Artistic Freedom versus Rules

An album I’ve been listening to a lot this past year is Peter Gabriel’s ‘Scratch My Back’. The album consists of cover songs, in Gabriel’s words it’s “the dreaded cover album” that some artists set out to make. The album’s title comes from the idea: “if you do one of my songs, I’ll do one of yours”. I find ‘Scratch My Back’ an inspiring album, with stunning orchestral arrangements and surprising interpretations of songs including ‘The Book of Love’ (Magnetic Fields), ‘Heroes’ (David Bowie), ‘Philadelphia’ (Neil Young), ‘Boy In The Bubble’ (Paul Simon), and ‘Flume’ (Bon Iver). ‘Scratch My Back’ could certainly inspire many interesting discussions about covering songs. But this time I want to focus on something else: artistic freedom versus rules.

Recently I watched the video clip ‘The Making of Scratch My Back’, in which Gabriel says something that caught my attention:

I’ve always benefited from having clear rules, because I think, giving an artist total freedom is castrating them. When you say to an artist they can’t do something, that’s firing them up because we’re sort of mischievous creatures by nature, and we’ll find an alternative route to achieve something, but we need an obstruction in a way.

Does creativity benefit from having rules? Does setting limitations create more artistic freedom and lead to more surprising creative solutions and original artistic choices than setting no limitations at all?

I used to think ‘rules’ were ‘blocking the flow of ideas’, and all that sort of stuff. But the more I learn about the creative process by doing, reflecting, adjusting and doing again, the more I start to think that some sort of ‘rules’ are actually quite a blessing. Think of it as a framework, or perhaps like focusing the lens of a camera, narrowing down the possibilities in order to be able to really zoom in on a specific thing. If anything is possible, the options are too many and we either don’t know where to start or we get scattered in our attention. While, if we limit the options (or, like Gabriel puts it, tell ourselves/the artist we can’t do something), we create a need to find an alternative route, focus our attention and get creative within the limited options we have.

Try for example to arrange a piece of music without knowing what kind of voicing or instrumentation you will arrange it for. Impossible.

When it comes to ‘Scratch My Back’, Gabriel explains that the starting point was “no drums, no guitars”. Finally, the ‘rule’ or ‘limitation’ that was set was to arrange all songs using orchestral instruments.


Frameworks and ‘rules’ are also necessary when it comes to teaching, for example when assigning exercises for your students or groups that you work with. In my experience, if you for example give someone the assignment to practice improvising or to alter the melody or rhythm of a song, without setting a framework or assigning ‘rules’, the assignment often fails – in other words, the student blocks and doesn’t know what to do or where to start. There are simply too many choices, too many possible directions.

Now, give the assignment a clear framework and assign some rules, and the situation changes. Rules like “never sing on the 1” or “alter the melody by always using neighbor notes / passing notes / singing an arpeggiated melodic line” are obstructions that will make the singer look for an alternative route. It also creates a clear focus for the learning task at hand, and the assignment becomes concrete.


Teaching artistry

How artistry can be taught or developed, is a question that interests me greatly. This question also relates to the question of artistic freedom versus rules. So where does total freedom and limitations, respectively, stand in the context of teaching or developing artistry? If limitations might be beneficial for creativity, does this also apply for artistic development?

Let’s look at this within the framework of singing instruction and learning to make artistic choices about sound. I believe a singing teacher should assist the singer in reaching his or her artistic goals, and not superimpose their own artistic taste or sound preferences on the singer/student. So in one way, I find myself promoting artistic freedom. Yet knowing how difficult it can be to make choices if anything is possible, I do sometimes find myself needing to approach that freedom within certain limitations – or at least by presenting options and possibilities in a careful way.

Since my intention is not to tell you how artistry is to be taught, but to give you an open look inside my busy brain, allow me to present you with some questions. Perhaps you can provide me with some more thoughts on this subject!


Here we go:

  • How do singing teachers guide singers in making artistic choices about sound and developing their artistry?
  • How/to what degree, if at all, does the artistic development of a singer benefit from limitations when it comes to possibilities in sound?


Let’s wrap up all these questions (for now) in a final question:

  • Are statements like “you choose what you want to sound like / you can sound any way you like” beneficial for the development of artistry, or is it more difficult to develop artistry if anything is possible?


What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so feel free to comment here.


Oh, and remember Peter Gabriel and ‘Scratch My Back’? Below you can have a look at the video I mentioned at the very beginning of this trail of thoughts!

©2012 Katja Maria Slotte

5 thoughts on “Artistic Freedom versus Rules

  1. Dear smurfie, wow, i really like your new website and love your writing. That’s absolutely a big talent. Well done :)) Have a great time on the Canaries. XXx, Claudia

  2. As an artist and teacher myself I also noticed that total freedom isn’t as liberating as one would think. Yes I can sing almost every song and yes i tried to sing every song. But when I finally realized I only love a few genres, I began noticing that I got more creative in my singing. Also with students if I give them to many options how to change a song, note or text, they freeze. Humans seem to have a limit on how much info they can process, to much input means brain lock down. Even with more able singers I still give then just 2 choices in how to change, sing, whistle or shout a sentence of song. But I leave the choice with them. Although, sometimes with the less experienced singers, I’ll show what the different choices sound (because they don’t know how the choices sound or it’s a new technique we stumbled on) and then we train the choice they preferred.
    I’ll always tell them, I can give you the colors to paint, but you have to do the painting yourself. So to answer one of your questions, I do think you need some limitations as an artist to really grow because you need to focus and concentrate to make the magic happen.

    • Thanks for your comment Joyce! I like how you say “I can give you the colors to paint, but you have to do the painting yourself”. How did your own teachers deal with limitations during your training – if I may ask?

      • Well my first teacher at the musicschool didn’t know anything about pop singing or have any idea what she wanted to teach me, so as a student, I told here which songs I wanted to learn and that was that. Fortunally for me I already been on stage, worked with different instruments and played an instrument so I could sing to music. So my limitation was I could only do or learn stuff when I can with an idea. Then in the conservatory I had the most dealings with interpretation lessons. Here was 1 of the limitations that we needed to find and sing songs from different areas of pophistory like blues, rock, country etc whether you knew any or not for a whole year. And this was in the age of no youtube, that came after graduation. In an other lesson improvisation limits where like: this day we work only with soundbites so make up words and we’ll record the first soundbites that pop in your head. Then we make a song out of it. And with technique lessons we zoomed in at 1 or 2 pieces of technique. So to me it was much more in the zoomed details then suppose the lessons I teach nowadays where i try to streamline the singing knowledge with the students actual singing. I need to be the interpretation teacher, improvisation teacher and technique teacher in like 20 mins where in the conservatory we got 3 hours or more per week. As supposed to my time at the conservatory where I needed to combine in my presentations every piece of information I learned separated that year. And there where always the limitations in the languages you sing, the kind of music you sing and or whether you developed an own style (which I didn’t do at the time)

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