Why Rules Shouldn’t Have Such A Bad Reputation

Friday, August 7, 2009 at 3:40 pm

German Logic meets American Rule-Breaker

What are you current set of rules for music making? Do you have any?

Unless you’re German, you probably don’t hold rules in very high regard. Rules have a bad rep. They’re one of those things that people tend to have an automatic emotional reaction to — a negative one. If you asked someone what the word “rules” makes them think of, the response will probably be something like, “A strict teacher holding a ruler.” It’s a word we associate with harsh discipline, pain, and things that we want to do, but can’t. Movies idolize people who break rules for a higher moral good.

I think this says more about human psychology than it does about the concept of a rule. People remember the harsh rules, the unreasonable ones, and the ones they got punished for breaking. Rarely do people meditate on the fact that rules are necessary. Even more rarely do people realize that rules can, in fact, be liberating. All that comes to mind is negative experiences. Granted, there are a lot of stupid, downright wrong rules out there — but that’s because people make rules, and people are failable. It doesn’t mean that rules are bad in and of themselves.

Really, rules are kind of like the string with which you hold onto a kite. Without that string, the kite might not get off the ground. If it does, it might crash, or get lost. With more complicated kites, there are two strings. By pulling one string more than the other, you can make the kite dive and turn — energy that would otherwise carry the kite off into the woods, harnessed to make the kite do neat acrobatics. Who in their right mind complains that a kite’s strings keep it from flying higher? Put simply, a rule is just a way to direct our energies down a constructive avenue, towards a long-term goal.

Imagine if you had absolutely no rules — should I brush my teeth? Flip a coin. Should I go to work? Flip a coin. Should I look before pulling onto the highway? Flip a coin… You’ll wind up dead, with bad teeth.

Of course, having too many rules is not a good thing either.

Robocop Over-ruled

Really, it boils down to this:

If you have no rules, you will go in every direction at once, and get nowhere. If you have too many rules, you will tie yourself down, and also get nowhere. Create rules that direct your energies toward something you want, then doggedly stick to them. When you reach your goal, and/or a rule starts to feel confining, get rid of it. Make a new rule based on how well previous ones have worked, and where you want to go next. Don’t change the rules too often, lest you wind up going in circles.

Some examples: Try confining yourself to a finite set of plugins, until you know them like the back of your hand. Put together a minimalist hardware setup, and squeeze every idea you can from it. Ban yourself from using presets. Ban yourself from using samples you didn’t make yourself. Resolve to make a drum kit every day.

After those plugins start to show up in your dreams, after you know that hardware combo like an old card partner… take a moment to bask in your progress, then use that little confidence kick to decide what comes next. Make some new rules, and tear into business all over again. Don’t be too ambitious — keep busy, but don’t place unreasonable demands on yourself.

You might think that this would feel confining, but it doesn’t. I’ve found it to be a huge relief. There’s a sea of distraction and possibility that surrounds you in the studio, and you can drown in it. Rules are your life jacket. Spend your time on focused, purposeful improvement, rather than trying to decide which of fourteen distortion plugins to use.

Categories: productivity

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