Think STEAM not STEM

Translation of Bauhaus Curriculum Diagram (1929).

“I believe that art and design are poised to transform our economy in the 21st century like science and technology did in the last century” (Maeda, 2013, p. 2).


Former Rhode Island School of Design president, John Maeda states, “Innovation happens when convergent thinkers, who march straight ahead towards their goal, combine forces with divergent thinkers – those who professionally wander, who are comfortable being uncomfortable, and who look for what is real” (2013, p. 1). I first noticed Maeda’s name reading Casey Reas and Ben Fry’s wonderful Processing Handbook (2014). I later checked out his (equally wonderful) book Creative Code: Aesthetics + Computation (2004), a work that grapples with such issues as information visualization, interaction design, and education. For more on Maeda and the current gap between art and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), check out this article, as well as, The Steam Journal.

Cognitive Operations

The distinction between convergent and divergent thinking was first popularised by creativity theorist J.P. Guilford (1959). Both are cognitive operations, discreet – and, importantly, measurable – components of thought. Convergent thinking describes cognitive operations that aim to narrow down possibilities in the search of a solution to a set problem. Divergent thinking, on the other hand, logically generates alternatives that branch off from a common starting point. Both operations are necessary for creative thought.

Whilst convergent thinking is not necessarily the go-to mode of thinking of STEM scholars any more than divergent thinking is for the arts, what can be said is that historical and cultural trends informing postwar intellectual life in the West have given rise to certain tacit biases and identifications that have fragmented the knowledge base and led to the valuing of specialisation over integration, and analysis over synthesis. Lets face it, divergent thinking has been theorised and discussed for some 60 years now. And yet, so many people still have trouble distinguishing between divergent thinking and its country cousins “thinking outside the box” (how I loathe that phrase) and “brainstorming.” Be honest. Can you tell the difference?


The manner in which higher education institutions are structured according to groups of related disciplines results in a tendency for research and knowledge to remain isolated within de facto boundaries of relevancy. Great creative leaps are all too often inhibited, rather than facilitated, by the necessary structures and conventions of what have become mini-cultures in their own right. Just try getting peers from different arts departments to collaborate, or even speak the same language, let alone for humanities scholars to collaborate with those from STEM backgrounds. As for socialising with groups outside of one’s own discipline. That seems just downright weird.

Examples whereby disciplinary barriers have been intentionally broken down – such as the Bauhaus School during the short-lived Weimar Republic – stand as a testament to what can be achieved when integration is valued as much as specialisation. New emerging interdisciplinary fields such as humour studies, popular music, and record production are yet further examples. Be warned however, even in these latter interdisciplinary instances, the danger remains that blind orthodoxy can replace rational discourse once effective means of study have become firmly established.

Perhaps, a mandatory tearing down and rebuilding of disciplinary conventions, along with a removal of its gatekeepers, every once in a while could be an effective way of letting new ideas through. This, along with its DIY ethos, was a key motivation informing the rise of punk music in the 1970s. Moreover, tearing down and rebuilding does not necessarily equate with iconoclasm, but can also engender inclusiveness, communal activity and longevity of diverse cultures so often threatened by the thrill and shock of the (hegemonic) new. This is the case with the Ise Jingu grand shrine in Japan, which has been torn down and rebuilt every 20 years for approximately 1,300 years.

Less and better

As Maeda notes, the 20th century was defined, in part, by great technological leaps. Unfortunately, humanity is now in the unenviable position of having to sift through the good, the bad and the useless, before working out how to actually use [or even find and focus on] all this stuff. Industrial design is one area that considers how technology can best interface with real humans, and their very real needs.

If you’ve ever used a product by a certain computer company (beginning with an A…) whose design ethos was influenced by, amongst other things, architect-turned-designer Dieter Rams, you’ll get the point. In fact, in a recent article Rams laments that, if anything, such design efforts have been too successful for society’s own good. Record production scholar Simon Zagorski-Thomas (2014) likewise discusses the significant ways in which technological devices covertly influence creativity via their design ‘scripts.’

