Why should Brian Eno have all the fun?


When I was studying composition at the Qld Conservatorium of Music in the late 1980s, all I ever heard about was “Brian Eno this,” and “Brian Eno that.” All of the students (and teachers for that matter) were so enamoured of Eno and his work (especially the ambient material) since it was “clever” (good) but didn’t sound anything like the fingernails down a blackboard of Ligeti or whoever-else was considered important at the time (even better). For the record, I love Ligeti’s work (you may have heard some in Kubrick’s The Shining)…fingernails and all.

With Eno’s music you got to have your musical cake and eat it too. You got the procedural kudos of John Cage et al combined with the sensuality of a Debussy. Eno could even make Pachabel’s Canon sound good (that is, after putting it through a procedural wringer!).

Gaining insight into Eno’s work and ideas became a lot easier with the release of Eric Tamm’s very fine book Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Colour of Sound (1989) (remember, this was before the internet). Perhaps, the most striking revelations contained therein related to Eno’s down-to-earth character and his “somewhat superficial knowledge of the classical tradition and his disdain for its institutional infrastructure” (p. 20). Kudos!

Eno has remained productive in the years since and is (arguably) even more influential today. No doubt, he is also a lot wealthier thanks to his work with U2, and remains at the vanguard of popular music creative practice thanks to his embracing generative music and open source programming platforms (together with Peter Chilvers).

If you haven’t already read Tamm’s book, you might not be aware that Eno has made a living all this time by running away from a day job. That isn’t to say he’s not a hard worker. As a case in point, his slow and meticulous gradus ad parnassum approach to building up soundscapes was very much at odds with collaborator David Bowie’s first-take-is-the-best-take approach (see the hilarious video below). He is also capable of capriciousness: For example, if his infamous Oblique Strategies cards (developed together with painter Peter Schimdt) tell Eno to erase everything and start all over again, he’ll do it.

Eno: A Practitioner of Play

What I want to get across is that you’d be in error to put Eno on a pedestal. Anyone, can do it! That is, if you have the guts to go against all usual, well-meaning ‘advice’ from family, friends, loved ones and vocational guidance officers to get your life together. Do you have the wherewithal to devote 8 hours a day (or more) to play.

Instead of clocking on at the office, crunching numbers or pressuring pensioners into life insurance they don’t need, can you see yourself devoting that same amount of time to fiddling around with your DAW, Max/MSP, Pure Data or whatever musical means you prefer: juggling ideas, procedures, and sounds that – more often than not – will result in nought but creative dead ends? Probably not, given the low social status and financial instability that are for contemporary artists and musicians constant reminders of a comfortable life that might have been.

You’ll also need a refined and discerning sense of aesthetic appreciation. This is where Eno and John Cage’s procedural approaches to creativity diverge. Cage was happy to live with the results of his chance music, accepting it on its own terms, whatever the hell it sounded like (anyone for another 8 bars of ‘Fingernails down a Blackboard?’). Eno, ever the aesthete, instead spends a great deal of time reflecting upon the artefacts of his play before releasing them to public scrutiny. So much so that Tamm’s considers listening to be Eno’s “primary compositional activity” (p.49).

If you’d like to read more about Eno and his playful approach to creative practice check out my forthcoming book Popular Music, Power & Play: Reframing Creative Practice.


Heiser, M. (2021). Popular Music, Power and Play: Reframing Creative Practice. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic.

Tamm, E. (1989). Brian Eno: His music and the vertical color of sound. New York, NY: Da Capo Press.


Work and Play: It’s just a frame of mind…and why it matters.

Apter states that the individual may switch back and forth between the paratelic (playful) frame of mind or the telic (serious) in a process of mutually exclusive “psychological reversals,” much like that of a Gestalt figure-foreground perceptual switch. (Heiser, 2015, p. 87)

Rabbit or Duck? A gestalt groundshift much like the shifting serious & playful metamotivational states described by British pyschologist Michael J Apter.

One of the major trends in creativity research in recent times has been socio-cultural and historical approaches to the topic. These perspectives are not hing new, but rather represent a resurgence of ideas popularised in the early twentieth century by Soviet psychologists such as Lev Vygotsky and Alexander Luria. In the arts, theories such as Mihalyi Csizkszentmihalyi’s Systems Model of Creativity (1999) and Pierre Bourdieau’s Field of Cultural Production (1993) have proved most popular. So much so, that “individual” psychology has become something of a dirty word for academics.

Nonetheless, creativity researchers such as R. Keith Sawyer are starting to acknowledge that individual psychology still has an important role to play in understanding creative endeavour. Nowhere is this more the case than with regard to the inner experience of creative practitioners, and more specifically, their motivations. These concepts can best be approached systematically using phenomenology as a basis.

Phenomenology: the science of personal consciousness.

