Creativity: Technology and Music

In collaboration with Susan Schmidt Horning

by Hans-Joachim Braun (Volume editor)
©2016 Conference proceedings 238 Pages


Creativity, by which something new, original, and valuable is formed, has positive connotations. This volume features essays on creative processes in technological invention, engineering design, architecture, music composition, improvisation, sound recording, authenticity in music, and computer music. They deal with significant present-day as well as with historical issues of creativity. They explore what creative processes in different domains have in common, to what extent cognitive science can shed light on them and how they can be modelled. Contrary to some approaches in creativity studies, the authors, if ever possible, try to avoid speculation and come to empirically valid conclusions.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Seeing through the Machine: Creativity, Visualization, and Computer-Aided Drafting
  • Successful Design in Engineering and Architecture
  • Creative Processes in Technology, Music and the Arts: Chances and Limitations of Cognitive Science Approaches
  • The Creative Process in Musical Composition: An Introspective Account
  • Improvisation: Creativity, Action, and Interaction
  • Creativity in the Trading Zone: Sound Recording as Collaboration
  • Technology, Transcultural Idioms, and the Question of Authenticity: Brian Eno and David Byrne in the Studio
  • Automatic Music Composition versus Creativity
  • Contributors

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This book has its origin in several symposia of the International Committee for the History of Technology (ICOHTEC) since the early years of the new millennium. After dealing with technological invention and innovation as well as with the relationship between technology and music, I became interested in the issue of how the creative processes involved could best be investigated. It soon became clear that the historian’s usual tool box would not suffice and would have to be supplemented by those of the psychology of creativity and by cognitive science.

The book took its shape from discussions with historians of technology, psychologists, cognitive scientists, musicologists, engineering designers and computer scientists. Accordingly, the contributions to this volume come from such diverse fields as the history of technology, science and technology studies, computer science, musicology, psychology, and philosophy. I thank the contributors very much for embarking on this venture.

But first and foremost I have to thank one contributor who is also the editorial collaborator: Susan Schmidt Horning, author of the widely acclaimed book “Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture, and the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP”, Johns Hopkins U.P. 2013 (2015), with whom I have cooperated for a long time. This not only goes for research on technology and music but also for our annual jazz performance with our jazz group “Email Special” at ICOHTEC symposia. Her help in putting this book together was invaluable. Something similar goes for James Williams, former ICOHTEC President and editor of the ICOHTEC journal ICON, and another member of “Email Special”, as well as Ed Todd, another “ICOHTECIAN”.

Thinking about creative processes in different fields was helped by the stimulating atmosphere of Green College, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, with its principal Mark Vessey, where I spent some time during the years from 2010 onwards. One of the outcomes of my first stay there were four annual workshops on “Acoustic Communication and Soundscape Design” which I co-organized with the composer and sound researcher Barry Truax from Simon Fraser University. I thank Barry for many interesting discussions. In the context of preparing this volume, Tyler Kinnear from UBC and Darryl Cressman from SFU were particularly helpful.

From my own university, the Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg, my successor in the chair of Modern Social, Economic and Technological History, Martina Heßler, with whom I share an interest in man-machine relationships, ← 7 | 8 → gave welcome advice as did Andreas Möllenkamp, a researcher on music software development. Last but not least, I want to acknowledge the benefit I had from discussions with three HSU psychologists: Hans-Peter Erb, Thomas Jacobsen and Mark May.

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Hans-Joachim Braun


Creativity Matters

Creativity is en vogue. In business and in the media as well as in the arts, one can find an inflationary use of the term. Creativity and everything associated with it seems to sell. This is facilitated by the fact that creativity is a slippery term which evokes positive associations; it denotes novelty, originality and appropriateness. James A. Kaufman and Ronald A. Beghetto set up a “four C” model of creativity, distinguishing between “mini-c,” which includes personally meaningful interpretations of experiences, actions and insights, “little-c,” denoting everyday problem solving, “Pro-C,” creative but not eminent achievements by professionals, and “Big-C,” significant, sometimes even domain-changing contributions (Kaufman & Beghetto 2009). Margaret Boden distinguishes between h-creativity (historical) and p-creativity (personal) (Boden 1990). The present volume includes case studies of and essays on creative processes in invention, engineering design, architecture, music composition, improvisation, sound recording, authenticity in music, and computer music. They deal with present-day but also with historical issues and feature “Pro-C” as well as “Big-C” contributions. The aim is to find out what creative processes in different domains have in common, to what extent cognitive science can shed light on these processes and how creative processes can be modelled. Contrary to several cultural studies-oriented works on creativity, the authors of this volume try to avoid a speculative approach and attempt to reach empirically valid conclusions if ever possible. With a topic like creativity, this is not always easy, because what is novel, original, valuable or appropriate is often difficult to define. “Valuable” can have multiple interpretations, and “novel” or “surprising” have more than one meaning (Boden 2014, 227).