It’s apt that the above 2018 film titled Rams (by film-maker Gary Hustwit) features an original score by self-confessed ‘reductive’ creative Brian Eno. My own research into creativity (2015) found that a reductive approach to creativity (whereby all but a few core elements are filtered out as options as a means of concentrating mental energy) is a necessary condition of the playfulness so often encouraged by innovative practitioners belonging to a wide variety of fields (Heiser, 2015). Therefore, designers should always consider how their design scripts influence the inner experience (phenomenological state) of the user as well as the usual ergonomic and aesthetic considerations.

Inspired by Mother Nature

Before signing off, I’d like to draw your attention to quite a different, but awe-inspiring, example of the fruitful application of the STEAM approach (in this case, an Engineering-meets-Art approach): The famous kinetic Strand Beest sculptures of Dutch artist Theo Jansen. Once you’ve been featured in the Simpsons, as Jansen has, then you’ll know you’ve made it. Enjoy.

(c) 2019 Marshall Heiser



Feynman, R. P., Leighton, R., & Hutchings, E. (1985). “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a curious character. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Guilford, J. P. (1959). Three faces of intellect. In American Psychologist, 14(8), 469-479.

Hadamard, J. (1945). An essay on the psychology of invention in the mathematical field. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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

Koestler, A. (1964). The act of creation. New York, NY: Macmillan.

Maeda, J. (2013). STEM + Art = STEAM, In The STEAM Journal: 1(1), Article 34.

Maeda, J. (2004). Creative Code: Aesthetics + Computation. New York, NY:  Thames & Hudson.

Reas, C. & Fry, B. (2014). Processing: A Programming Handbook for Visual Designers and Artists (Second Edition). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Zagorski-Thomas, S. (2014). The musicology of record production. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

You’re Welcome.

Every now and then, a band comes along to remind us what really matters about making music and performing for an audience (which is what we do whether or not it’s in front of a crowd or alone at home working with a Digital Audio Workstation): stripping away all that is superfluous and foregrounding the fun-da-mentals! Thank you Peelander-Z!!

The best band in the world today, bar none. I kid you not.  Don’t forget to see their movie “Mad Tiger.”

The best band in the world today, bar none. I kid you not.  Don’t forget to see their movie “Mad Tiger.”

The best band in the world today, bar none. I kid you not.  Don’t forget to see their movie “Mad Tiger.”

The best band in the world today, bar none. I kid you not.  Don’t forget to see their movie “Mad Tiger.”

The best band in the world today, bar none. I kid you not.  Don’t forget to see their movie “Mad Tiger.”

If you want flowers, think soil, manure, water, and sunlight: none of them look like flowers.


DURATION: 8:03. Don’t be put off by the cheesey video introduction or the word “mystic.” What you have here is simple wisdom about the process nature of life and the larger systems, the web of life, within which we humans operate. Nuff said.


If you enjoyed that refreshing insight and would like to hear more then check out the following session presented at Sanders Theatre, Harvard Medical School on May 14 this year. DURATION 1:27:57 Think of it as the movie-length version of the “trailer” above. What interests me here, as a play scholar, is Sadhguru’s discussion of the interdependence of intellect and identity as seen from the yogic perspective, and how the intellect serves to protect and support that identity (click here to view). One of the benefits of approaching tasks in a playful manner is that it can help loosen such fixed identity constructs and the free up the rigid thinking patterns that are associated with such fixed frames. Enjoy.



Tube Amp Theory: Uncle Doug and his dog Rusty

WARNING: Never attempt to open up your tube amp chassis or repair/modify it in any way, as lethal voltages may still be present for extended periods after the amp has been turned off and unplugged from the AC wall socket. Instead, take your amp to a qualified technician for inspection or servicing.

