Week 14: Sonic Chemistry

Our guest writer today is Jonathan Dunn. Jon is a musician with a deep background in the music industry. He has been a recorded artist for the last 20 years, and also ran multiple record labels and worked as a director of A&R for 14 years. We know Jon through working with him in his current role as partner and creative director for Belief Agency, and we learn a lot from our ongoing conversations with him about music and creativity. As someone steeped in the professional creative world, we asked Jon to share where he finds inspiration as both a creative and a musician.

People think creativity is creating something new—something special. But I say it’s the drive for originality that stops creativity dead in its tracks. The thing is, everything’s been done. The key to actually being creative is combining seemingly disparate things that inspire you into something new.

It’s a lot like chemistry (and for the record, I think chemistry gets overlooked as a creative field). It’s essentially the study of how existing elements are combined.

Music works much the same way, though you might not realize it on the surface. I figured this out as a kid learning to play guitar. I’d spin my wheels trying to come up with riffs that sounded totally new, and it got me nowhere. It wasn’t until I realized that my favorite artists—the artists who inspired me to pick up a guitar in the first place—weren’t really coming up with an original idea, either.

Take Nirvana, for example. A band that became immortal through the movement it prompted. You’d think that music with that much power would be offering something brand new, but it wasn’t—at least not to Kurt Cobain, who admitted in a 1994 interview that he was “just trying to rip off The Pixies” when he wrote “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” You could even say that the grunge movement as a whole was built on the idea of combining things that weren’t supposed to be combined: the whining surf-pop of The Pixies with the rough edges of early Seattle punk.

Then you have hip hop—a genre built entirely on the combination of samples, drum machines, and Jamaican toasting. Then, when Rick Rubin combines Aerosmith and Run D.M.C., rap-rock—two seemingly disparate genres—is born. The Beastie Boys create their take on rap-rock with “Licensed to Ill,” creating the building blocks for bands like Rage Against the Machine and Linkin Park. To this day, you can trace dozens of chart-toppers back to the fractional samples they edit into unique hooks (there’s an entire TikTok community dedicated just to this). The genealogy of music is rife with examples of genres and sounds being combined to create something “new.”

What these examples lay bare is that it’s less about the content or technique that breeds creativity than it is about infusing your own perspective into it—that’s where the originality comes in. Five people can paint the same object, but each canvas will look wildly different. That’s perspective. That’s originality. To Kurt Cobain, it might feel like copying, but to everyone else, it’s a culture shift.

Whether it’s chemistry or music or painting, creative output all comes down to the same thing: Combining different elements to make something new and unique. So become a scientist this month, or take a page out of Kurt Cobain’s notebook, and combine things. Let your perspective take the lead and see what comes of it. Maybe you make garbage—or maybe you come up with something really special. And if you need a little inspiration or a place to start, try one of these:

  • Mash up your favorite song with your least favorite song.
  • Apply a backbeat to a piece of classical music.
  • Produce a song made entirely of samples.

Thanks Jon!  We hope you’ll share the results of your sonic chemistry experiments on your favorite social media channel (#creativevalhalla so we can find it)!

Comments (3)

  • psumner

    Yes! People are information processors–what goes in is inevitably changed as it comes out. If you let your internal processor freely absorb and modify the things that inspire you, creative blocks will disappear, and the results will be unique musical expressions that represent you.

  • Great to have a reminder that nothing is original! Taking the pressure off not making it original opens up all sorts of opportunities.

  • Brian Holtz

    You can apply learned instrument skills to re-interpret someone elses work or you can take verbatim samples of their work and re-interpret or rearrange.
    I make no judgement if one way is better than the other. I guess the proof is in the puddin’.

    Heres something I did using entirely other peoples work. #creativevalhalla


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