Many psychologists have agreed on the definition of creativity put forward by Joy P. Guilford in 1950, which stressed two criteria: originality or novelty and appropriateness or adaptiveness, i.e. relevance to the task at hand (see Gabora 2013 for this and the following; Amabile 1996; Sternberg 1988; Runco 2004). To emphasize originality, researchers such as Margaret Boden (Boden 1990) have added surprise as a criterion; others have mentioned quality (Kaufman & Sternberg 2004) or appropriateness in a way that includes quality. The creative personality is supposed to have characteristics such as sensitivity, flexibility and the ability to ← 9 | 10 → analyse, synthesize, evaluate and reorganize information. Some researchers also stress “divergent thinking,” a characteristic which Guilford put in the forefront.

Several “structuralists” studying creativity emphasize hard work and expertise in creative processes, divesting creative people from supernatural gifts. For them, creativity involves everyday thought processes, especially remembering, planning, reasoning and restructuring. For being creative they stress expertise in a particular domain and argue that no special or subconscious thought processes are required (Weisberg 2006). Critics argue that expert behaviour may lead to functional fixedness making new, original ideas impossible. Some of them emphasize the role of chance. Here the creative process is, following the Darwinian view of creativity, comparable to natural selection which entails blind generation of possibilities followed by selective retention of the most promising (Simonton 1999). “Inspirationalists” point out spontaneous insights and “aha effects.”

The Canadian psychologist Liane Gabora views creativity not so much as a process of first generating and then selecting among different alternatives but of intuiting an idea and, by considering it from different perspectives, taking it from an ill-defined state of potentiality to a well-defined state of actualization (Gabora 2010). Emphasizing the actualization of potentiality and the role of intuition, she points out the association-based structure of memory, in which creative individuals tend to have flat associative hierarchies. They have good access to remote associates and to items related to the subject of interest in indirect and unusual ways. On a related theme the cognitive psychologist Colin Martindale (Martindale 1999) notes that people are more creative when they are able to defocus their attention. “Defocused attention,” not necessarily desirable in private or business life, refers to the ability to consider numerous elements simultaneously rather than limiting attention to only a few (Sternberg & Kaufman 2010, 470).

Thinking about creativity and its role in society, one might assume that the more creative a contribution is the more it is welcomed. But this is not the case. Creative contributions defy the crowd and are often discouraged. The more creative a contribution is the more likely it is to meet with resentment and opposition. Examples abound. Vincent van Gogh’s creativity was not appreciated during his lifetime and Ignaz Semmelweis, the medical doctor who advised his colleagues to wash their hands to avoid sepsis, was treated with ridicule (Sternberg & Lubart 1995).

Although creativity researchers such as Arthur and David Cropley (Cropley & Cropley 2005) have emphasized that there are common elements to creativity in all domains, creativity in engineering differs from creativity in, for example, the fine arts (Horenstein 2002). Horenstein defines these differences by pointing out that engineers produce devices that perform tasks to solve problems and M. D. Burghard ← 10 | 11 → argues that fine art is a manifestation of creativity with no functional but only an aesthetic purpose (Burghard 1995). Artists also operate under fewer logical and factual constraints than scientists or engineers. The best-known example is “artistic license.” If a poet, a painter or a filmmaker wants to have a character defy the energy conservation law, nothing can prevent him or her from doing so. A scientist or engineer would surely run into severe problems (Simonton 2013).

For problem solving and manufacturing products, “functional creativity” can be required. But in a way, paintings and musical compositions are also “products.” They perform tasks or solve problems of their own kind. In engineering, however, the idea of producing has a particular quality which differs from its meaning in artistic creativity. Although in engineering novelty is important, its product should also be relevant and effective. Bridges should not collapse in a storm or in heavy traffic. In aesthetic creativity, novelty generally has precedence over functionality. But conflicts may arise: Sidney Opera House’s architecture was certainly novel and original but was hampered by poor acoustics. In an opera house the latter should, arguably, take precedence over the former (Cropley & Cropley 2005, 4–6).