PLEASE NOTE: The following links and resources are provided strictly as items of theoretical interest only. I have no control over, or responsibility for, any third-party websites or material referred to.

How many times have you searched youtube for concise, accurate and clearly-explained information about a topic that’s important to you, only to be greeted by some frenzied bozo desperately trying to squeeze their fifteen minutes of fame out of the internet like dregs from a tube of toothpaste. Music blares, graphics swirl: you’re implored to subscribe in booming robotic voice. Ok, no problem, you’re on a quest with a mighty thirst for knowledge and willing to put up with whatever it takes.

You wait, wait, wait some more (2 minutes in and this fool is still talking about his holiday in Bermuda)….still nothing. Fast forward a bit. Was that something there? Rewind. You discover 15 secs of (inconsequential) information deeply nestled within the 9 minutes and 53 seconds-long “tute.” Unfazed, you gain your composure, click on the next offering….another bozo…uggh! (Yes, I’m aware this introduction has similarly delayed you on your quest, but be patient…treasures abound below).

If your topic of interest is tube guitar amplifier theory, then have a look at these videos by Uncle Doug, a former teacher who actually knows how to…..wait for it…teach! But don’t go thinking you’re going to fall asleep without all the usual CGI generated graphics and (phat) Techno beats supplied for those of with the attention span of a….(no need to finish that, those concerned would’ve moved on already), Doug’s diagrams may be drawn in pencil, but they’ll address most of your burning tube amp theory questions, and furthermore, Doug’s ever-faithful sidekick, cameraman and general bon-vivant Rusty will keep you in stitches exactly when you find the need to take some time out.

So, I hope you find these tutorials informative and enjoyable. Happy trails.


…and much, much more at Uncle Doug’s youtube channel HERE.

Cellular Automaton Music

This video presents an instance of two discreet apps programmed by Marshall Heiser (using the Processing & Max/MSP platforms respectively) and interfaced with the Open Sound Control (OSC) protocol. LEVEL: Intermediate. LENGTH: 3min. 38 sec. (No voice over, music starts at 0.49 sec.).

Getting Processing to talk and Max/MSP to listen.

This video demonstrates a computer music project I created in order to see if I could get two different programming environments to “talk to each other” successfully – or rather, have one talk and the other repeat parrot-fashion. The two platforms involved were Processing 2 and Max/MSP 6, featuring a cellular automaton app and frequency modulation (FM) synthesiser made from the ground up respectively.


I chose to make a cellular automaton app for the data generator partly to see if I could make up a set of rules that would produce aesthetically pleasing pitch and rhythm events with minimal input from the user. Unlike some music produced by similar apps I’d previously tried (which looked good but sounded less so), I aimed to fashion one that would generate events that struck a pleasing balance between variation and repetition. I also wanted to make an app better suited to my own personal needs (for e.g., one able to send data to a variety of destinations, potentially over a network). It was also a fun challenge to see if I could program something of this complexity (well…complex for me anyhow) using Processing.

The Interface

The linking of the two apps was achieved using the OSC protocol, which can be thought of as a internet-friendly alternative to the comparatively archaic Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI). The automaton app outputs a number between 0 and 8 each time a moving coloured square hits the edge of the grid. These numbers are then converted to form a steps within a pentatonic scale inside Max, but can easily be set to any desired configuration.

The code

The code for the automaton component was developed by looking at a variety of open source “Game of Life” Processing sketches as a starting point. This mathematical problem, originally developed by John Conway, allows for any single cell on a grid to be in one of two possible states (i.e., “dead” or “alive”), based on the previous state of its neighbours. When viewed over successive iterations, this “zero-player” game produces quite complex behaviour using very simple rules.


By comparison, my automaton (inspired by the “Otomata” app, Bozkurt, 2011) produces behaviour of a vastly less complex nature than Conway’s (thus is the want of the minimalist aesthete). This rule-set produces patterns with a certain degree of repetitiveness (pleasing to the ear), depending upon the initial “seed” (starting pattern) chosen by the player. For each cell, one of six possible states are adopted as a result of its “neighbours'” previous states.

