Modern Film Composer Blog

9 Jun 2015

The Science of Hacking Creativity and Motivation: Part 1




What Would Don Draper Have to Say to Composers/Producers? Read on…

You were sitting up late working on a track, your mind was quiet, everyone else was asleep, wave after wave of creative impulse flooded your mind. It was effortless. You felt note after note flow forth from your mind and when you came to, the piece was finished and you found that you have been working for 8 hours straight. You forgot to eat, drink or sleep. The entire world dissolved and you became a feather on a breeze gliding effortlessly into realms of un-limited creativity.

Why should we see this experience as one of those lucky episodes? What if we could learn to trigger it at will? Surely this would once and for all eliminate all the unfinished pieces clogging up our hard-drives with dissertation-length titles. For many years I sat around in a lethargic fog struggling through piece after piece, tweaking sounds to death and losing any sense of objectivity over my work. I know the feeling of sitting down to compose with a deflated state of mind. It feels like you are dragging yourself through quick-sand. So I started to research why the professional composer I was assisting at the time was cranking out piece after incredible piece…

MFC Comic 1


In the advertising drama Mad-Men the mythical advertising creative director Don Draper teaches a young copywriter about the creative process. He sees the frustration on her face as she struggles to find inspiration and tells her to think the problem through until she’s about to break and then let her thoughts go blank. He assures her that at that moment the answer will flash into her mind. Many people don’t realise that this scene was a sly nod to some well-researched science of the creative process. This creative method is actually heavily backed by research and represents a summation of the working methodology of some of the greatest artists, inventors and writers in history.


Watch-Rapper-s-Brain-in-Flow-Video-Sheds-New-Light-on-Creativity (1)

Neuroscientists at the National Institute on Deafness took 12 professional rappers and ran them through an fMRI brain scanning machine as they improvised verses in a deep state of creative flow. Here’s what they observed:

“Improvised performance is characterized by dissociated activity in medial and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices, providing a context in which stimulus-independent behaviors may unfold in the absence of conscious monitoring and volitional control.”

In other words the parts of the brain that are self-analysing essentially power down to allow a deeper subconscious creativity to flow through unhindered by self-criticism. The voice in your head that says “This piece sucks, stop trying to be Hans Zimmer” goes silent which allows deeper pattern recognition and emotional centres of the brain to fire on all cylinders.

“stimulus-independent behaviors unfold in the absence of central processes that typically mediate self-monitoring and conscious volitional control of ongoing performance”

This conclusion is supported by a separate MRI brain study on Jazz musicians improvising:

“…we found that improvisation (compared to production of over-learned musical sequences) was consistently characterized by a dissociated pattern of activity in the prefrontal cortex: extensive deactivation of dorsolateral prefrontal and lateral orbital regions with focal activation of the medial prefrontal (frontal polar) cortex”


A Freestyle Rapper’s Brain in Flow

Successful Film Composer’s are -by necessity- a case study of people who have learned to reliably trigger this creative flow on demand. A new film comes in and bang they pour forth piece after piece of work of such high quality and quantity that it impresses the most unreasonably meticulous of all professionals: film directors. This is not normal. The same phenomenon can be found in high-level journalists. Their lively-hood is dependent on heir ability to trigger creative writing at will.

Most of the greatest artists, writers and scientists throughout history have described a state in which they created their best work when they channel creativity through them in an almost unconscious state of creative flow. Bestselling Author Elizabeth Gilbert gave a TED Talk on this phenomenon that is excellent.

I’m a mule, and the way that I have to work is that I have to get up at the same time every day, and sweat and labor and barrel through it really awkwardly. But even I, in my mulishness, even I have brushed up against that thing, at times. And I would imagine that a lot of you have too. You know, even I have had work or ideas come through me from a source that I honestly cannot identify.”



There exists a huge multi-million dollar research project involving neuro-scientists, psychologists and high performing businessmen called The Flow Genome Project. It holds great value for creatives in all spheres. If you could learn to trigger creative flow every time you get in the studio the affect on career and life would be un-imaginable. Their research has confirmed that Flow is characterised in part by “transient hypofrontality” -this means that during intense creative states the pre-frontal cortex of our brain temporarily goes offline. This is why we lose the self-critical voices. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain which self-monitors and controls impulses. You can actually watch the blood flow to this area of the brain reduce when people are in intense states of creativity. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is the voice that says “You’ll never been as good as [insert composer]. “That chord sequence is ridiculous” Why don’t you just quit pretending” and on and on. Switching this off frees us to work, allowing our natural abilities and creativity to come through.

Norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin flood our brains. Norepinephrine and dopamine give you the laser focus helping with pattern recognition and tying together ideas. In a flow state combinations of instruments and harmonies become effortless due to the help of Anandamide which increases your ability for lateral thinking. To achieve these composer super-powers we first need  to create the right conditions for flow. Author Stephen Kotler has spent more time than just about any human on earth funding and analysing rigorous scientific study of Flow States. He distills all the recorded scientific knowledge on flow -first examined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – into 17 pre-cursors to Creative Flow states and 7 stages of flow. In this post we will take a detailed look at the 6 pre-cursors relevant to composers/producers and in part 2 we will look at the stages of flow he identifies. Finally I will share a complete flow protocol which I have found to be immensely powerful. Through these 17 pre-cursors and 7 stages I have developed a fairly unusual but effective protocol by which I can reliably get into a creative flow. This took me many years of trial and error. We start by setting up the right environment:

The 7 Most Scientifically Validated Pre-Cursors to a Creative Flow State

-According to Stephen Kotler Director of The Flow Genome Project-

1.Intensely Focused Attention and Meditation


Many of us have produced our most excellent work at night. The creativity comes over you and your are swept off into a piece. Why? Because there are zero distractions from email and calls and you can become absorbed in your work. This late-night work is a commonality that exists between creatives across all spheres. The Hollywood composer I was assistant to typically worked from 2 – 6am. You must at all costs create a zero distraction environment for your work even if you have to work odd hours for a time. You simply cannot enter your most creative states with interruption. Distraction switches your pre-frontal cortex back on instantly to asses what is happening around you and the creativity is gone.

Don’t take my word for it, there are no greater masters of accessing creative genius than prolific Fiction writers and as composers we have much to learn from them. Our process of accessing that state of creative flow is completely analogous to their writing experience. Let’s look at some of the world’s greatest writers and what they say about creating focused attention. These are creatives at the very top of their game and there is a remarkable consensus:

“Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.” — Zadie Smith

“It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” — Jonathan Franzen

“Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.” — Zadie Smith

“The writing life is essentially one of solitary confinement – if you can’t deal with this you needn’t apply.” — Will Self

“You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.” Saul Bellow

“When I sit down to write, which is the essential moment in my life, I am completely alone.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Any amount of time performing technical additions or tweaks to your session is going to completely knock you out of a creative flow. When you catch that idea for a piece you cannot afford to do any more than minor tweaks to patches and effects. The tweak-fest should come later in the mixing part of our process. Protect your creative time aggressively. Creative composition is about connecting with that source of inspiration which appears to come from outside of yourself and if you are too conscious of the process you will never know the quantity and quality of work you are capable of creating. The world’s greatest writers tend to work by a similar process where they write unconsciously in a flow state with zero self-criticism and then later they come back to edit. It is a very effective way of working creatively.

Flow Pre-Cursor Action Steps:


-Start your Session With a Short Meditation – The Institute for Psychological Research published a study titled “Meditate To Create The Impact of Focused Attention and Open Monitoring Training on Convergent and Divergent Thinking”. It summaries the strong scientific argument that focused attention in the form of meditation induces creative brain states. Numerous studies show that the physical structure of your brain changes with 8 weeks of meditation. The changes that take place directly affect your ability to be creative. The Amygdala shrinks which lowers your stress and “fight of flight” response to the world which distracts you from your work. A Yale Study shows that the “Default Mode Network” in your brain responsible for self-criticism shrinks. Meanwhile you literally grow the grey matter in the Hippocampus and other key areas of your brain related to learning, memory and creativity. Try a short “Mindfulness Meditation” before your begin your session to clear the mind of the days events and activate the most resourceful creative brain states possible.

-Accept that truly creative work is physically impossible with any form of distraction that activates your analytical mind. Create a one to two hour zero distraction period at night or early in the morning where you can focus solely on creative work. Phone off. Browser tabs closed.

-Work in a 2 step process as many of the greatest fiction writers in history do. Step 1 is a purely creative time creating the broad strokes with zero analytical editing or tweaking. Work from a well designed template in your Digital Audio Workstation that minimises analytical thinking and computer-crashes (no fiddling with reverbs, loading plugins etc). In Step 2 come back at a later time and edit your work in a more analytical fashion, listen carefully, make your tweaks. Creativity and self-criticism do not co-exist well, but they can complement each other when separated into different stages of the creative process.

2. Pattern Recognition and Risk Taking – Increase The Risk in Your Life


Strangely there is some very strong evidence to suggest that taking risks increases your creativity. Stephen Koetler the creator of the Flow Genome Project finds that the easiest way for him to start creative writing is to complete a fast downhill mountain bike course and then begin writing immediately afterward. In fact most of the scientific studies of flow involve extreme sports. Why does risk make you more creative?

