Dancing in the Street

Here’s the creative process behind the hit song by Martha and the Vandellas, “Dancing in the Street.” It’s a story of collaboration and of the zigzagging creative process, as reported to Marc Myers in the WSJ.

  1. In early 1964, songwriter Ivy Jo Hunter was in a Motown studio, playing around on a piano and trying to come up with a song. She started with her left hand, playing a bass rhythm. Then, she developed a melody and some chords. But what she had in mind, she couldn’t play with just two hands. So she went to another songwriter, Paul Riser.
  2. Paul and Ivy talked it out, and then Paul wrote out the music. Paul then created a chord sheet for the house rhythm section, the Funk Brothers. Paul and Ivy knew that the Funk Brothers could make just about any sketch of a song turn into something awesome. The goal was to get the rhythm track on tape, to then work on some lyricS.
  3. Ivy took the tape to producer Mickey Stevenson’s house, because Mickey had a rehearsal room in his attic. Ivy wrote melancholy lyrics; that’s the way he heard the song.
  4. Marvin Gaye just happened to be at the same house. Marvin and Mickey needed a song for singer Kim Weston. Ivy’s ballad lyrics seemed perfect for Kim, but then Marvin had a different idea for the song.
  5. Marvin thought the melancholy lyrics weren’t right for the music. Marvin thought the music was upbeat, just like “dancing in the street.” Then, he realized that could be the name of the song!
  6. Ivy returned to the song and wrote completely different lyrics, for this new idea. Marvin then added various new lyrics.
  7. They still thought the song was going to be Kim’s song. Marvin was recording a vocal demo, to play for Kim, but he couldn’t sing it quite right. Martha Reeves just happened to be in the studio at that time, so they asked her to give it a shot. To everyone’s surprise, Martha totally nailed the song.
  8. The producer Mickey Stevenson said, “I was in big trouble. The song was supposed to be for Kim, and Martha had just aced it.”
  9. The next step was to add in the horn arrangement, and to overdub some percussion effects, like tambourine, and background vocals.

The song turned out to be very different from what we knew as “the Motown sound.” It was funkier, with its prominent bass line and drum beat. It was one of the most influential songs of the 1960s.

Many people think that songwriting is a solo act, where the writer spills her heart out and expresses deeply felt emotions. But just like every other form of creativity, the solitary creator is a myth. Songs, almost always, are created like everything else: Through a collaborative, wandering, unpredictable process.

Free Improvisation in Music Groups

There’s almost no research on group musical improvisation, and I’ve wondered about that for years. I’m a jazz pianist, and I’m fascinated by how different people can come together, and collectively create something that no one could have thought of alone.

So I’m excited to see a new study, of group free improvisation in music trios.* Two of my most respected British colleagues co-authored the study: Graeme Wilson and Raymond MacDonald.

They brought together 3 trios of improvising musicians, from Scotland and the North of England. The musicians were from a range of backgrounds, including voice and electronics. And just for extra measure, they also studied 2 more trios of visual artists who work with sound performance. The trios improvised in a studio for about five minutes. Then, the researchers interviewed each performer separately, replaying the tape of their improvisation, and asking them to explain “what they understood to be communicated by their own and other improvisers’ contributions” (p. 1032).

The main finding was that the musicians spent a lot of time thinking about whether to “maintain” what they were playing, or to “change” to something different. If they decided to change, either it was an initiation on their part, or a response to someone else’s contribution.  This is an “active and iterative” process.

If a change was a response, it was either an adoption (doing something really similar to the other musician’s initiation), an augmentation (adopting one element of the partner, but modifying another element), or a contrast (play something really different, but that’s complementary). Here’s the bottom line:

The representation is of an open-ended iterative cycle where all choices lead to a subsequent reconsideration, with each trio member constantly “scanning” the emergent sound of the piece and actions of their collaborators. The improvisation was sometimes characterized by interviewees as an external entity or process, within which events arose independently of those creating it. (p. 1035)

That’s exactly my own experience with group improvisation, and in my own research, every musician that I interviewed spoke in very similar terms, about iteration, interaction, and the emergence of something greater than the individual musicians.

* Wilson, Graeme B., Macdonald, Raymond A. R. (2016). Musical choices during group free improvisation: A qualitative psychological investigation. Psychology of Music, 44(5), 1029-1043.