Depending upon their colour, green, brown, peach or purple cells each “pass” their current state to an adjacent cell (see below). If passed on to a cell at the edge of the grid however, each is sent back in the opposite direction, with its colour modified accordingly. When more than one neighbour is non-blue, subsequent collisions (indicated by the colour black) are either reversed or cancelled out. This latter condition is where my app varies from “Otomata,” and is responsible for the important variation element.

User Interface

1 mouse click on any cell = green (move west)
2 clicks = brown (move east)
3 clicks = peach (move north)
4 clicks = purple (move south)
5 clicks = blue

Space Bar = START
Z = STOP (repeat for CLEAR)


Both negotiating the rules of the game and implementing them, are good examples of playframing and, in this case, a lengthy process (depending upon one’s programming skills). The task of designing/programming the whole system represents one over-riding level of frame negotiation. The creative choices made by the player with regard to planting the seed and controlling any other timbre-related parameters (in subsequent “receiver” programs, perhaps in real-time) represents a sub-level of negotiation with the “givens” of the system.

(c) 2017 Marshall Heiser


Bozkurt, B. (2011). Otomata. [Computer software]. Istanbul: Earslap.

Gardner, M. (1970). Mathematical games: The fantastic combinations of John Conway’s new solitaire game “life.” In Scientific American, 223, 120-123. London, England: NPG.


Dylan: the playful artist

DURATION: 1 min., 14 sec.

In this short clip, Bob Dylan presents a powerful insight into his creative process circa 1966 (and indeed, creativity in general). It is also a good example of playframing.

What’s striking about the footage is not so much the playful process informing Dylan’s Burroughs-style wordplay, but the increasingly childlike, jubilant tone he displays whilst doing so. He starts off nonchalant, simply an out-of-towner scanning the text. His mood soon changes to mischievous, as he begins to mouth the words. As he invents new outrageous combinations, he becomes increasingly physical and energised. Jumping around like an excited child. He begins to laugh and grin; clearly rejoicing in his manipulation of the mundane. Calling out in an excited, giggly tone, he stomps his feet and swinging one arm around like a wild, emphatic pendulum.

This scene exemplifies not only the combinatorial play described by Einstein (Hadamard, 1945) but also Lieberman’s (1977) discussion/definition of “playfulness” (PF); a quality that may, or may not, be present in specific instances of play and indicated by the “glint-in-the eye” behavioural markers of (a) sense of humour, (b) spontaneity, described as a process of recombining things already known; and (c) manifest joy.

The above example also subtly illustrates Hutt’s (1979) contrasting of exploration and play. Dylan’s initial scanning of the sign, where he attempts to understand simply what this thing is is an example of exploration. His behaviour, after becoming familiar with the text and is stimulated to see what he can do with it, is deemed by Hutt to be play. As she explains: “In play the emphasis changes from ‘what does this object do?’ to ‘what can I do with this object?’” (1971, p. 246). These two actions are symptomatic of quite different frames of mind.

(c) 2015 Marshall Heiser



Please note: Portions of this article were presented in thesis form in the fulfillment of the requirements for the PhD of Marshall Heiser from Griffith University.

Hadamard, J. (1945). An essay on the psychology of invention in the mathematical field. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hutt, C. (1979). Exploration and play (#2). In B. Sutton-Smith (Ed.), Play and learning (pp.175-194). New York: Gardner Press.

Hutt, C. (1971). Exploration and play in children. In R. E. Herron & B. Sutton-Smith (Eds.), Child’s play (pp. 231-260). New York, NY: Wiley.

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

Simple SATB Sequencer

This is a demonstration of a sequencer app built by Marshall Heiser using Max/MSP and the “playframing” approach to creative practice. The video features an impromptu, unedited jam session by the author with the program.