There is substantial evidence that creative people are not creative in a general way but only in a specific sphere, in a particular domain (Sawyer 2012, 58, Csikszentmihalyi 1988). A creative scientist does not have to be a creative painter. These creative people will probably possess some component of “domain general” creativity which would, however, be much smaller than the domain-specific part (Baer 1993). Research on creative people in art and science has come to the conclusion that both groups tend to be open to new experience, are less conventional, more self-confident, ambitious and impulsive. But they differ in other personality profiles: artists are generally more affective, emotionally unstable, less socialized and less accepting of group norms, whereas scientists are more conscientious (Baer 2010, 234; Feist 1998).

Looking more closely at inventors, there are studies on the psychology of present-day inventors but there is no comprehensive theory on the psychology of invention (Kaiserfeld 2013). S. J. Henderson’s studies on U.S. inventors show that inventors are strongly intrinsically motivated. Their personal “mastery” of the subject matter and their enthusiasm leads to a blend of trying things out but also to persistence in pursuing an idea (Henderson 2004 a, 2004 b). In research on German independent inventors Mieg et al. observe that inventors are conscientious, show self-efficacy, high self-esteem and stand out in terms of emotional stability with low neuroticism levels. But in that sample success as an inventor correlates negatively with openness to experience. At first sight, this conclusion might look paradoxical but on closer inspection it is not. Only inventors, who at a ← 11 | 12 → certain point in their invention process are no longer open to further experiences but are strictly focused on their invention, will be successful (Mieg et al. 2012).

Creativity, Computers, and Engineering Design

Looking at engineering in particular, computer-aided analytical tools have been applied in engineering design since the 1950s. As Ann Johnson makes clear in her article “Seeing through the Machine: Creativity, Visualization, and Computer-Aided Drafting,” they have significantly changed both the social and epistemological dynamics of engineering and had a great impact on the creativity of engineers.

Researchers on technological innovation in general and on the introduction of computer-aided design in particular have stressed negative aspects, particularly the loss of qualifications and skills. Authors such as Eugene Ferguson in his influential Engineering and the Mind’s Eye (1992) or Kathryn Henderson in her equally widely acclaimed On Line and on Paper (1998) highlight the draftsperson’s “deskilling” process. Henderson argues that the introduction of CAD into mechanical engineering firms has not only eliminated the intellectual and company space of the draftsman but has also reconfigured the social process of design. According to Henderson and Ferguson, the introduction of CAD was accompanied by further drawbacks such as “streamlining” and standardization. Verbal communication in the drafting room, which could lead to better design, tended to disappear.

But there are also some significant advantages: computer-aided drafting has made novel design practices possible and facilitated changes in the design process thus making it more flexible. This clearly contradicts the “streamlining” argument. Moreover, architects such as Peter Rice of Sydney Opera House fame showed that CAD had enabled him to explore novel geometrical arrangements.

With CAD the nature of collective work changed. Before, the drawing was the result of the collective design work of the engineer and the draftsperson while now it was the result of the collaboration between several engineers who had worked on the same file. That computer file could also be transferred from design to production and vice versa.

As a case study Ann Johnson investigates the introduction of AutoCAD, a leading professional drafting software that was released in late 1982 and rapidly became the market leader. John Walker was both a programmer and the driving force behind AutoCAD, also a company of programmers, not of draftspeople. In line with the arguments by Ferguson and Henderson, draftsmen found their jobs transformed and, in many cases, eliminated. They had, to their loss, to find out that “drawing” on the computer required a different “skill-set” and perhaps even ← 12 | 13 → a different “mind-set” than what had been expected of them before. Four years after the introduction of AutoCAD, Autodesk, the firm that produced AutoCAD, responded to the 1984 release of the Macintosh by introducing new programming devices such as the graphical user interface and the mouse, thus moving the AutoCAD drawing process much closer to drawing than it had been before.

From the beginning, AutoCAD had been command driven with users’ far-reaching control of manipulating the program. This was changed by John Walker’s turning AutoCAD into an open-architecture, event-driven program. Although it was tough to make AutoCAD both more user-friendly for the inexperienced CAD user and also customizable for the experienced designer, Walker’s approach worked reasonably well.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (August)
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 238 S., 29 s/w Abb.

Biographical notes

Hans-Joachim Braun (Volume editor)

Hans-Joachim Braun is Professor Emeritus of Modern Social, Economic and Technological History at the Helmut Schmidt University Hamburg. He is the former President of the International Committee for the History of Technology. His interests are inventions and innovations, technology and music, sound studies, creative processes, and soccer tactics.


Title: Creativity: Technology and Music