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The Importance of Creativity & Imagination in Music

man with headphones on covered in colorful paint

Many people turn to music as their creative outlet. It’s a universal means of expression that allows people to tap directly into their imaginations and express their thoughts and feelings vibrantly.

But what is it that makes music creative? Why is any work of art inherently a product of the imagination? Understanding these key topics are instrumental in becoming a great musician or audio producer, and it can help everyone else appreciate music that much more. Once you train yourself to look for the signs of imagination and creativity in music, you’ll quickly see it in all the arts, and then virtually every other aspect of your life.

Creativity and Imagination: Is There Really a Difference?

Some people hear those two words and instantly regard them as synonyms. However, psychologists and other experts who have examined these possibly unique human abilities see several key distinguishing features that demand each is treated as separate mental processes. While there might not be any scientific way to tell which is which because of our limited understanding of everything that has to do with the mind, there is generally a consensus among experts that creativity and imagination ought to be distinguished from one another. For some, it comes down to word choice in casual conversation; but when exploring and analyzing the two in greater depth, it becomes clear that each warrants its own category.

The late bestselling British author Sir Ken Robinson eloquently explained his views on the differences between these curious feats of the mind. The simplest way to put it is that with creativity, one is applying their imagination to something relevant, working to achieve some goal, no matter how frivolous it may be. By his reasoning, imagination is somewhat like the raw materials that give you the means to be creative.

This means that all of the greats in music history were both imaginative and creative: They each had minds that tended to dream up all the possibilities, but the point at which they might’ve been considered “creative geniuses” didn’t come until they actually put their daydreams to good use. Whether it was a sonnet, stage play, or symphony, creativity can come out in any way “imaginable,” but you need that imagination to make it possible.

What is Imagination?

Imagination is a word that’s spoken a lot in kindergarten and elementary school classrooms, art schools, and maybe some idea-generating office meetings. Outside of those and a handful of other settings, people don’t often associate imagination as being part of their everyday lives.

But all it takes is a basic understanding of what imagination really is to realize that it’s not just a function of the brain for the daydreamer and artistic types. The truth is that just about everyone is using their imagination throughout the day, whether they realize it or not.

Imagination is essentially a form of mental imagery, which, despite its name, encompasses more than just pictures in your head. Just like the imagery talked about in writing and literature classes, mental imagery includes everything that’s perceived by the senses: most commonly, sights and sounds, but some people have a heightened mental sense for smells and tastes.

Some are tempted to think of imagination like playing a movie in your head, but it would be more accurate to liken it to an interactive video game. It might be described as a sandbox where your mind can test out different possibilities, which some experts think is the reason why humans evolved this trait, and quite possibly are unique in that ability. It’s not hard to imagine how useful this ability would be when it came to survival and thriving as a species.

When you visualize something, which again, despite its name, doesn’t exclude the senses besides vision, whether it’s real or fictitious, you’re using your imagination. Calling up a memory is a form of imagination. And then, of course, there’s the most dramatic and generally involuntary function of the imagination: dreaming.

What is Creativity?

Robert E. Franken defined creativity as “the tendency to recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others.” In that way, being creative is very much like putting together a puzzle in your mind. What makes it less straightforward is that you aren’t just given the jigsaw pieces, you have to build them yourself in order to then see what fits together properly.

People imagine things every day so that they can navigate through a complex world and have a better chance of achieving their desired outcome. It’s a form of strategic imagination that allows you to dream up likely possibilities which might include obstacles that are easier to overcome if you see them ahead of time. Sometimes you might imagine a better way of doing things that would have been unlikely to be discovered by random trial and error alone.

Once a person applies their imagination to a set task, such as finding a new way to get to work while avoiding a road construction area, the creative process begins. Plotting an alternate route, or any number of other mundane things, like finding a creative way to make a full meal with the foods that you have on hand, are the ways that people get creative every day.

What is the Role of Creativity and Imagination in Art and Music?

There’s a reason why so many great artists and audio producers are said to be daydreamers. Those who spend their days being creative for a living might often seem lost in their heads because that’s exactly where they spend most of their time. However, as tempting as it might be for some creative people to dream endlessly, unless you take practical action with your artistic imaginings and get creative, you’ll never get the opportunity to share your work with the world.

Although music critics, and plenty of fans, will call out a particular artists’ lack of creativity, one might argue that they’re actually more lacking in imagination. Accepting the notion that imagination is strictly visualization and creativity is making those visions into something, musicians and audio producers who fail to sound original are most likely unable to generate the right raw materials in the imagination process.

It’s difficult to break away from the most popular progressions and styles of the moment, and if you don’t have a highly trained sense of imagination, it’s all the easier to fall into those musical clichés. The more imaginative you are as an audio producer or composer, the more you’ll be able to take off in the creativity phase and make something that really stands out from the pack.

When an audio producer or artist of any kind is at work, they’re testing out different possibilities in the same way people do when they’re using creativity to solve everyday problems. The problem at hand for the artist is how to make their piece look, sound, or feel the way they want it to. Sometimes an artist can visualize it all in their heads and thus take care of most of the creative process through imagination. Other people are more hands-on and have to first creatively imagine something, then test it out in real life, and repeat.

Creativity and Imagination in Music History

All throughout music history, there are those artists who people love to call creative geniuses. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was one of such so-called geniuses, and his body of work certainly proves that he was not without both imagination and creativity. But what was it about him that made his works stand out so starkly from the rest of the music being written during his time?

The answer, as it turns out, may be contrary to the popular belief that he was simply born with this amazing talent. Even Mozart himself said that his great musical achievements came from many years of diligent, hard work. This just goes to show that being creative and being imaginative are both skills that must be exercised and cultivated for a person to break new ground in their field.

Another shining example of creativity in music history that’s quite a bit more recent can be found in Ray Charles. He shook up the music industry at the time by combining two genres, R&B and gospel, that no one else dared to experiment with. Ray Charles had an imagination and creative prowess that allowed him to discover just how good those two styles could be in the perfect musical marriage, and that gave him the confidence to boldly bring his new hybrid genre into the world.

Beyond his creativity in blending styles, which also included significant work in the country Western genre, Ray Charles was also able to think and act creatively in his music business dealings. Famously, when he first signed on with ABC Records, one of the conditions he was adamant about was owning all of his master recordings. This unprecedented deal never could’ve happened if Ray Charles didn’t imagine up what was inconceivable to others and then find a creative way to make it happen.

Final Thoughts

Whether you’re working on the business or production side of the music world, not to mention everywhere in between, having a fine-tuned sense of imagination and a proclivity for creativity are powerful tools that will help you find success.

Audio Production Program

Ready to get into audio production and start using your imagination and creativity to make music? The Audio Production and Engineering Program  at the Institute of Production and Recording is an occupational degree program designed to train producer engineers who are entrepreneurs, musically and technically creative, and proficient in modern recording technology and technique. Throughout the program, students are involved in hands-on exercises and real-world studio projects that enable them to apply their knowledge and refine their skills.

At the end of the audio production and engineering program, each student presents a portfolio — a selection of his or her best work to date. This serves as a demo reel for potential employers and clients — an audio resume with professional content that highlights the graduate’s talent and skill.

Contact us today to learn more about the audio production programs and starting a rewarding career.