Why does creating a simple idea take so long?

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Many would likely hear my music and think it simple. They are correct; it is often exceedingly simple. Much of it sounds as though it was written in only a matter of days, or even in a single sitting, as though I were writing a letter. If one were to hear my latest project, they might believe it was written in mere hours. And indeed, I sometimes hear the question, “How long did that take you?”

For that project, the answer is, “Roughly four months.” The piece is less than fifteen minutes long. The melodies are simple, the structure of the piece is straightforward (though not without the occasional surprise), and the piece demands little in the way of virtuoso technique. And yet, the time required to complete the project seems incredibly disproportionate to the result. Why is this so?

I will return to the analogy of the archaeologist. If he seeks a large, complex statue, and it is intact, he is likely to find it in short order. One simply cannot hide a large object of that nature from trained eyes and practiced excavators for long. If the archaeologist seeks a smaller object, however, he may search for quite some time. After all, it may be buried beneath many other objects, or perhaps even buried within a larger, more complex object. Even after recovering it, he may need to clean the mud off of it, dust it off, and polish it before it will reveal its true beauty.

So it is with creativity. The simplest ideas often take the longest to compose because they are not truly composed, but are discovered. It is easier to discover a large, complicated object (if it is intact) than it is to dust off a small, simple object. The large, obvious object possesses intricate beauty that is often plain from the beginning. The small, simple object takes much time and effort to even locate, and then requires meticulous detail work to reach its potential. Simple ideas require much care and are often challenging to work with. Writing a simple, memorable, beautiful melody is difficult. It is work. It takes time and requires great patience. Some audiences may even criticize the composer as “overly simplistic”, “passé”, or even “amateurish.” Given this risk and the amount of effort involved, why would one bother to write simple ideas at all? Why expend such a large amount of work for such a small return?

Because the return is not small. The simplest ideas speak most loudly. They affect audiences most directly. They are instantly memorable, and because of this, they endure. A simple eight-bar melody could be played live only once, but could then be “stuck” within the mind of an audience member. Contentedly, he hums the tune to himself as he walks out of the concert hall. From here, the tune makes its way into the ears of a passerby, who hums it to another, who hums it others, who whistle it to yet others. By the performance of one single, simple tune, the composer has now benefited countless individuals, some of whom did not even attend the concert. The melody has acquired a life all its own and continues to spread. In this way, a simple tune is one of the only beneficial pandemics.

Is there a place for complex ideas? Of course. There are numerous masterworks that are extraordinarily complex that have endured among audiences for centuries. Interestingly, the greatest masterworks are usually based on only a few simple ideas, which are then developed in complex fashion. A fugue, after all, possesses only a few short motives, each of which may only be several measures in length, but the motives are developed in ingeniously intricate ways (the fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach come to mind). To use a linguistic analogy (and music is a language), this is akin to a discussion of an ageless topic. For example, the concept of “joy” is simple. Discussing it or experiencing it, however, will reveal countless meanings and permutations of the topic that are not immediately apparent. Joy can be explosive. It can be contented. It can be sustained or short-lived. It can come from within or without. It can be intrinsic or acquired. Like a color, it possesses many shades. An observant creator will know how to explore this. A master composer can take a simple motif and convey a variety of emotions through use of harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, and a great plethora of other expressive tools. A writer will put an apparently simple character through numerous trials; by the end of the novel, the reader feels as though the character is a personal friend. A painter can pull the viewer into the image so vividly that it seems real.

How do I know when I have found the right idea? It continuously plays back in my mind, changing as it does so. The tune flies, runs, walks, dances, sings, and chirps its way through the entire orchestra. My mind simply cannot let it go; the possibilities prove inexhaustible. It is but a single spark, but lights an inspirational fire such as cannot be put out. Once this happens, the piece almost “composes itself”, often very quickly.

But reaching this point can take significant time and be fraught with frustration. It will feel as though no progress is being made, no inspiration found, no joy partaken of. One might compare it to beginning an exercise routine; for the initial stages, it will simply hurt. One will see no results. One may even wish to give up. But through persistence, the results begin to show. With music composition, they even begin to compound, and the process accelerates. Eventually, it reaches a “critical mass,” after which it often completes in a creative flash.

For me, this most often happens with a single, simple idea. While they appear small or insignificant, and may even be initially derided, they require great patience to cultivate and will grow into far more than the simple seeds from which they began.

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