My Favorite Creativity Tools Online, Not Ranked

I like to make things. They don’t even have to be good things. In fact, I’m often happiest when I’m churning out piles of terrible art.

Here are some of my favorite online creativity rabbit holes to fall into. Each of these is free unless otherwise noted.

creativity

Botnik

If you’re unfamiliar with my love affair with Botnik‘s predictive-text keyboard, it’s because you’re new here. (Welcome!)

Basically, Botnik is your phone’s predictive text on a much larger scale and with a potentially much larger dataset that isn’t confined to things you text most often. Botnik has dozens of pre-loaded keyboard options ranging from “John Keats” to Radiohead lyrics or The Joy of Cooking. You can also feed it your own text banks as UTF-8 encoded .txt files.

For examples of the fun nonsense you can make with Botnik, check out this list of predictive-text New Year’s resolutions or this predictive-text history of Mother’s Day.

Noteflight (freemium)

If you’ve ever wanted to write music but (a) don’t know if you can, (b) don’t play an instrument and/or (c) hate having to draw all those little dots on manuscript paper which you (d) don’t even own anyway, Noteflight is the obsession for you.

Noteflight is web-based music notation software, which does what it says on the tin: It allows you to write music. Also to play it back immediately, change/edit instruments and voices, and so on.

Check out examples of music I wrote in Noteflight in the Bad Carols series.

The full version requires a subscription, but if you’re new to writing music you can get a lot of mileage out of the free version before you make the switch.

As an occasional music teacher, I especially appreciate features of Noteflight that are annoying af at first, like its insistence on subdividing measures for you. It’s really helpful if you’re not already 100 percent comfortable with the concept of how many beats go in a measure and what that should look like.

Soundation (freemium)

If you want to write music but the previous paragraph’s mention of “subdividing measures” made your eyes cross, try Soundation. It allows you to create music mixer-style, by stacking, looping and editing tracks.

Again, you can pay for a subscription or not, but the free version lets you do quite a bit before you decide whether or not an upgrade is worth your money.

I’ve found that Soundation is highly accessible for middle schoolers and older, whether or not they have any kind of previous music-related education. So put some headphones on your kids and let them mix away.

Scratch

Scratch is an MIT project designed to teach kids how to code, but even as an adult in my 30s I find it’s a lot of fun to put together my own animations and games.

The interface is very user-friendly and intuitive. If you’re super intimidated by anything with the word “coding” in it, though, there’s also a series of tutorials that will walk you through every aspect of Scratch.

Scratch is the kind of thing I would have killed for when I was ten years old and programming my Apple IIGS in BASIC that I learned out of my fifth-grade math textbook. It’s a lot of fun and a great way to make goofy things to share with friends.

Canva (freemium)

Canva is a graphic design tool for those of us with zero graphic design chops.  It offers hundreds, maybe thousands, of templates for social media images, blog post headers, invitations and a bunch of other things.

I use it primarily to make graphics for this blog, but there are plenty of other options for Canva use. Many of the templates and images are free, but some of them require payment or a Canva subscription to access – though I’m not sure you need one if you’re only using Canva for amusement.

An alternative to Canva is Snappa, which does basically the same things except with an arguably more intuitive (and definitely more touchscreen-friendly) interface. Canva’s one major failing is that it’s not optimized for touchscreens, so if you’re creating on a tablet, consider giving Snappa a go.

Micro Marching League (freemium)

Micro Marching League might be in the running for most nerdy niche option on this list. It’s basically Pyware but for kids.

…If you’re thinking “there’s no way you can make Pyware kid-friendly,” you’re right.

Micro Marching League (MML) allows you to design your own marching band drill and watch it play out…more or less effectively? It’s not a tool I’d actually use to write drill I would actually put on the field or floor, but it’s a fun introduction to drill-writing for anyone who hasn’t actually tried it before.

The free version offers enough scope to get started. You can pay for options like inserting your own uniform colors or creating indoor drill, but if you’re that serious about writing drill I’d recommend just switching to Pyware.

Master MML and your learning curve for Pyware won’t be any shorter, but at least you’ll have some idea what you want certain forms to look like.

Seventh Sanctum

I’ve been messing around on Seventh Sanctum since…years? The site’s biggest draw for creatives is probably its massive collection of idea generators, from sci-fi plots to made-up 1980s cartoon heroes.

It also offers a huge list of resources for creatives, including stock photography sources, publishing outlets, online portfolio hosting sites and so on. It’s a decades-old standby of the creative community, but I’ve included it here in case you’re one of today’s lucky 10,000.

Springhole

Like Seventh Sanctum, Springhole is also (a) ancient (in Internet terms) and (b) full of creativity resources. Springhole, however, is geared almost entirely at writers.

In addition to various generators, you’ll also find a wealth of writing advice, from how to know when you should write a novel to how to determine whether your main character is actually a “Mary Sue” or just being called that by disgruntled dudebros who haven’t realized that “being female” is a default state for half the population.

I used to get lost in Springhole for hours on end. It’s still one of my favorite online rabbit holes.

Zompist

Zompist is Mark Rosenfelder’s personal website, and it’s absolutely fantastic if you’re into any kind of worldbuilding or conlanging.

Rosenfelder is the author of several books on how to construct conlangs (which I also recommend). The website both provides an introduction to those books and hosts many of the in-depth examples that didn’t fit on the physical pages.

If you’ve ever wanted to build your own fantasy world/language, or having built one you now have no idea what to do with it, there’s plenty here to keep you busy. It’s where I found the format for this Niralan culture test, for example.

Lexiconga

Lexiconga is the other Extremely Niche tool on this list. It’s a dictionary compiler, which means it’s probably most useful to folks who are already in the vocabulary-building phase of conlanging.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with using an Excel spreadsheet for vocabulary purposes. I do. But I appreciate the way Lexiconga is built to manage your word hoard. My Excel sheet for Niralanes, for instance, has nearly a thousand entries currently. That’s a lot of scrolling, and it’s scrolling Lexiconga doesn’t make me do.

One of my favorite parts of social distancing/sheltering in place so far is that I feel even freer than usual to spend hours making terrible art (like this abomination my brain woke me up at 4 am to write). I cannot encourage it enough. Making terrible art is how we make good art (eventually) – but more importantly, it’s just plain fun.

Go forth and make terrible art. ