A Case for Play: Experimentation as a Creative Strategy


Play is the title of Moby’s 1999 breakthrough album. I always thought it was an appropriate title for the album, because when I would listen to it, I got the sense that it was created as the result of play. Something about the album’s eclectic qualities made me think that it had emerged more as the result of experimentation than conceptualization – that Moby just played around with software, instruments, and audio samples in order to create the songs, instead of having had an idea in advance and trying to realize that idea.

The traditional notion of inspiration is that the idea for a creative work appears to you, then you transcribe or manifest that idea. In Greek mythology, the Muses would provide one with ideas and inspiration for their work. Elsewhere, this is described as the “eureka” moment; a proverbial “lightbulb” goes on in one’s mind, and then you know what to do. I’m becoming increasingly skeptical that this is indeed the process behind most creative works, appealing as the idea might be. What makes this idea appealing? Well, if you don’t produce something, you can rationalize that your lack of production isn’t your fault. It’s not that you weren’t willing to work at it; you were willing, the idea just never showed up. Basically, it gives you an excuse for not taking action. Your responsibility in the process is absolved, and therein lies the appeal.

Now, I’m not arguing that this “flash of insight” scenario doesn’t happen, or that it isn’t awesome when it does happen. It seems likely to me that ideas can bubble up from the subconscious from time to time. But what I am saying, is that this isn’t the only way to create, and probably shouldn’t be your default mode of operation. This is where experimentation and play enter the picture.

I had the chance to meet Moby in the summer of 2016, on his book tour for his memoir Porcelain. I thought I’d use the opportunity to ask him about the relevance of the title of Play, and ask him what role play has in his song creation process (you can see the video of me asking him that question, and him giving his answer, below). His answer came in two parts, since it was effectively two questions. Surprisingly, the title of Play came about as a result of seeing the word on his friend’s car stereo and on a sign in his neighbourhood. But, album title aside, he confirmed that his song-making is indeed a form of play for him. To quote the video below, Moby said that:

Making music for me is like 99% play. It’s going into my studio, playing guitar, playing piano, playing with stuff, and just seeing what happens. Like, I almost never go into my studio with any preconception of what might happen. It’s just turn stuff on, play around, and see what music arises.

And Moby’s not alone in using play as a successful creative strategy. I recently purchased and watched a “Masterclass” video series by Deadmau5 (a.k.a. Joel Zimmerman), in which Zimmerman stated the same thing:

I’ve never found myself humming a tune on the couch in my head and thinking “Ah! I got it, I’m gonna go in the studio and do it.” I just kinda go, and start doing it, and then the ideas form as I’m doing it, as opposed to me trying to form a preexisting idea in my head.

Zimmerman goes on to say that “90% of my time is just goofing around, trying to come up with something.” So, neither Moby nor Deadmau5 waits around for inspiration before making music – they just jump in and start making things. This reminds me of a quote from the painter Chuck Close: “Inspiration is for amateurs – the rest of us just show up and get to work.” Thomas Edison expressed similar sentiments towards inspiration, stating that “It boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.” And, it seems to me, if that perspiration is the result of play, you can probably have some fun along the way.

Obviously, in addition to play, you will need knowledge about the domain you’re working in in order to create good things. Playing 100% of the time probably won’t get you very far as an artist… or who knows: maybe it will! But more than likely, you will also need to learn the craft. Fortunately, the resources available to the individual looking to learn a craft have never been better. YouTube has a seemingly limitless number of tutorials on a seemingly limitless number of topics. If you want to filter your educational content for quality, sites like Lynda.com will provide you with high quality instruction from professionals in the area you’re interested in (I actually get free access to it with my Toronto Library card, you might also be able to get free access through the library in your town or city). But, learning how to make things is only half the battle of making things – the other half is coming up with ideas. And for that, I suggest not waiting around for the muses to provide inspiration. I say, get in there and play.