Pure phenomenology is most commonly associated with Husserl’s philosophical method, a self-proclaimed science of pure phenomena where the only reliable data is not from the “outside” world but rather how aspects of it are “reduced to the contents of personal consciousness” (Groenewald, 2004, p. 4). If you’ve ever used the terms “flow”or “optimal experience” (coined by Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) to describe aspects of your creative practice, then you’ve grappled with phenomenological concepts.

Fickle humans

Both Csikszentmihalyi and British psychologist Micheal J. Apter have in common an approach to phenomenology that emphasises the temporal aspects of experience, and describe how the contents of personal consciousness are in a constant state of flux. Apter describes his theoretical perspective as structural phenomenology since it relates to, not only, the temporal structure of conscious experience, but also the role that motivation and emotion play in that structure.

“Why is this important?” you may well ask. Well, it’s crucial because humans behave differently in any given situation depending upon their motivation(s). The problem being that motivations can change at any given moment depending upon how individuals chose to frame their direct experience.

Apter rejects the traditional concept of “trait” psychology where people are described as being unchanging and rigid in their responses to the world around them. We all know from personal experience with ourselves and others that humans are anything but predictable. Perhaps, this goes some way to explaining contemporary art-based academics’ overwhelming mistrust of individual psychology (those pesky human individuals have been brushed into the “too-hard” basket). Apter explains:

Personality is dynamic not static: we are more like dancers than statues….The reason for this seems to be that there is an ever-changing internal context to our actions as well as external environmental forces. We want different things at different times and, partly as a consequence, we see things differently. In this respect our personalities are shifting and unconstant….to be healthy is to be unstable – to be able to move between different kinds of personality to suit the occasion….If biodiversity is necessary to the health of an ecological system, then what we might call “psychodiversity” is just as important to the health of the individual. (2003, p. 474)

Frame of Mind

The concept of “frame of mind” is of key importance to creative practice in the arts, since it explains why mediocre practitioners prefer to “not fuck with the formula,” while (according to Getzels & Csikszentmihalyi, 1976) artists of greater talent and insight follow their material where it wants to go (and take creative risks doing so). The former are most likely motivated by extrinsic rewards that the work might bring: praise, money, fame, influence etc.

According to Apter, when individual focus on the future and the consequences of their actions: They are working. When, instead, they focus on the present moment without fear of consequences: They are playing. It is no wonder that creativity scholar J Nina Lieberman calls artists the practitioners of play.

Viewed phenomenologically, it is only how an activity is framed in one’s mind that defines it as work or play.

Consider the following: The (paratelic) playful frame of mind can be characterised with regard to three dimensions. Apter (1982) explains:

• time-dimension (i.e., it is present-oriented, spontaneous, “sufficient unto itself,” and brings the pleasure of immediate sensation)
• means-end (for e.g., its goals are freely chosen, or may even be inessential; it is both process and behaviour-oriented; proactive, and attempts will be made to prolong the activity, since it is pleasurable)
• intensity (i.e., make believe is prevalent, and high intensity or arousal are preferred).

So, when an activity is approached playfully, the participant attempts to prolong engagement since the process itself brings the reward of pleasure in the present moment. Pleasure, in the serious (telic) case, is derived from the anticipation of reaching a goal and collecting the reward. One will attempt therefore, to complete the activity as soon as possible in order to receive benefits sooner rather than later (p. 52).

Art and risk-taking:

ENO: Just another day at the office.

The “protective frame” of play provides a “somewhat disengaged psychological stance characterized by minimal defensiveness” (Lieberman, 1977, p. 69) and promotes risk taking. Music producer Brian Eno asserts that the protective frame engendered by a playful approach to creativity is a key feature of art: “‘Art is safe.’ …You’re creating a false world where you can afford to make mistakes” (quoted in Tamm, 1995, p. 21).

When the “protective” playful frame of mind is adopted:

  • High arousal and protective frame = excitement
  • Low arousal and protective frame = boredom

In the opposite serious frame of mind, each of these characteristics are simply reversed:

  • High arousal and no protective frame = anxiety
  • Low arousal and no protective frame = relaxation (Apter, 2018, p 58).

So, when in a playful mood risks feel exciting. When we are looking at things seriously, the same risks make us feel anxious. As ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland remarks, the “worst musical train wreck hurts absolutely no one” (p. 248), but try telling that to the concert promoter (or Sting).

Csikszentmihalyi likewise explains, “Since what we experience is reality, as far as we are concerned, we can transform reality to the extent that we influence what happens in consciousness and thus free ourselves from the threats and blandishments of the outside world” (1990, p. 20). If you’d like to know more check out my PhD dissertation (2015).

banner_P_M_P_P_3‘Popular Music, Power and Play’ by Marshall Heiser – available now.


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.

Apter, M. J. (2018). Zigzag: Reversal and Paradox in Human Personality. (p. 58). Matador. Kindle Edition.

Apter, M. J. (2003). On a certain blindness in modern psychology. In The Psychologist, 16(9), 474-475.

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

Bourdieu, P. (1993). The Field of Cultural Production. New York, N Y: Columbia University Press.