“When the brain encounters unfamiliar stimuli under uncertain conditions—especially when those are dangerous uncertain conditions—baser instincts take over. As a result the brain’s rational extrinsic system is shunted aside in favor of the intuitive creative system.  Simply put, in an effort to save our own butts, the brain’s pattern recognition system starts hunting through every possible database to hunt up a solution.” – Stephen Koetler

John Denver famously overcame a long creative slump by driving fast sports cars around a race track releasing adrenaline before beginning to compose. The recommendation made by a psychologist familiar with flow research saved his career. He found himself overcome with inspiration and created some of his finest work. Einstein one of the greatest creatives of all time built risky activities into the fabric of his life often sailing into storms with his scientific companions for fun despite an inability to swim. In Mastering The Art of Performance Prof. Stewart Gordon comments:

“Sometimes seasoned performers consciously court a risk factor in order to push themselves. In doing so they seek to enter a rare state…improvising imaginative nuance or detail seems effortless.”

Advertising agency Waggener Erdstrom encourage their employees to take up extreme sports in their spare time to develop a “razor sharp creative edge”. Why? Have you seen the film 127 hours? Here’s how the real-life climber -the subject of the film- describes the experience of having to amputate his own arm to escape certain death:

“It was the most beautiful moment of my life. The intensity of emotion, the euphoria… It was ecstasy…‘Think of it like this. Take every instance of joy, happiness, pleasure, delight and fun you’ve ever had in your life, and pack it into one moment. Then multiply that moment by the power of every piece of joy and happiness you’ve yet to experience… That’s how I felt.”

Flow Pre-Cursor Action Steps:

By necessity the brain will ramp up our senses and cognitive faculties to keep us alive in situations of risk. Build some calculated risk into your life and you will train your brain to enter this resourceful state. Personally I get the required energy from social risk. Before composing I will often take a small social risk, my favourite being to walk in un-invited to the fancy cocktail parties at the Balmoral hotel Edinburgh on my way to the studio. It has zero consequence for me but leaves me strangely invigorated and inspired to create. Try it and you might be surprised how effective it is. It has to be enough of a risk to give you a slight chill. The reason it works is because your brain releases a cocktail of excitatory neuro-chemicals when it senses risk. In addition, when you feel a lull in your composing throw in a totally unexpected element, the novelty will give you a release of dopamine that spurs further exploration.

“Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.” — Jonathan Franzen

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” Robert Frost

3.Challenge/Skills Ratio – Hitting the Sweet Spot

Flow Chart


Flow happens when we are working outside of our comfort zone – but not too far. If the task is too dull we cannot become engaged but if it is too difficult we will just trip ourselves up. The lesson here is to push yourself when composing to a reasonable degree. Check the chart above. where do you sit when you are composing? Flow happens on the knife edge between arousal and control. Every time you work on a piece push the envelope an extra 10% and watch how your brain ramps up to the task. Load up a similar piece of work by a great composer into your DAW and A/B between your material and theirs. Let it push you to create greater works both technically and creatively.

4. Clear Goals – Gamification and The Creative Process


According to Professor Csikszentmihalyi -the original flow researcher- flow comes from “structured activity”. This does not imply rigidity. It simply means that you need to structure your creative work into a clear set of goals towards which you will apply your creativity. This approach is the opposite of opening a blank Cubase session and hoping it all comes to you. Our motivation to compose is significantly created through a neurotransmitter in the brain called Dopamine. Psychologist John Salamone in “The Mysterious Motivational Functions of Mesolimbic Dopamine” describes how the brain operates according to a reward system where dopamine is released when we achieve a goal, we feel good and this then spurs further activity to receive further reward. The problem with composing/producing is that the end goal of finishing a piece is a very long way from the starting point, often it will take several days to finish a piece. Our brains -which are not wired for our modern environment- only maintain a dopamine release for a certain period of time before they decide “There’s no food to be found in this hunting method, I’m going to create distraction until we find something else that works.” Not finding the imminent reward our we lose motivation and give in, we file the piece away on our hard-drive and forget about it. The way to break this pattern is to “Gamify” the process. Gamification sounds ridiculous but it works – big time. Companies whose profit relies on maintaining customer motivation to buy their product know this. In 2013 70% of Forbes Global 2000 companies were applying gamification to their work. So how do we use this to maintain motivation in the composition process? The great thing is that we can create arbitrary motivational goals in our minds which trigger dopamine release.

