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How Curiosity Inspired a Generative Music System

I have a music problem.

I enjoy working to the sound of instrumental and ambient music, but sometimes I don’t want or don’t have the time to search through my music library to find the right album to listen to. I also worry that consuming music as background “filler” at work means I won’t appreciate an album I’d otherwise delight in listening to actively.

So an idea was born, and I became curious if I could create a musical system that would generate ambient and instrumental sounds indefinitely. It would be a soundscape that had enough sonic interest and depth, but without worry of devaluing the creative work of another. Ableton Live provided all the tools needed to achieve just that. I picked a selection of instruments I enjoy and began using plugins to generate a stream of MIDI notes at various rates. The whole system is constrained to a minor pentatonic scale, to ensure nothing sounds dissonant. Some instruments would play more frequently, while others would enter randomly and more infrequently to serve as a bit of sonic accent.

It was the accent instruments that led me to a fun discovery about the tools I use to create music, and I learned a new method for building instrument racks that has sparked an interest in further musical exploration.

Curiosity has a compelling effect on your productivity. I’d been in a bit of a creative drought when it comes to my music production. This music system wasn’t aimed at ending that drought, but I think it has, in a roundabout way. What had been missing was curiosity. I’d been writing music in the exact same way for a year, using the same techniques and instruments, and that spark of discovery was gone.

Curiosity is an essential element of creativity. Psychologist and creativity scholar Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes that, “Without a good dose of curiosity, wonder, and interest in what things are like and in how they work, it is difficult to recognize an interesting ” Having an interesting problem to wrestle with is something we all desire. It touches on Csikszentmihalyi’s other concept of flow, or being “in the zone.” When you have a challenge that matches your level of skill, you are more fully engaged in the task at hand—and that engagement often relates to enjoyment of the work as well. As we search for good work, and good causes to work for, our guiding value of curiosity serves us well.