moment, there are far too many choices to make, and we may feel unable to discern the differences between the options. We fear we will make a poor choice and look like a complete fool.

To succeed, we need frameworks or boundaries to limit the number of choices. When I teach beginners to improvise, I often say to them, “Make sounds using just these four keys while I play with you.” The students feel somewhat safe, and they are willing to begin exploring. In time, they are ready to play with more keys. In this way, they gently develop the confidence and sensitivity that allows them to discern which choice is best at any moment.

Eventually, the infinite possibilities become a source of excitement rather than anxiety. Then, composers will use self-imposed limits for a different purpose: to challenge themselves. Ravel challenged himself to write an extended piece using a single rhythm and Bolero was born. Think of Bach making fugues from a single theme, or Beethoven writing masterful variations on a very pedestrian tune in his Diabelli Variations. As Stravinsky once said, “The more I limit myself, the more free I am.” In an infinite universe, this holds true for both beginners and masters, but in very different ways.

blogForrest Kinney