Arrows Of Attention: The Musical Minimalist’s Manual

Identify your idea’s smallest musical unit. What part, aspect, or quality of what you’re playing or composing is its essence? Is it a rhythm, a series of chords, a melody, a stasis, an unusual orchestration, a timbre combination? Identify the essence and pursue it, amplify it.

One sound, one part at a time. Refine and articulate a single sound or part before moving forward. Before adding more sounds and parts, make the first one compelling enough on its own. 

One sound may be enough. Consider the possibility that a single sound may be all the music needs. Less is more. In fact, less is often more than enough.

Modify a single musical thing into multiple things. Make copies, variations, and proliferate your options, but do so working from a single source.

Clean slate. Begin each project from scratch, without relying on previous work’s materials or methods. Why be constrained by yesterday’s decisions and know-how? 

The 80/20 rule. Notice how a small percentage of your input creates a majority of your creative output. Notice how a small details of the music are responsible for the most of its affective impact. 

Use basic forms and simple materials. Use conventional sounds and complexify them only if needed.   

Play and record parts without decoration, ornamentation, or effects. Filigree distracts from the music’s structure.

Seek clarity. Build musical structures that allow each of their parts to be heard.

Use only the essential. Every sound has a purpose for its being present. Do you really need to double that part?

Repeat the music’s smallest units into larger structures. Extend ideas not by adding to them, but by multiplying what is already there.

Pursue creativity not through all-at-once invention, but through small changes over time. Take the pressure off yourself to create in a single step by creating through iteration. As the music software designer Steve Duda notes, “incrementally modify something into existence, until it’s yours.” 

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