Avoid “Culture Fit” If You Want Innovation

Some companies have started to hire only people who “fit” into their “culture,” according to an article by Rachel Feintzeig in the Wall Street Journal. Innovation research shows that this is a horrible idea.

These companies have applicants do a “culture fit test” before they’re hired. For example, G Adventures has job candidates climb down into a play pit full of brightly colored plastic balls, and then play a “spin the wheel” game where they answer personal questions, in front of three current employees.

  • Salesforce.com has tried using “cultural ambassadors” to evaluate job finalists.
  • Zappos.com gives veto power to senior company veterans. They can reject a potential hire if they decide the candidate doesn’t fit in, even when the candidate is otherwise fully qualified.

The career website Beyond.com found “that human-resources staff, when considering recent college hires, ranked cultural fit above a candidate’s referrals, coursework and grades.” (If you’re not white and male, this probably isn’t a surprise. And you’re probably not excited by the idea of playing a spin the wheel game, with three white guys, in a pit full of balls.)

These practices block innovation. We know from creativity research that the most innovative teams have cognitive diversity. That means that each person has a different set of ideas, practices, and knowledge. This drives innovation, because the most creative ideas combine very different ideas. If everyone in the group has the same cognitive material inside their skull, they won’t make those “distant combinations” that result in breakthrough creativity.

If you want innovation, avoid culture fit!

Can Colleges Be More Innovative? (And if so, why?)

It seems that everyone is calling for colleges to be more innovative. You’ve probably heard something like this: “Colleges are resistant to innovation. How many institutions have remained unchanged for 500 years? Only the Catholic church and the college. A student from 400 years ago would be right at home on today’s campus.” et cetera… This lack of innovation seems strange, because colleges are filled with innovation: research professors generate breakthrough research, engineering professors invent new technologies, and medical professors invent new drugs and surgery procedures.

I just read a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education that reports on a provocative article in the Washington Monthly, an attack on colleges for their lack of innovation. The article also describes a panel at the Washington think tank “New America” with three award-winning college innovators. Here’s a summary of the conversation.

First, most of the lack of innovation isn’t really the college’s fault. If the incentives that colleges work with don’t change, then why should they change? Incentives like public rankings, student demand and application numbers, total tuition revenue.

Second, innovation implies that you have to be the first person to ever do something. But some of the most important changes happen when a college borrows and adapts something that’s already been proven elsewhere. The pressure to innovate often leads university administrators to do something new just because it’s new, when they could get more mileage out of borrowing, adapting, and tweaking (see “incentives”–they aren’t rewarded for borrowing something that already works).

Third, many are calling for innovations in how to provide more flexibility for students. But flexibility can lead to fraud and abuse. Colleges have many legal requirements and constraints that block changes.

Fourth, when institutions change, some students benefit but others suffer. That’s why so many university administrators are cautious–they want to protect and help their students. It’s easier to get fired for doing something new that visibly hurts a student, than it is to get fired for continuing to do the same thing.

Most of what colleges call “innovation” are incremental changes, not breakthrough reinventions of the institution: things like modifying a degree requirements, or adding a new computer technology to the classroom. So, what sort of innovation do we want from colleges? What sort do we think they really need?

Finally, be suspicious when politicians call for innovation in higher education. What they usually mean is, we’re going to cut your budget. And if you complain about it, you’re just not being innovative.

The Zig Zag Process of Musical Creativity: The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”

When most people think of creativity, they think of the solitary lone genius, creating in silence far from the distractions of other people. Musical composition seems to be a great example of solitary creativity: The image of the singer-songwriter, writing songs about her own personal life and relationships. But this kind of musical creativity is rare. Most songs are composed in a highly collaborative process. One example is the Beach Boys song “Good Vibrations,” which was a flower-power love song.

The band spent 7 months in the studio producing the song. A new interview with four members of the group reveals the wandering, zigzagging, collaborative creative process. Here are a few of the steps in the process:

  1. At the age of 14, a dog barked at Brian Wilson’s mom. She said “Sometimes dogs pick up vibrations from people.”
  2. Nine years later, Wilson remembered this statement, and wrote a short chord progression for a song based on what his mom said. No lyrics were written yet.
  3. Combining cello and electro-theremin on the chorus was his brother Carl’s idea.
  4. They had the instrumentals recorded, and they liked what they heard on the tape, but there still weren’t lyrics for the song. At the time, Wilson was writing lyrics together with Tony Asher. When they first sat down, Wilson was calling the song “Good Vibes.” Asher thought “vibes” sounded cheap and trivial, and suggested “vibrations.”
  5. Asher wrote the first verse and chorus, including “good, good, good, good vibrations.”
  6. At the time, it didn’t really come together, and they put the song aside for a while.
  7. Later, Wilson asked musician Mike Love to come up with some lyrics for the same song. He ended up liking Mike’s lyrics better. (Mike was the one who coined the word “excitations.”)
  8. Since they wrote the first draft of the lyrics, the drug culture of hippies and flower power had emerged in the public eye. Mike was finally ready to write the verses. In the spirit of the newly trending flower power, he wrote lyrics including “I love the colorful clothes she wears and the way the sunlight plays upon her hair.”
  9. A few lines later is the line “on the wind that lifts her perfume through the air.” His original draft said “incense” instead of “perfume” but he decided that incense would be “a little much for Middle America.”
  10. Wilson arranged the vocals for these lyrics. In the studio, Wilson dropped the words “we find” from the end of the second verse, so the bass and drums would come through better.
  11. When the band listened to the initial vocal tracks, they realized the song needed some sort of contrast. Mike Love and Brian Wilson came up with a ballad duet inspired by Stephen Foster’s songs, and they added it as a bridge.

Brian Wilson was a very creative individual, but even Wilson worked in a collaborative web, and the songs we know and love came out of a collaborative, emergent, unpredictable, wandering process.

No Meetings on “Thinking Thursday”

I’m a big fan of collaboration. But like everybody else, I spend hours every day in meetings. Too many hours. Hours that I could be sitting in my office, getting work done.

Now, some companies are taking action. Edmunds.com, the web site for car buyers, has a new policy: No meetings allowed on Thursdays. The hope is that in this new solo time, people will come up with creative ideas. I like it! But, as a creativity researcher, I’m nervous about some of the subtle messages being sent.

First of all, the title: “Thinking Thursdays.” It implies that no one is thinking when they’re in a meeting. Which of course is silly; lots of great thoughts emerge from conversations. There’s a lot of collective thinking that can only happen when you bring a variety of people together.

Second, there’s the assumption that people can only be creative when they’re alone. It’s true that the research shows that you need some solitary time. But research also shows that you need frequent conversations and collaborations to achieve your creative potential.

Still, it’s a good policy if your company has too many meetings, if there’s no time to be alone. Maximum creativity comes from a good balance of group time and solo time.

Do you have stories of how your company helps you to carve out space for solitary time?

The Creative Architect Study

In 1949, the psychologist Donald MacKinnon started a research center at UC Berkeley called “The Institute for Personality Assessment and Research (IPAR).” During World War II, Dr. MacKinnon had developed personality and ability tests for the U.S. military. The purpose of the IPAR was to extend this research into civilian life. One of its priorities was to scientifically determine the traits of the creative personality.

Their most important research study was an analysis of creative architects. Forty of the top architects in the U.S. flew to Berkeley and lived together in an old fraternity house for a weekend. Psychologists gave them a battery of tests, and observed them while they had dinner, lunch, and cocktails. The most famous architects agreed to participate, including Louis Kahn, Philip Johnson, I. M. Pei, Richard Neutra, and Eero Saarinen. It’s a legendary story among creativity researchers. And now, there’s a new book that tells the story: The Creative Architect (by Pierluigi Serraino, and reviewed in the Wall Street Journal here).

Unfortunately, the study didn’t result in any strong or surprising findings–other than observing that the architects didn’t fit the stereotype of a creative person. The study found no evidence that creative people fit the widespread image of “an eccentric not only in thinking but in appearance, dress, and behavior; a Bohemian, an egghead, a longhair…a true neurotic, withdrawn from society, inept in his relations with others” (MacKinnon, 1962/1978, p. 178). The architects seemed to be pretty normal and successful professionals.

What’s more, they had remarkably ordinary childhoods: When they recalled their childhoods, they described the classic upper-middle-class, educated, American lifestyle: fathers were effective in their demanding careers, mothers were autonomous and often had their own careers, religion was important but not central or doctrinaire, families emphasized the development of a personal code of ethics, parents were not overly judgmental but encouraged the child’s ideas and expressions, and the family moved frequently (paraphrasing from MacKinnon’s book).

I recommend reading the WSJ review, and getting the book!

McKinnon, D. W. (1962/1978). In search of human effectiveness. Buffalo, NY: Creative Education Foundation.