Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Paint your words colourfully and with pride

Word painting is a technique used by composers and song writers to highlight the meaning of words and phrases. This meaning can be physical, abstract, or emotional: e.g., ragged, jagged music for words describing uneven ground; fluttering, shimmering music for words describing angels and heaven; yearning, sighing music for words describing love. 

The Baroque composer Handel did a lot of word painting, and today's songwriters still do it. (Here are some examples of Handel's word painting, and this Wikipedia page not only explores Handel's word painting but also provides examples from contemporary songs.)

Musical word painting increases the impact words and phrases have upon listeners; it makes words and phrases stimulating and enjoyable to hear; it makes meanings memorable.

The best musical word painters, as the above Wikipedia page clearly shows, are some of the most successful and popular of musicians: their music is fondly remembered and sought-after by concert-goers.

We can all benefit from the principle underpinning musical word painting; we can all make our words and phrases stimulating and memorable by incorporating them into rich and colourful pictures. 

We can do this by framing our words within personal stories and anecdotes, supporting our words with relevant and memorable photographs and graphics, and forming our words into rich metaphors and impactful phrases. We can even do the most obvious thing: we can write in colours that emphasise the meaning and feeling of our words.

If we make our words and phrases stimulating and memorable, we increase their ability to influence and inspire: to influence people to our way of thinking and inspire people to think and act innovatively.

But lastly, a word of caution.

Some people have ridiculed the use of musical word painting, calling it (among other unflattering things) childish and naïve. These ridiculers have included composers. For example, Thomas Campion (a renaissance song writer) said that "where the nature of everie word is precisely expressed in the Note… such childish observing of words is altogether ridiculous".

The reasons for this ridicule can be personal, social and cultural. Perhaps a person has stoical values that eschew making dramatic gestures and expressing emotions. Perhaps a person lives within a society that is similarly stoical: which seeks to hide overt gesture and emotion beneath a cultural blanket of withering admonishments.

Music, like most things, suffers as a result of ridicule; it becomes a barely heard and distorted echo of what it could be. 

Do not allow your words to suffer in a similar way. Do not allow them to become a faintly heard whisper of what you wanted to express. Do not allow ridicule to fade your words to grey.

Paint your words colourfully and with pride.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Explore others' meanings

I recently listened to the orchestral piece "Midnight Sun Variations" by the Finnish composer Outi Tarkiainen. When I heard the title, I immediately assumed the piece was a set of musical variations in the traditional sense (i.e., a number of movements or sections that are derived from an initial melody, each of which develops the melody in different and creative ways).

When I listened to the composer talk about her piece, however, I realised my assumption was incorrect. Outi Tarkiainen said that her piece was not a set of variations in the above traditional sense; instead, it was a musical depiction of the ever-changing light that plays upon the tundra and dense forests of the Northern Finnish landscape during late summer: a time when midnight sun slowly gives way to darkness.  

This change of meaning immediately altered my perception and expectations of Outi Tarkiainen's piece, which made me listen to and appreciate the music in a new and refreshing way.

Because of our education, training and experiences, etc., some words and phrases have specific meanings for us: meanings that have become hardwired into our way of thinking about and perceiving things (as illustrated by my assumption about the meaning of the word "variations", which my musical education had embedded into my mind).

The next time someone describes a problem to you, check out your assumptions about the way it is being described. What do the words used to describe the problem mean to the person saying them? How does this meaning differ from the one you were assuming? Does this different meaning alter the way you perceive the problem? Does this new perception of the problem suggest new ways to address the problem?  

Friday, 2 August 2019

Share your encore

After performing a concerto at a concert, and taking several bows in recognition of the audience's applause and acclaim, a soloist will often play an encore.

This is a short piece played in recognition of the audience's appreciation. It will in some way contrast with or complement the concerto previously performed and also provide an additional opportunity for the soloist to show off his or her musical skills, be this fast-fingered passage work or the ability to express the beauty of a simple melody.

Traditionally, the encore has kept the spotlight on the soloist. Recently, however, soloists have begun to share the spotlight with others. This happened during a 2019 Promenade Concert. Joshua Bell had performed the Dvorak Violin Concerto. As an encore, he joined two players from the orchestra to perform another piece by Dvorak: a movement from the Cavatina for Two Violins and Viola.

Apart from providing novelty, which the audience enjoyed, this encore achieved three other things:

  1. It demonstrated Joshua Bell's willingness to share the spotlight with others.
  2. It publicly acknowledged the skills of the orchestra and their contribution to the successful performance of the Dvorak Concerto. (The second violin player was the leader of the orchestra; this symbolism would have been appreciated by audience and orchestra alike.)
  3. It shone a spotlight on a section of the orchestra that almost always plays a supporting part: the violas.                  
We can all benefit from adopting and adapting Joshua Bell's encore approach. Make sure those who support your achievements are able to share the spotlight of your recognition. Focus especially upon those who usually play supportive parts in the background. Offer your supporters meaningful roles in follow-up and "spin-off" projects and events. When you are invited to make presentations about your achievements, ensure your supporters are given the opportunity to speak about how they helped you. When you are asked to write about your achievements, do not only acknowledge the help you received but also include descriptions of how the skills and expertise of your supporters were essential to success. When awards are given to you, find ways to ensure your helpers and supporters receive their share of the acclaim.                   

