Creativity: How do you know when a project is finished?

How do you know you have said what you wish to say?

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One of my piano students asked me this question some time ago: how do you know when a project is finished? I thought it was an excellent question, and also a very difficult one. To my knowledge, I have never been overtly taught this, nor have I heard a definite answer from history. Truthfully, I wonder if anyone can know the answer. Perhaps this is simply one of the great mysteries of creativity that will remain for the entirety of time? Nonetheless, I do love puzzles, and this appears to be one of the most interesting puzzles of all.

The answer I gave him (after much thought) was this: it is finished when your instincts tell you it is finished. By itself, this was a useless answer. Connected to the concept of language, however, it makes more sense. With spoken language, the have the concept of a sentence. We know a sentence is complete when we have expressed the thought we wished to express in a manner comprehensible by our listener. I will extrapolate from this concept.

Any story can be summarized in one sentence. When I write a story, there comes a point at which I distill the entire story into a single statement. This is my one-sentence summary (this is a great piece of advice I received here.) If the essential elements of the story cannot be reduced to this level, then the story is likely too complicated and needs to be paired down.

Any essay can be similarly reduced. Many a school student will recall the concept of a “thesis statement” from their essay-writing days. This statement distills the entire paper into a single sentence, encapsulating the core argument and goal of the piece.

 In both cases, the entirety of the piece may be expanded from this first sentence. It is the “seed” from which the rest of the writing grows. Therefore, the piece may be said to be finished when the ideas put forth in the summary are fully developed without any extraneous material. In short: it is finished when the author has said what he needs to say, no more and no less.

How does this apply to music? Let us explore this using the same concept. The musical analogue of a sentence is the melody. It is both complete sentence and main character. Can a musical composition be distilled into a single melody? If so, how? I would argue based on personal observation that the answer is “yes.” In fact, this appears to occur whether or not the composer has so planned it. One of the most famous melodies in all of history is Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” Nearly everyone can hum, sing, whistle, or even play, this melody. Even those lacking any musical training of any kind are likely to instantly recognize it, and it is nearly impossible to forget it once heard for the first time. It is a very short and simple tune. By itself, it constitutes a complete musical thought.

What many do not realize is its use in a much larger musical composition: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. The entire composition is roughly an hour and a half long and makes use of numerous other melodies and moods. These ideas are developed in ingenious ways, and the core idea of Ode to Joy is not even introduced until the final movement. In this sense, the symphony could perhaps be interpreted as a struggle to find joy amidst difficulty. This, Beethoven achieves with aplomb.

This, however, does not completely answer the question. Written language is concrete. It depicts clear images and emotions that do not vary from person to person. It is highly specific. If I say the word “cup,” for example, nearly everyone will imagine a cup. Of course, they may imagine different types or sizes of cups, but they will all fundamentally imagine the same device. If I wish to plant a more specific image in their minds, I can describe it with increasing precision until, theoretically, all imagine exactly the same object.

With music, this is nearly impossible. Music is not a language attuned for specificity. It deals less with the concrete, and more with the abstract; the emotional, rather than the logical. Its grammar rules are less defined (if one may even call them “rules”) and images evoked will vary wildly from listener to listener. In fact, without a title or program notes, two listeners could imagine completely different images. Using Ode to Joy as an example: if two people listen to it without knowing its title, they will likely both say, “It made me feel happy,” or, “It sounds exuberant!” However, when asked for a specific image, one might say, “It reminded me of the day I got married. That was such a joyful occasion!” and the other, “I saw an image of people dancing and smiling.” Both describe the same emotion, but completely different images evoked by and associated with it.

And yet, the melody will have achieved its intended result. It will have depicted and evoked joy. It need not be specific, because it relies on the human imagination to “fill in this gap.” In this manner, it is a most efficient language. And in languages both spoken and musical, the answer to the first question is the same: the project is finished when the author has said what he wishes to say in a manner that is understood by his audience.

This begs the question, “How does one know if he has said it well enough?” Consider the example of an ancient artifact, excavated by an archaeologist. At some point, he has the entire artifact in his possession. He may have begun with mere pieces, but in the end, they have been glued together in a manner that makes the object appear like new. At this point, it could be considered finished. In a sense, however, it could always be dusted off just a little more, or made just a bit shinier, or have some aspect of its beauty made slightly more obvious. In other words: the archaeologist has put all of the pieces together. He has a clay pot. There is nothing he may add to it that will significantly change its aesthetic or function. He may dust it off more or polish it more, but the digging, assembly, and essential cleaning have been completed.

His apprehension of this, of course, requires that he see the object clearly. He must have a good objective sense of the intended finished product and its effect on a viewer. This is a skill that is developed over time, and it appears to be one of the last to blossom. The simplest way in which to develop it is to put distance between oneself and the project after completion. The creator may take several days, weeks, or even months, to work on a different project. After this period has elapsed, he re-examines the first project. My composition teacher was fond of calling this “Letting the pie cool after baking it.”

Another way (though the two methods do not exclude one another) is to simply hire an editor. It has been said, “You cannot edit your own work.” I tend to believe that this is true, though with some minor caveats. The editor has no emotional attachment to the project, and can therefore be objective. The best editors understand the creative process and are not only competent to identify errors in grammar, spelling, and the like, but are masters of knowing a creator’s intentions. Rather than simply deleting a section that does not work, they will tell the author that it is unclear and perhaps make suggestions. This way, the creator preserves his voice and ideas in a way that is still understandable to his audience.

When the process is complete, how does one know that the project is truly finished? How does one know that there is not one more spot to be shined, one more spell-check to be run, or one more chord to adjust? How does one know that it will have exactly the intended effect on the audience?

One can make no guarantee. At some point, one must simply press “Publish,”, or present the artwork, or complete the composition. Reinvestigating the work years later may reveal yet more room for improvement – this is good, as it means one’s artistic instincts are improving! This does not necessarily mean that one’s previous creations are “trash,” but simply that newer material may be better. And this is one of the artist’s lifelong battles: the persistent struggle for unattainable perfection. Perfection may be compared to the speed of light, in that one may approach it infinitely, but never reach it.

Carrying the analogy further: all humans carry “baggage,” and all subatomic particles carry mass. The only particle to move at lightspeed is the photon, which carries no mass. Perhaps, then, the only way for an artist to achieve perfection is to be, inherently, perfect? This, we will never achieve in this life, but our works need not be perfect to be beautiful.

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