Like a computer game you need to divide your composition/production process into levels or stages with associated rewards. Think about your unfinished pieces, there is a point at which you lose the dopamine response, your brain is sensing that this task is not providing a reward and you need to find something else to do. What point is this for you? For me it is when it comes to doing any kind of live recording of instruments. I can fly through a piece but when it comes to recording the real instruments the process of setting everything up feels impossibly tedious. For this reason I now gamify this part of the process. I record with friends and create a reward for finishing the recording which is – to go out for a beer with said friends! It’s one of my favourite tasks now.

Flow Pre-Cursor Action Steps:

Create a list with goals and rewards for each stage of your creative process:

Personally I follow what I have been told is Hans Zimmer’s approach to creating scores which I have found to be the most efficient. The process divides the task into creating and then editing. Add rewards that are meaningful to you at each stage of the process.

Creative Stage 1: Establishing the Theme

– Create the theme on piano (or your main instrument) without going near your computer. Focus entirely on creating strong melodic and harmonic content that holds up in even the simplest form on piano. The movie industry as a whole works by this process. Before any lighting, CGI and Pyrotechnics get involved someone sits down and writes the plot of the movie. The entire validity of the project is judged on this basic story-line. Your VSTs and Plugins are your computer-generated FX, make sure you get the main structure and theme in place first so that you have a firm foundation to build on.

Creative Stage 2: Filling Out The Parts

– Play your theme in on the main VST instrument. Create a solid performance on a MIDI keyboard without quantisation – we will discuss the value of this for triggering flow shortly.

– Program the percussion in your DAW to form the backbone of the cue.

– Loop the piece adding strings by ear without worrying about formal orchestration. Create the broad strokes which you will come back and edit later.

– Repeat this process for each orchestral section.

– Add FX (Sub, Risers, Drops etc.)

Editing Stage 1: Orchestration

In a separate session go back to edit your orchestral parts to create clearer voicing and separation. Good orchestration is essential, in many cases composers will outsource this task to a skilled orchestrator

Editing Stage 2: Mix and Master

Mix and Master.The tweak-fest begins.

5. High Consequences, Immediate Feedback and Sense of Control – Why You Should Never Click Notes In With Your Mouse

If you have ever driven a long distance and forgot yourself in the journey then you have experienced the flow that comes with focused attention, high consequences, immediate feedback and a sense of control. You receive immediate feedback from your control of the vehicle knowing that even the slightest fault at high speed could end your life. Yet in the midst of this you can experience a relaxed state. This kind of environment is highly conducive to flow.

There is a danger to MIDI sequencing. When we are simply clicking dots on the page we not only remove the human element of our performance but we also deprive ourselves of the creative meditation of playing a keyboard. Beethoven didn’t write symphonies by clicking on a computer screen. The feedback you receive from the sound to your touch and cadence invokes a sense of control and involvement that simply cannot be obtained through clicking in MIDI notes with your mouse.

Flow Pre-Cursor Action Steps


– Use physical MIDI inputs as much as possible when composing. This is not limited to note-input. Use MIDI faders and touch controls to adjust velocity, bowing intensity, volume swells etc. For percussion and beat loops try Maschine by Native Instruments or any other kind of MPC-like MIDI input solution. Tapping in the rhythms is way more fun and involving than clicking in little MIDI squares. It also allows the risk of making mistakes.

– When you come to use your computer in the writing process Loop Recording is the most powerful way to achieve this kind of flow in your work. You play something in and immediately hear it back, constantly adjusting your input until you get what you need.

– Loop recording using a physical MIDI input is a wonderful way to induce flow. For generations hip-hop producers using MPCs have known this.

6. Rich Environment – Create Your Dream Studio

from Trey Ratcliff at

from Trey Ratcliff at

Take a look at the picture above of Hans Zimmer’s studio. The greatest creative minds in our world believe in creating workplaces that enrich our imagination. Did you know that at Pixar studios Steve Jobbs had high profile guests crawl through a vent in the back of one of the offices to arrive in a secret room decorated with lights:  “He and his colleagues commandeered the secret room, festooned it with Christmas lights and bar equipment. A video camera installed in the corridor allowed occupants to monitor who might be approaching. Pixar design lead Lasseter and Steve Jobs himself brought important visitors there and had them sign the wall. The signatures include Michael Eisner, Roy Disney, Tim Allen, and Randy Newman.”   Do you feel excited about your studio space? Go into the studio of any busy composer in LA and look at the amount of work that went into decorating it! Create a place of adventure. A place you go to escape the world. Install a projector and put on films with the sound muted as you write. Invest in some lighting. Do everything you can to make it a refuge.

Check out Strongroom Studios in London:


Next week we will look at the 6 stages of Flow Kotler and Csikszentmihalyi’s research have uncovered. I think you’ll find it to be unusual and fascinating information.

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