Breaking Habits

Breaking Habits

It is said that it takes 30 days to form a habit. For instance, if I want to commit to running three miles every morning, once I complete to a solid 30-day trial period that action will have officially entered my brain as “that thing I do every morning.” I think the same can be said of forming a habit of not doing something—breaking a habit—such as quitting smoking or cutting down on television viewing. Either way, although the actual length of time for the action to gel into a habit will obviously vary from person to person, 30 days serves as a basic benchmark in that process.

Habits can be good things, in that they don’t require the same level of effort to execute as something that is not a habit. They “just happen” without needing a lot of consideration or energy once they become integrated into the daily routine or the personality of the individual. So how does this rule apply to musical habits? We all have them—the compositional things we do that make up our “musical voice,” whatever that may be. I think we can all agree that such habits make Philip Glass sound like Philip Glass, Joan Tower sound like Joan Tower, and probably even John Cage sound like John Cage. As I’m composing I tend towards certain musical gestures, harmonic schemes, and structural approaches. For example, there are certain string techniques that I really like to use because they convey a specific mood that I’m interested in creating, they work well within my musical language, and I just like the way they sound. Same goes for chordal structures, instrument pairings, etc. However, at some point the use of certain techniques starts to feel like it has reached critical mass, and maybe the time has come to shake things up a bit.

That’s when I say, “Okay, let’s not do that at all in this piece.” So what to replace that with? Often I try to dream up several completely off-the-wall musical scenarios that could serve as replacements—the weirder or more outlandish the better—and often something in there will spark an idea, or a combination of those bits of information can be worked into an entirely new version of that. It makes the process of pushing oneself out of routine kind of fun! And in the end I have a lot more musical material than I started with.

Ultimately I’m not sure how musical habits like this end up forming—through 30 days of composing? After 30 pieces? Once you’ve heard 30 performances of a composition? However it happens, recognizing those habits and evaluating whether they should stay, go, or morph into something else is one way to keep growing and developing as a composer.

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4 thoughts on “Breaking Habits

  1. Colin Holter

    Sweet post. Breaking up habituation is an important part of being creative, no two ways about it – but I also really like to “saturate” my habits sometimes. Stuart Smith told me once that you should always feel free to write the same piece several times, because in the end it won’t turn out to be the same piece; I think there’s something to that.

    1. David Wolfson

      I really appreciate hearing what Stuart Smith said; I’ve always wondered why painters get to paint the same haystack dozens of times, but there seems to be an expectation that composers create a new world with every piece.

  2. Alexandra Gardner Post author

    Hi Colin and David,
    Good points, and very true that even if you try to write the same piece again, it won’t ever be the same piece! Please note that the breaking of habits that I’m writing about is taken on by choice, rather than by any sense of obligation.

  3. Jeff Fairbanks

    This situation can be esepcially difficult to break when working in electronic music which is my main medium these days. It can take a real effort to throw oneself into a new way of doing things that “might not sound that good”. I go back to your 30 day thing though and also apply that if you try to add something new a little at a time consistently that also can become your norm and much less daunting.


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