By doing the above, you will demonstrate your generosity and willingness to acknowledge the expertise and contributions of others.

People will remember how you shared your encore; they will remember your generosity and willingness to share the spotlight. 

And the next time you need help, it will be willingly given.

Wednesday, 17 July 2019


Composers create excitement in an audience by quickening their music. The last movements of symphonies by Haydn and Mozart give audiences fast, enjoyable and stimulating musical rides.

If you ever need to stimulate and excite your thinking (and in the process uncover new and creative ideas) quicken what you do:
  • Use "Yes or No Meetings". At the beginning of these meetings, attendees vote for or against any decisions that need to be made. After this initial voting, the provisional decisions are reviewed and either confirmed or changed.
  • Ask people to make quick selections of solutions (or causes of problems) and then review the selections made.
  • Set short and challenging time limits for brainstorming and other activities.
  • Sketch a quick and simple outline, picture or diagram of a problem or solution.
  • Create a sense of urgency by emphasising the necessity for quick and effective action.
Also, composers will often gradually quicken their music until it reaches a climax. This adds a feeling of anticipation that increases audiences' excitement: Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King from his Peer Gynt Suite is a popular example. If you want to achieve a similar effect within your own context, create a series of deadlines where the amount of time between each one is slightly but also significantly reduced (e.g., 10 days, 8 days, 6 days, 5 days, 4 days, 3 days, 2 days, 1 day...). The sense of ever more quickly working towards a climax or launch date will encourage excitement and stimulate thinking and action.

Monday, 8 July 2019

Do the everyday hard graft

When I studied music, my main focus was composing. This entailed a lot of copying: copying initial ideas into sketch books, copying more developed ideas onto musical scores, copying instrumental parts from scores.

Unsurprisingly, copying became an important part of my compositional process; seeing the notes forming and intertwining as I copied them provided me with a strong sense of how each note and phrase rubbed along and interacted with another.

As I copied out my ideas, my thoughts about developing and enhancing them gained clarity; the task of copying provided the space within which my intuitions about my music could incubate and then rise to the surface of my thinking.

Everyday and seemingly mundane tasks can gradually reveal how intricate details rub along, interrelate and frequently combine to create surprising and creative things. Embrace these tasks: they make eureka moments possible.

Saturday, 29 June 2019

Be a subtle and quiet revolutionary

It is well known that Beethoven was a musical revolutionary. The size and loudness of his 3rd Symphony, "The Eroica", challenged the accepted musical conventions of his time and provided the foundations upon which later composers would build; the epic, all embracing symphonies of the Romantic and Late Romantic periods of music (epitomised by Bruckner and Mahler respectively) would not have been possible without the inspirational impetus provided by Beethoven.

But Beethoven was also revolutionary in subtle and quiet ways.

For example, Beethoven would sometimes start his concertos (pieces for soloist and orchestra) quietly, introducing the soloist in an understated and reflective way: his 4th Piano Concerto begins quietly, introducing the soloist not with a virtuosic flourish but with a reflective prayerlike meditation.

This quietness broke the musical conventions of the time: most contemporaries of Beethoven would start their concertos with a loud flourish and provide solo parts that were written to show off the brilliant virtuosic skills of the soloist.

The subtly revolutionary act of starting quietly immediately freed the music from the shackles of virtuosic "display for display's sake" and enabled Beethoven to add emotional depth to his concertos, elevating them to a place beside his symphonies in terms of their ability to express profound feelings.

How could you be subtly and quietly revolutionary? Would quiet dialogue rather than loud argument provide new and game changing ways forward? Would subtle rather than dramatic changes of word and deed encourage beneficial responses and outcomes? Would quiet meditation and reflection prove more productive than energetic action and reaction?

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Mix old and new

Towards the end of Alban Berg's Violin Concerto (written in 1935) a German Lutheran hymn (written in 1662) is combined with a counter-melody that is very chromatic and modern sounding. The mixing of these two very different melodies creates a magical, almost mystical experience for the listener.
Mixing the old and the new can often create something that is very innovative: the boat and aeroplane were combined to create the flying boat; the stagecoach was combined with the steam engine to create the steam train; the principle behind the Victorian flick book was combined with modern film and projection equipment to create the motion picture.

The next time you need to generate innovative solutions to problems, do not forget to consider how old ideas could be combined with new ones.

Ask yourself the following questions:
  • How can you use what already exists to enhance your new ideas? (The quick drying ink used to print newspapers was also used to enhance the effectiveness of the newly invented Biro or ballpoint pen.)
  • How can you use your new ideas to enhance what already exists? (Transistors replaced valves and enhanced the speed and effectiveness of computers. Then along came semiconductors, and computer performance was enhanced once again.)
  • How can a past success be incorporated into something new? (The principle behind the superbly effective paint tin lid was, in reverse form, incorporated into the design of Tupperware container lids.)
  • Which ideas and approaches have been so successful that they are now taken for granted or overlooked? How can their immense success contribute to something new? (The humble O ring seal, which has been keeping bathrooms leak free for decades, eventually became an essential component of aeroplanes and spacecraft.)
  • How can a proven principle or concept be combined with new technology in order to gain enhanced returns? (The well-established idea of discount stamps was combined with computer technology to create Nectar Points.)