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: playframesphd.wordpress.com). 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 “archive.org” 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 karlsims.com 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 http://www.karlsims.com/papers/siggraph94.pdf.