PhD Abstract

The playful frame of mind: An exploration of its influence upon creative flow in a post-War popular music-making context.


The aim of this thesis is to explore how adopting a playful approach to contemporary popular music making influences creative flow within that context. In order to achieve this aim three component factors derived from the intersection of the scholarly humour, creativity, and play literature – frame of mind, flow, and playfulness (PF) – have informed a single unifying theme I call the “playful frame of mind.”

Contemporary popular music makers live in an era where an over-abundance of affordable technological aids (along with the distribution capabilities of the internet) have created a glut of creative possibilities, and along with it an ever-present risk of cognitive dissonance caused by their “noise.” Such technology brings creative options to all and sundry once reserved for a few rock star elite signed to multinational record companies. It is now possible for every part of the popular music-making process to be performed, or enhanced, within a software context. Nonetheless, popular musicians today still operate according to paradigms largely informed by epoch-changing, post-War recording artists such as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and The Beach Boys. The technology used for doing so may have progressed, but the basic rules (and roles) of the game have remained the same.

The limitations of the past, which though they may have engendered boredom moreso than frustration, nonetheless provided a default framework that facilitated creative flow. With such few choices available, one felt relatively less self-conscious and better able to focus on playing with what was available. This research project was inspired by a personal need to find theoretical frameworks appropriate to the challenge of facilitating creative flow in a popular music context in the age of the “democratisation of technology” (Leyshon, 2009) and Digital Audio Workstation. That is, without forcing myself into ruts or formulaic “cookie-cutter” approaches.

Encouraged by an observation that many innovative post-War recording artists and producers were consistently drawing upon and expressing aspects of humour and playfulness in their work, I thought an exploration of playful humour’s relationship to creativity might lead towards the framework(s) I was in need of. I subsequently undertook a 12-month review of the scholarly humour, creativity, and play literature with the aim of identifying key components that might inform a rigorous theoretical unpacking of playful humour’s implications for popular music creative practice. A componential approach was necessary since several key scholars assert that basket terms such as humour, creativity, and play are too unwieldy to be useful. It became evident that the temporal structure of personal consciousness, as studied from the theoretical perspective of structural phenomenology (Apter, 1991, 1982) presents an effective means towards that end with a primary, unifying theme emerging, which I call the “playful frame of mind.” The playful frame of mind has been linked by several researcher/theorists to instances of improved creativity (for e.g., Amabile, 1996; Lieberman, 1977; Martin, 2007, amongst many others).

This research project is necessary since the topics of playfulness, frame of mind and their influence upon creativity have not yet been rigorously applied to a popular music making context. This is despite the fact that considerable research/theory linking the former concepts already exists within the combined scholarly humour, creativity, and play literature. Even creativity itself has received very little attention in the scholarly popular music/record production literature. What has emerged recently has been forthcoming from the relatively newer discipline of record production.

In order to collect data regarding post-War popular music creative practice with which to contextualise the findings of the above literature review, a historical survey spanning a variety of media, and relying on secondary sources has been deemed preferable to a first-hand, grass-roots ethnographic study. The reason for this preference is threefold: (a) by choosing well-known artists and projects, the reader can more easily focus on the role that the playful frame of mind plays therein, rather than being distracted by the noise of the study itself and its unfamiliar components. (b) It allows scenarios to be explored where it has already been established that the playful frame of mind has had (both positive and negative) influence upon creative flow. The question then clearly becomes “how” does the playful frame of mind influence creative practice instead of “does it?” (c) An ethnohistorical approach also allows for examples of differing granularity and timeframes to be explored.

As a result of considering the thesis research findings a number of implications for popular music-making theory are unavoidable and timely. Several seemingly benign categorisations and terms currently in common usage need to be critically re-examined in order to bring benefit to practitioners. Many such terms and groupings are in fact loaded with tacit assumptions about how and why music is made, along with its function in society today. In order to reveal and challenge some of these assumptions and erroneous descriptors, the following theoretical innovations are presented in the concluding chapter of this thesis: (a) new terms suchs as creative flow, artefacts of play, and playframes, (b) a method of categorising contemporary music in terms of one’s level and nature of interaction with music at any given time, and (c) a new popular-music creative context I call “in the palm.”

The findings of this thesis can be applied to either individuals or groups. This is necessary since popular music making and, more specifically, record production today may involve only one person, or many. The necessary roles remain however. It is possible for the benefits of a structural-phenomenological approach to facilitating creativity to be extended to groups, as may the concept of frame of mind.

(c) 2015 Marshall Heiser


Please note: This abstract was initially presented and published in thesis form in fulfillment of the requirements for the PhD of Marshall Heiser from Griffith University.


Amabile, T. (1996). Creativity in context. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Apter, M. J. (1991). A structural phenomenology of play. In J. H. Kerr & M. J. Apter (Eds.), Adult play: A reversal theory approach (pp. 13-29). Amsterdam, Netherlands: Swets & Zeitlinger.

Apter, M. J. (1982). The experience of motivation: The theory of psychological reversals. London, England; New York, NY: Academic Press.

Leyshon, A. (2009). The software slump?: Digital music, the democratisation of technology, and the decline of the recording studio sector within the musical economy. In Environment & Planning. A, 41 (6), 1309 – 1331.

Lieberman, J. N. (1977). Playfulness: Its relationship to imagination and creativity. New York, NY: Academic Press.

Heiser, M. (2015). The playful frame of mind: An exploration of its influence upon creative flow in a post-war popular music-making context (Doctoral thesis). Brisbane: Griffith University.

Martin, R. A. (2007). The psychology of humor: An integrative approach. Amsterdam, Netherlands; Boston, MA: Elsevier Academic Press.