Some musicians have an unmistakable sound. It only takes a few seconds to audibly recognize Billie Holiday in her penetrating rendition of “Love for Sale,” Glenn Gould and his emotive interpretation of J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, or even the Punch Brothers in their progressively intricate compositions for bluegrass ensemble. What makes these artists so distinct? This question lies at the center of every musician’s creative journey. As an artist, one is always seeking a more unique self-expression through his or her medium. Unfortunately, this search is so ambiguous and esoteric, it drives many to give up before that desire can be fulfilled. No musician is born fully realized—creative self-discovery is a rite of passage for all artists. However, by examining the elements of creativity, it is possible to demystify the process and practically cultivate one’s own distinct musical identity.
Those elements can be condensed to two broad categories: tradition and originality. Every creative output inevitably traces back to some combination of these two aspects. The specific utilization and appropriation of each strongly influences the formation of one’s musical identity. One without the other leads to stagnation and artificiality. In contrast, the artists who experience the most distinct creative success are the ones who stand firmly on the experience of past tradition in order to step forward into new original territory. Let’s unpack this a little.