Copeland, S. (2009). Strange things happen: A life with The Police, polo, and pygmies. New York, NY: HarperStudio.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). Implications of a systems perspective for the study of creativity. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Handbook of creativity (pp. 313-335). Cambridge, England; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Csikszentmihal yi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, N Y: Harper & Row.

Getzels, J. W., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1976). The creative vision: A longitudinal study of problem finding in art. New York, NY: Wiley.

Groenewald, T. (2004). A phenomenological research design illustrated. In International journal of qualitative methods, 3(1). Article 4. Retrieved from http://www.ualberta.ca/~iiqm/backissues/3_1/pdf/groenewald.pdf

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.

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

Tamm, E. (1995). Brian Eno: His music and the vertical color of sound. New York, NY: Da Capo 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.

Societal Pressure and Play

Many of the so-called givens of our everyday lives are based on assumptions so deeply embedded in culture and language as to defy scrutiny. As for society’s sacred cows that are clearly visible, it’s easy to just ignore any niggling loose threads of doubt we might have, lest we start pulling at them and end up wholly unraveling our once neat world-view or self-image.


Sergio Aragones 1969

The danger of approaching any topic in an overly serious or reverential manner however, is that we forfeit our right to challenge the status quo. Oddly enough, some of our most cherished institutions, proverbial pillars of society, may owe their very existence to play. For example, Apter (1982) argues that religion is essentially a playful approach to day-to-day circumstances, often misinterpreted in a serious fashion by believers. Neither are the sciences immune to play and playfulness. So states Jaques Hadamard in his “On the Psychology of Invention in the Mathematics Field” (1945), a book that famously includes Einstein’s admission that for him a “combinatorial play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought – before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other signs that can be communicated to others” (p. 142).

Like religion, ritual has in common with play the fact that it creates “frames that are not grounded in the usual material of natural and social life” (Sutton-Smith, 1979, p. 317). Where ritual and play differ however, is that with the former we “comply with external patterns and objects” with an eye to future consequences (some sort of harmonisation with the greater), whereas in play those same patterns are challenged simply for the thrill of it and sense of self-direction it engenders (Henricks, 2008). The patriarch Abraham is said to have smashed his own father’s idols before going on a joyride across the Euphrates that saw him unwittingly spearhead three religions for the price of one. Sounds like play to me.


Sergio Aragones (1969)

Organised religions may even formally acknowledge the necessity of providing much-needed psychic relief for believers from time to time. On certain feast days, the usual order of things may be upended. Examples include the medieval Christian Feast of Fools, where the normal church hierarchy was inverted, or the Jewish Feast of Purim, with its masquerades and merry-making that would normally contravene Rabbinic laws regarding dress and conduct. Halloween also, has its roots in religious festival.

Although both play and festivals keep participants firmly rooted in the present moment, they differ in that during the latter “we are amazed by the novelty, power, and even splendor of the world and by our own sense of being taken up and transformed by such events. In play, we are fascinated instead by our own powers—that we can somehow confront the world and shape our own experiences within it” (p.178).


 Sergio Aragones (1969)

When it comes to our own young children, parents wearied by the hussle and bussle of life can, at times, be less than tolerant of the little ones’ attempts to momentarily challenge the givens of their own lives. Dr J. Singer warns that societal pressures can indeed overcome children’s natural urge to play: “One of the things that we’ve been concerned with is that while most children show some make-believe by the age of two and a half or three, the continuation and expansion of pretend play seems to require a certain kind of social nurturance” (Singer & Singer, 1979, p. 197).

Singer goes on to add that the whilst more structured play is commonly condoned by societies, subcultures and families (probably because it more closely resembles work), more fantastic, spontaneous outbursts of make-believe are all too often met with derision. And yet the benefits of such play are many. Children displaying greater instances of make-believe play display “better waiting behaviour, self-control, capacity for self-entertainment, reality discrimination, and resistance to temptation…creating elaborate alternative environments” (p. 199). Meares (2005) adds that “play, or a playlike activity of mind, may be a crucial element in linking together…the distinct and separable facts of ordinary existence” necessary to forming a coherent sense of self (p. 51).

Play on.

(c) 2016 Marshall Heiser



Please note: Portions of some of the articles and postings contained in this website were presented in thesis form in fulfillment of the requirements for the PhD of Marshall Heiser from Griffith University.

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

Aragones, S. (1969, December) Who knows what evils lurk in the hearts of men? The shadow knows. [Cartoon] Mad magazine (131). New York, NY: William Gaines.

Claxton, G. (2006). The wayward mind: An intimate history of the unconscious. London, England: Little, Brown Book Group.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

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

Henricks, T. (2008). The nature of play. In American journal of play, 1(2), 157-180.

Meares, R. (2005). The metaphor of play: Origin and breakdown of personal being. London, England; New York, NY: Routledge.

Singer, J., & Singer, D. (1979). The values of the imagination. In B. Sutton-Smith (Ed.), Play and learning (pp. 195-218). New York, NY: Gardner Press.

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