Rethinking Creative Practice In Record Production And Studio Recording Education: Addressing The Field


Traditionally, Western notions of creativity have been viewed from a Romantic perspective where often the moment of insight or inspiration is considered to be the point of creativity (Boden, 2004). Modern popular representations of musicians, engineers and record producers in the media also serve to support these notions. Most strikingly, the common sense representations of creativity place the individual at the centre of the creative process which have been largely derived from both Romantic and Inspirationist assumptions. However as Margaret Boden proclaims, these beliefs:

‘…are believed by many to be literally true. But they are rarely critically examined. They are not theories, so much as myths: imaginative constructions, whose function is to express the values, assuage the fears, and endorse the practices of the community that celebrates them’ (2004: 14).

When one does investigate creativity critically and looks closely at the research literature on this phenomenon (for summaries see Batey & Furnham 2006, Kaufman & Sternberg 2010, Sawyer 2012) little of it supports these myths or common beliefs. Instead there appears to be a growing consensus around the idea that a confluence of factors are at play in order for creativity to emerge (Hennessy & Amabile 2010). For example, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1996) and Keith Sawyer (2012) argue that the influence of both cultural and social factors should also be considered in equal terms to the individual, as the evidence suggests that they are all necessary components of a creative system at work. As Phillip McIntyre explains, any system of creativity must be ‘comprised of an individual, a domain of knowledge embedded in a culture and a social organisation or field that understands and can act on that knowledge’ (2005: 1).

The word ‘creativity’ therefore, defines a process that is typically misunderstood. This circumstance also has its application for educators, particularly those operating in areas where Romantic ideas are most prevalent. When asking students to ‘be creative’ in the recording studio what is it that we, as educators who have our own deeply held views and beliefs about creativity, are asking them to do? Do we want our students to record or produce a unique piece of music, that goes beyond the conventions of any genre or category of recording practice or do we expect them to produce something within a specified framework in which we are able to evaluate the extent of its novelty and endeavour? More generally it would appear that educators are referring to the latter in which students access, and build upon, previous works to create something ‘new’ within a recognisable tradition or context. An understanding of the creative process is therefore necessary for us as educators who place an expectation on students to be ‘creative’ to appreciate the necessary components that allow creativity to occur. In addition, considering the creative process as a system in action has a distinct correlation to the process of learning, which in turn requires further reflection and discussion to appreciate their interrelationship.

Research into Creativity

Initial investigations into creativity focussed on the creative personality studying the ‘traits’ and ‘types’ of successful individuals in their relative field but rather than encountering the introverted ‘egg head’, creative individuals were found to exhibit traits such as high energy and independence of judgement which are traits also associated more broadly with the larger category of contented, productive and successful people (Sawyer, 2012). This is not to say that personality can be ruled out as a direct factor in determining creativity but simply indicates, as Weiten has previously confirmed (1998:374), that as yet there is no conclusive empirical evidence from these studies to conclusively support this position. In addition to this conclusion Csikszentmihalyi has stated that his hesitation to write about the supposed deep personality of creative people stems from his belief that there may not be much to write about ‘since creativity is the property of a complex system, and none of its components alone can explain it’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997 :56). However, rather than abandoning the project to ascribe specific personality traits to creative individuals completely, Csikszentmihalyi does contend that creative individuals appear to tend toward complexity (1997:57). By this he means that creative personalities can be seen to exhibit often contradictory extremes that are present in all individuals but have been polarised in most people (ibid). Bearing in mind this assertion of a somewhat nebulous, contradictory and difficult to identify set of personality traits, in summary, he contends that:

‘creative persons are characterised not so much by single traits as by their ability to operate through the entire spectrum of personality dimensions…What dictates their behaviour is not a  rigid inner structure, but the demands of the interaction between them and the domain in which they are working’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999 :331).

Csikszentmihalyi has further argued:

‘…To be creative, a person has to internalise the entire system that makes creativity possible. So what sort of person is likely to do that? This question is very difficult to answer. Creative individuals are remarkable for their ability to adapt to almost any situation and to make do with whatever is at hand to reach their goals. If nothing else, this distinguishes them from the rest of us. But there does not seem to be a particular set of traits that a person must have in order to come up with a valuable novelty [not italicised in original] (1997:51).

In seeming agreement with Csikszentmihalyi’s work Wayne Weiten contends that ‘creative people exhibit the full range of personality traits’ (1998: 374). This is not to dismiss all research into the creative personality. Some of it proves useful however, (see Barron & Harrington,1981; Feist, 1998 and Tardif & Sternberg, 1988) as one notable attribute of creative people that has found support in the literature is their capacity to identify a pertinent problem in their chosen field and the development of related questions to solve it. However, this attribute cannot be ascribed to an innate biological predisposition alone as it is suggested that individuals develop this ability through their immersion in a particular field, through the exploration of knowledge, the accumulation of experience and the undertaking of specific training (Sawyer, 2012).

Some areas of research into creativity have viewed creativity as a ‘staged’ process that could be broken down into specific phases. Initial investigations were based on the premise that the moment of insight is the quintessence of creativity (Sawyer, 2000), however later creative models generally included stages both before and after the moment of insight. The majority of staged creative process models exhibit similar attributes, some with fewer or more stages than other models. Wallas (1926) introduced a four-stage process that consisted of preparation, incubation, insight, with a number of other psychologists proposing variants of these stages. For example, Mihaly Csikszetnmiahlyi adapted this to propose a four-stage process that consisted of preparation, incubation and insight, as well as elaboration. However, Csikszentmihalyi argues that ‘it is essential to remember…that the five stages in reality are not exclusive but typically overlap and recur several times before the process is completed (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997 :83). He goes on to assert:

‘This classic analytic framework leading from preparation to elaboration gives a severely distorted picture of the creative process if it is taken too literally. A person who makes a creative contribution never just slogs through the long last stage of elaboration. This part of the process is constantly interrupted by periods of incubation and is punctuated by epiphanies. Many fresh insights emerge as one is presumably just putting finishing touches on the initial insight…Thus the creative process is less linear than recursive. How many iterations it goes through, how many loops are involved, how many insights are needed, depends on the depth and breadth of the issues dealt with. Sometimes incubation lasts for years; sometimes it takes a few hours. Sometimes the creative idea includes one deep insight and innumerable small ones. In some cases, as with Darwin’s formulation of the theory of evolution, the basic insight may appear slowly, in separate disconnected flashes that take years to coalesce into a coherent idea (1997:80-1).

Given this complexity more recent research has begun to move towards what have been called confluence models of creativity (Sternberg 1999) that acknowledge the complex socio-cultural interactions between the individual and their environment (Hennessy & Amabile 2010).

The Systems Model of Creativity

A number of convergent or ‘confluence’ models have been developed (See Amabile 1983 & 1996, Gruber 1988, Dacey & Lennon 1998, Simonton 2003, Feldman, Csikszentmihalyi & Gardner 1994, Csikszentmihalyi 1988, 1997 & 1999, Weisberg 1993 and Sternberg & Lubart 1991 & 1992). However, the most notable of these is Csikszentmihalyi’s systems model of creativity (1988, 1997, 1999) in which it is proposed that creativity occurs through a dynamic and systemic process that is made up of three parts: a ‘domain’ or culture that comprises of a set of symbolic rules, guidelines and practices, an ‘individual’ who brings novelty into that domain and a ‘field’ of specialists or experts who identify and authenticate that novelty (Csikszentmihalyi 1996: 6). The systems model illustrated below visually demonstrates the interactions that occur between the individual, the field and the domain, however, Csikszentmihalyi urges that the model does not demonstrate distinct stages, nor does it have a specific start or end:

‘It is important to realise that the relationships shown in the figure are dynamic links of circular causality. In other words each of the three main systems – person, field and domain – affects the others and is affected by them in turn…The starting point on this map is purely arbitrary’ (1988: 329).

While there have been a number of ways of representing these ideas graphically (e.g. Csikszentmihalyi 1988 & 1999, Sawyer 2006 & 2011) the more recent graphic representation developed by Susan Kerrigan (2013) demonstrates clearly the idea that it is the system itself that produces creativity.

Figure 1: Revised Systems Model of Creativity (Kerrigan 2013: 114).

So, for creativity to occur the systems model posits that there must exist a domain, which contains a body of knowledge and a set of symbol systems. An individual must develop a knowledge of that domain (either through an informal process of enculturation or immersion, or a more formal process of education) and produce something that has an element of novelty which in turn is evaluated and validated by the field. The community of the field is not a socially isolated entity however. As McIntyre states:

‘No judgment ever occurs in a vacuum. Therefore those who hold the knowledge are also important contributors to the system as they have the background to make those necessary judgments. This social group is called a field. The individual’s task is to make changes in the domain and present these to the field, a social grouping that understands to differing degrees the body of knowledge being worked on, for verification of its originality’ (2012:151).

The systems model has suggestive implications for both educators and students in the domain of record production. For example, a greater understanding of creative action could prove useful in both enhancing the teaching and learning process within educational institutions and creating further opportunities to allow creativity to occur. At this point it would be useful to turn our attention next to the most common interaction within educational settings, that of the interactions between the domain and the individual.

The Domain and the Individual

The process of ‘domain acquisition’, that is learning the knowledge, rules, skills and techniques that make up the content of a particular domain can take many forms; both inside and outside formal education. Recent research into the domain acquisition of popular musicians have further highlighted that this process takes place both formally and informally dependent upon the category or style of music with which these musicians engage. In his ethnographic study of the creative practice of songwriters McIntyre found domain acquisition to be a critical part of the process. In line with Lucy Green’s work (2002) he identified three main classifications of domain acquisition for songwriters; formal, semi-formal and informal. In summary McIntyre asserted that:

‘Formal approaches to education, that is those acquired in a systematised and institutional setting, came about through state-based institutional training, church-based training, and to a lesser extent semi-formal private tuition. This formal and semi-formal education process was also applicable to their learning of an instrument. The informal processes of domain acquisition revealed by this aspect of the ethnographic study, which appears to predominate for these songwriters, can be characterised more holistically and includes, amongst other factors, an ad-hoc process of mentoring and a degree of auto-didacticism and is often of an experiential nature’ (2005:3).

In his study of DJs, turntablists, hip-hop and dance music producers, Paul Thompson identified that domain acquisition amongst these musicians was almost exclusively informal, and experienced as a profound immersion into their respective fields of music-making:

‘Four distinct informal learning practices were identified; listening and copying, solitary practice, group learning and apprenticeship. Listening to music was employed both as a learning and social practice in which various techniques were used to analyse and respond to the musical material. Solitary practice formed the bulk of the musicians’ learning in which information from listening to music could be assimilated through investigation and experimentation, often with a specific aim or objectives. The learning process throughout is guided by the values of the musical category in which the musicians immerse themselves and over time, the musicians become musically encultured’ (Thompson, 2012: 53).

From this perspective domain acquisition can be viewed as an essential element within the creative system as it provides the underpinning knowledge the essential cultural capital (Bourdieu 1993) necessary for creators to bring something new into being as Robert Weisberg explains:

‘Creative products are firmly based on what came before. True originality evolves as the individual goes beyond what others had done before. This might mean, perhaps paradoxically, that in order to produce something new, one should first become as knowledgeable as possible about the old. This serves to provide the background so that the individual can begin to work in an area and also serves to provide ways in which to modify early products that are not satisfactory. These two aspects of creative work, commitment and expertise within one’s own area, are neither profound nor novel. All scientists and artists have extensive training, either formally or informally’ (Weisberg in Sternberg, 1988: 173).

Csikszentmihalyi proposes that the individual must then internalise this knowledge:

‘A person who wants to make a creative contribution not only must work within a creative system but must also reproduce that system in his or her mind. In other words, the person must learn the rules and the content of the domain, as well as the criteria of selection, the preferences of the field’ (1996: 47)

So, in order for individuals to become creative in their respective field it is first necessary to learn the rules and conventions that govern it. To be creative within the field of record production an individual must learn its practices, rules and content, which has historically been achieved informally through ‘trial and error, or apprenticeship with an experienced engineer’ (Horning, 2004: 711).  In her article ‘Engineering the Performance’ Susan Horning discusses the traditional transference of knowledge within the practice of sound recording through either apprenticeship or trial and error, in which tacit knowledge is accumulated by the individual over time through experience. Formal educational institutions have now become another means by which individuals can learn the processes of making records, however, due to various logistical, procedural, institutional or financial constraints, educators often only focus on transferring knowledge from the domain to the individual. Domain acquisition is certainly a fundamental part of the creative system, but, if the veracity of the systems model is accepted, this is not sufficient on its own to allow creativity to occur (Csikszentmihalyi 1997).

The Field

As the individual and the domain can be viewed, respectively, as the active choice making agent and the knowledge, rules and content of a particular area, the field can be viewed as the community of people who are able to utilise and understand the knowledge, rules and content of the domain. As Csikszentmihalyi suggests:

‘The easiest way to define a field is to say that it includes all those who can affect the structure of the domain’ (1988: 330).

The field is essentially a social organisation that can be seen as the gatekeepers to a particular domain. This social organisation is able to assess, reject and accept novel ideas, products or designs. It is this social organisation that mediates the process of record production. Because of the inherent complexity of any social organisation the field may not simply be an immediately identifiable social group like an institution; the field may involve anything from a group of people in a particular social setting (such as an audience) through to an institution who are involved in making judgements about musical works. For individuals to be creative Csikszentmihalyi considers the field to be as equally important in the system of creativity as the domain and the individual:

‘No matter how gifted a person is, he or she has no chance to achieve anything creative unless the right conditions are provided by the field…it is possible to single out seven major elements in the social milieu that help make creative contributions possible: training, expectations, resources, recognition, hope, opportunity and reward. Some of these are direct responsibilities of the field, others depend on the broader social system’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997: 330)

The field can also influence creativity in three distinct ways; firstly, by filtering novelty broadly or narrowly. The field of commercial record production, for example, has historically and typically applied a relatively narrow filter to select certain types of novelty and been judged by some to remain conservative in its approach to outputting new artists or styles of music. Secondly, the field can affect creativity by being proactive or reactive in its stimulation of novelty. The field of commercial record production has also been relatively proactive in soliciting and stimulating novelty since the livelihood of the recording industry depends, to varying degrees, on a continuous flow of newly recorded material to sustain its commercial activity. Thirdly, the field can influence creativity by the way in which it supports creativity through its distant or close association with the broader social system. The field of commercial record production has not historically been supported by government policy and allocation of funds as, for example, the field of science or mathematics that have historically had a more central role to play in the wider social system.

Knowledge of the Field

As previously mentioned, entry into the field of commercial record production has typically taken place through an apprenticeship process (Meintjes 2004, Horning 2004) and in Horning’s example described above, the individual would have unknowingly been exposed to the field and some of its related mechanisms and interactions through the very act of being in the recording studio as an apprentice for the entirety of their working day. Over a period of time, the apprentice would have also developed a working knowledge of the field, its personnel and their respective roles within the process (See figure 2).

Figure 2 ‘The field of Commercial Record Production’.

If, as the systems model indicates, the field is crucial to creativity, then it makes sense to not only teach students about the domain, that is the knowledge system of record production, but also teach them about what constitutes the field of record production and how it works.

Within record production education, the field can be typically introduced by providing an overview of the agents and institutions within the commercial field of record production and the general mechanisms that operate within it. Introducing the spectrum of the field and the personnel within it can provide the necessary context for activity inside the recording studio and this introduction will allow students to consider some of the implications of their actions.

Keith Sawyer, the author of Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation (2006), suggests that an individual is more likely to experience creativity if the field they are involved in has a system of training in place which not only identifies new comers to the field but mentoring is actively prioritised. Some fields, such as the recording field, require lots of networking. In this case some connection and interaction with the field will be necessary in order to gain support, albeit emotional or financial, to allow the creative work to take place and continue. In this case students will need to be taught how to network and, if so, we need to train our students to focus outwards, as Sawyer suggests.

Students will need to examine the structure of the field, find out how it makes decisions, and find out how the selection processes it uses actually work. Without this information it will be difficult for them to acquire the necessary social capital (Bourdieu 1993) needed to negotiate entry into what is an active arena of social contestation. In this case some knowledge of marketing and promotion and forms of self-branding is essential. As Sawyer argues ‘the most successful creative people are very good at introducing their ideas to the field’ (2006, p. 309). In addition, Sawyer stresses the notion of collaboration in the field. When members of the field contribute to the creative work they will invest their own reputations in that work. Sawyer asserts that ‘ultimately, your own idea won’t be as good as it would have been if it had gone through the collaborative process’ (Sawyer 2006, p. 311). In this case a network of like-minded people is crucial to the way creative activity works. How does one go about acquiring that group of people to enable the work to occur? Students must learn to assess the field wisely and learn to choose those collaborators that can be trusted and those that will push them beyond their comfort zone. It is still true that fields, according to Bourdieu (1993), are arenas of social contestation where struggles for dominance take place and cultural, symbolic, social and economic capital are deployed in a variety of ways by all active players in the field of cultural production. Students will therefore need to be taught that operatives in the field will judge them in terms of their reputation and depth of knowledge but, most importantly they will judge those who want to enter the field by what they actually produce. However, an indirect knowledge of the field and its related mechanisms without becoming involved in a practical way is not sufficient by itself for creativity to occur and simply learning about the field by itself as an overview of what occurs limits the possibility of creativity occurring. Talking broadly about gaining what he sees as much needed ‘real world’ experience in the field, engineer and producer Phil Harding comments:

‘You cant’ learn by just observing, or being talked to or being shown…you’ve got to be hands on and in some way or other education has to figure a way of giving students enough time to be hands on. Ideally in projects that aren’t just make – believe projects. What I mean by that is…if you’re learning on a project that goes on to be successful that gives the justification to whatever you’ve done to make that successful’ (Personal interview, 2012)

What Harding is suggesting in the comment above is that the individual must dynamically interact with the field as it occurs in the professional world and through the process of contestation and validation the student can be introduced to the field’s mechanisms of expectation and selection.

Exposure to the Field

Addressing the social capital necessary to operate in the field can be the most challenging task for educators teaching audio and record production, particularly within formal educational structures that may not provide flexibility in their governance, or may be unable or unwilling to deliver logistical or financial support to building or reinforcing field relations. Most educational institutions however, can reasonably provide several of the major elements proposed by Csikszentmihalyi and Sawyer above in the delivery of record production and studio recording education; beginning with the educator him/herself. Educators who are also practitioners within their field can be invaluable in allowing students insight into the field in a number of ways. Firstly, practitioner/educators can be more able to effectively select which domains should be taught and how extensively they should be explored; balancing the needs and expectations of the field with the academic requirements of the educational institution. Secondly, practitioner/educators having worked (or currently working within the field) are more acutely aware of the expectations of the field and are not only able to demonstrate how these expectations can be met but also to demand these of their students. As Csikszentmihalyi explains: ‘Expecting high performance is a necessary stimulus for outstanding achievement and hence creativity’ (1997: 331). Thirdly, resources provided by the institution can also be crucial in allowing individuals to be creative in the recording studio and providing access to equipment that is commonly used in the recording industry can help to replicate a field setting. Affording students the opportunity to operate in a field-like setting with appropriate resources can allow creativity to be an on-going process as Sawyer states:

‘Creativity takes place over time, and most of the creativity occurs while doing the work. The medium is an essential part of the creative process, and creators often get ideas while they are working with their materials’ (2012: 88).

However access to resources must be considered in order to balance expectation and motivation:

‘Resources are crucial for creativity to develop, but their role is ambiguous. It is true that having access to the best examples of the past helps, and so does being able to afford the necessary materials…. yet too many resources can have a deadening effect on creativity…we should realise that a certain amount of hardship, of challenge, might have a positive effect on their motivation’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997: 332)

Finally, and fundamentally, providing the opportunity for individuals to operate within the field as it exists allows creativity to occur and can be achieved (and is currently being achieved) in numerous ways. A number of Universities have either established their own record label or afforded students the necessary resources and funding to set up their own within the institution (some examples include but are not limited to Canterbury Christchurch University and the University of Hertfordshire in the UK and Drexel University, Philadelphia in the USA).  Similarly, Leeds Metropolitan University recently collaborated with a local label, Hide and Seek records, to provide the opportunity for students to record and produce local artists which culminated in a digital release with a corresponding charity launch night. Both of these examples may allow students to gain initial access to the field and practically explore the expectations and conventions of the field. As educators, placing an emphasis on field interactions can help in the development of field related skills, in particular communicating effectively with musicians, other engineers and producers, as Phil Harding describes:

‘You need to learn the right attitude…. give the students first hand experience of how to deal with artists and musicians who are around them. Because I personally took that from Gus [Dudgeon]’ (Personal interview, 2012).

Allowing students to operate in the field also helps students to develop an understanding of some of the social expectations of a given setting, beyond that of a student-based project in an educational institution. Working in the field demands a certain social sensibility and an attention to social protocol but also offers potential opportunities for students to learn how others navigate particular social situations. As engineer and producer Darren Jones describes:

‘I had a situation recently where the singer was out of tune. Usually I’ll try and find a way to get the best out of them, so if they’re struggling to sing to the entire band I’ll mute everything until I find the thing that might be putting them off. You have to be diplomatic and treat that situation with certain sensitivity especially if you don’t know the band or they are a young or inexperienced band’ (Personal interview, 2013)

Importantly, opportunities for students to operate in the field will allow them to begin developing an ‘instinct’ or ‘habitus’ (Bourdieu 1977, 1990, 1993 & 1996), which Johnson describes as:

‘A “feel for the game”, a “practical sense” (sens practique) that inclines agents to    act and react in specific situations in a manner that is not always calculated and that is not simply a question of conscious obedience to rules. Rather it is a set of dispositions which generates practices and perceptions (Johnson in Bourdieu 1993: 5 cited in McIntyre, 2012: 152)

Through exposure to the field students may also develop an instinct for recognising useful opportunities in their development, as Burgess states:

‘To be sure, everyone needs a break. No matter how talented an individual may be, multiple unknown factors have to align themselves before raw talent translates into industry success. When it comes to an opportunity I believe you have to create, finagle, prepare for and at the very least develop an eagle eye for identifying what will most likely be a fleeting opportunity; a brief, fast moving window in time that opens up before you’ (1997: 19)


As research into creativity moves away from the inspirationist, Romantic perspectives that place the individual at the centre of the creative process, the cultural and social influences on creativity begin to be acknowledged as equally important. Moreover, evidence suggests that the dynamic interaction of these three elements of the individual, a culture and a social organisation are essential for creativity to occur (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996; Sawyer, 2006). For an individual to be creative in the field of record production and studio recording the rules and conventions that govern it must first be learnt and the individual must also be able to interact with the field to output their idea or product to this field for validation, acceptance or rejection. The systems model of creativity has significant implications for the domain of record production and studio recording education, as the process of acquiring knowledge in this area is an essential element within the creative process.

Knowledge of the domain of record production and studio recording has traditionally been acquired informally through apprenticeship with a skilled practitioner (Horning, 2004; Meintjes 2004) and by working within the field in this way the individual is exposed to its mechanisms, expectations and methods of selection and rejection. However, due to some of the logistical and financial constraints within formal educational institutions that offer record production and studio recording programmes, the emphasis is typically only on the transfer of knowledge from the domain to the individual removing the indispensable interaction between the individual and the wider field. This is essentially because, the practices, rules and content of the domain, that are taught formally, are often outside of (or separate from) the field. Educators with immediate links to the field can be an important connection between the educational institution, providing an introduction to some of the expectations and mechanisms of the field to the individual.

Allowing direct interactions with the field may also allow students to develop an understanding of the expectations of the field on a practical level and introduce them to the processes of selection and expectation that typifies the field of record production.  Exposure to the field can help students to develop field-related skills such as dealing with inexperienced musicians or facilitating musicians’ performances in the studio. In addition, working collaboratively with other members of the field such as artist’s management or record label representatives, can also enhance students’ abilities to identify valuable opportunities in their development. Providing opportunities for students to network with other individuals in the field and interact with other engineers, producers and musicians not only allows creativity to occur, it can also afford students the opportunity to build wider networks beyond the educational institution and provide a useful starting point to build a portfolio of work that can be evaluated by the field. In so doing, students can begin to build a reputation within the field of record production and studio recording and accumulate social capital as well as cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1993).


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Personal Interviews

Phil Harding – Interviewed in Cardiff, 7th July 2012

Darren Jones – Interviewed at Elevator Studios, Liverpool, 11th April 2013