In the 21st Century, popular music creative practice, dissemination, and performance/reception have all been transformed by the rise of the internet, youtube and a general “democratisation of technology” (a term coined by Leyshon, 2009). Popular music making today is seen as a recreational activity for all to engage in (even for “non-musicians”) as much as it ever was a passive one. As a musician and songwriter, I once bemoaned the fact that the performer/audience, producer/consumer dichotomies (amongst other paradigms) had broken down to a point where it became increasingly difficult for individual’s identifying as a practitioners of music to justify their place in society. Now I embrace it.

The game has changed

Around about 2010 I finally accepted that the old music industry ways had passed (at least as the main focus for practitioners). And with that acceptance of the death of the old came the birth of something much, much more satisfying. I had realised for some time that by focusing more on the process of music-making I could reclaim the joy and innocence of music making time and time again. Each piece of music could be approached as a game with its own rules that were totally binding, but only within the scope of that particular piece. Instead of identifying as a practitioner of music, I now saw myself as a practitioner and advocate of play.

At that time, I had discovered Max/MSP, the perfect system for a game-like approach to music making. Instead of trying to using Digital Audio Workstations and instruments that offered too many creative possibilities, I could now build my own virtual systems that were limited in scope according to the needs of the piece of music in question. Each with their own rules of engagement, and with interfaces of my own design that attempted to control the user much as the user would attempt to control them.

The rules of the game

The rules/limitations of this featured program (Simple SATB Sequencer) are what makes effortless action possible and results in the musical statement’s balance of coherency/variation when engaged by the user in a sensitive (rather than “expert”) fashion. Best results are obtained by inputting less notes in each sequencer and focusing attention upon the relationships of the four voices in a “sum-is-greater-than-the-parts” manner. Negotiating the rules (both as designer and user) is a form of “playframing” (a term coined by Sutton-Smith, 1979).

So what are the rules of this particular game (Simple SATB Sequencer)?
1) Four individual (monophonic) voices, each capable
of inputting eight notes in sequence
2) Four pitch steps per voice
3) Each sequence voice’s cycle can be put out of sync with the others by a “quarter measure”
4) Overall pitch scale can be chosen (from a set of presets)
5) Cycle of each sequence voice can run through its series of notes in one of three ways: up(1-8), down (8-1) or up/down (1-8,8-1)
6) The pitch range of each sequence voice is limited to something similar to traditional soprano, alto, tenor & bass.
7) Each voice has it’s own discreet synthesiser sound generator
8) The timbre of each voice can be manipulated easily via choice of waveform type.
9) The timbre of each voice can be further manipulated easily via filter settings (and choice of filter type)
10) The articulation of each voice can be manipulated (less) easily via a set of presets/ graphical user interface embedded in a sub-window (not being able to access this feature from the main GUI window actively discourages the user from using it too much).

Text: (c) 2016 Marshall Heiser, Max/MSP Program: (CC BY 3.0 AU) 2013 Marshall Heiser, Music:  (c) 2013 Marshall Heiser.



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

Sutton-Smith, B. (1979). Play and learning. New York, NY: Gardner Press.

Sunday Sho

Here’s a nutty little instrumental jazz tune I wrote called “Sunday Sho.” Hope you like it. I wrote it using a technique I call “playframing” (for more details go to: In this particular piece, a simple syncopated 2-bar rhythmic motif was applied to a number of different virtual instruments in Apple Logic Pro software, leaving myself free to play with the pitch values and instrument combinations.

Regarding the video: The footage was sourced/compiled from the creative commons repository “” and was originally created by Karl Sims as part of a research project titled “Involving simulated Darwinian evolutions of virtual block creatures.” Visit him at Sho nuff.

Music: (c) 2012 Marshall Heiser.



Sims, K. (1994, July). Evolving virtual creatures. In Computer Graphics (Siggraph ’94 Proceedings), (pp.15-22), Retrieved from