Musical Creativity: Born Out of Limitations + Restrictions

In today’s editorial piece, guest contributor Brian Funk (aka AfroDJMac) has put together a great overview of the creative process from the perspective of a musician and producer. Learn how to take advantage of limitations, set goals, and impose intentional obstacles to get the most out of yourself. Read how to force musical creativity from circumstance, fight Rapid Gear Acquisition Syndrome, and more.

Header photo credit: Emoh Instead’s (What So Not, Flume) balcony studio, as featured on Pulse Radio’s DJ Cribs Vol 1.

Good Old Days: When Technology Was The Limiter

Four Track recorder

At 15 years old, I got my hands on a four-track cassette tape recorder. With a $20 microphone and a guitar, I spent my free time recording songs, ideas, and jams. Back then, I dreamt of infinite tracks and effects, pristine quality audio, millions of sounds and samples to choose from. In the age of software DAWs, my dreams have come true. Ironically, I find myself with more unfinished tracks, half-baked ideas, and hours lost fine tuning the compression on the snare drum. What happened?

I realized that creative output was not limited by the lack of gear; it was enhanced by it. I couldn’t spend time testing different microphones for my guitar and various amp simulations. I couldn’t waste an hour compressing drums perfectly because I didn’t have a compressor. I had to use what I had available and move forward. Today, I can spend hours searching for the perfect kick drum sample only to realize that music production time is up and adult endeavors (going to work, buying groceries, doing laundry) have to happen. I leave the studio empty-handed.

Wisdom From the Wise: Musical Creativity from Limitation

“A lot of people think that creativity is about freedom, freedom to act on your ideas and imagination. But I don’t think that is true. I think true creativity comes from restriction and limitation.” – Paul Schrader, in the below video:

When there are fewer options, you must think of inventive ways around problems or just accept them and move forward. Countless times I’ve been online, lusting after new gear, (that will finally let me realize my creative visions!), only to come across an interview with an artist who is ten times as prolific as I am, using one tenth of the gear I have.

The reality is you already have everything you need. If you feel otherwise, you are experiencing what Steven Pressfield refers to as “Resistance” in his book The War of Art. Resistance is anything that prevents you from getting to work on your creative endeavor. It is logical, it is persistent, and it is completely destructive, and it lives inside of us all. Attempting to realize your creative missions is a monumental task; it is scary. Resistance knows this and will do everything in its power to prevent you from acting.

Recognize Resistance and Overcome It

Choice Paralysis - Image via
Does browsing your sample library ever feel too much like a supermarket?

Here are some common forms of resistance that musicians and producers face:

  • Paralysis by choice: Ever spent hours testing out every preset on your virtual synth? Stop it! Pick a sound and move forward. It’s better to have a song with crummy sounds that you can later change, than to have one really nice sound with no song.
  • Gear Acquisition Syndrome: “Once I get this new (insert any piece of gear), I will be able to finish my project!” Not true. You already have everything you need, don’t convince yourself otherwise. The Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper’s on four track reel-to-reel machines (see video below). If you have an iPhone, you are worlds ahead of them.
  • Research and Education: Are you searching the internet and watching tutorials to learn new techniques? This is Resistance at its best, because you feel like you are being productive. In reality you are avoiding work. Stop thinking you don’t know enough; get to work!

While there are benefits from these pitfalls, they should never take the place of getting to work. Set aside some additional time to explore them; do not give up your precious studio time for them.

Setting Limitations In Musical Creativity


When I tell my high school students they can write about anything they want, they often sit there with blank pages, scratching their heads. But if I say, “Write whatever you want, but your writing must include three vocabulary words and a wild animal. It must start at the climax of the story, and the first draft is due in 30 minutes,” they are able to unleash their creativity.

Here are a few ways you can restrict yourself to set your musical creativity free.

  • Decide Your Goal Before You Begin: Maybe you want to make an ambient track using samples of ducks, or electro dance song with a sing along chorus. Decide that before you begin. I’ll be the first to admit that I love to get in the studio and “see where the vibes take me,” but usually when I do that I leave with yet another unfinished jam. By setting your sights on a goal, you will be narrowing and guiding your decisions at every step of the way.
  • Set Time Limits: If you’ve ever written a paper for school at 2am the day it is due, you know the power of time limitations. Most of us will waste time on a project until action is absolutely mandatory. When you are running out of time, you will be forced to only focus on those tasks that are most important towards completion. Check out 10 Minute Challenges from FACT Magazine, in which producers must compose a piece of music in just 10 minutes. I guarantee you won’t see anyone aimlessly searching through his or her library of 10,000 kick drums to find the perfect sample.

  • Set Gear Restrictions: Most of us have more gear, effects, and instruments than we know what to do with. Before you begin, decide what to use and be strict. Say to yourself “I will only allow myself to use a 909 drum kit, Ableton’s Operator, and AfroDJMac’s latest free Ableton Live Pack. This will force you to move forward and not get stuck trying to find the perfect sounds.

Being creative is tough and in many ways, you are your own worst enemy. Making decisions is exhausting, so do yourself a favor and limit the amount of choices. It is much easier to answer, “which Mexican restaurant do you to go to?” than “what do you want for dinner?” Limit your choices and your creativity will blossom, and ultimately, you will get more work done.

How do you set limitations and goals for yourself when DJing or producing?

Let us know your productivity tricks in the comments below. 

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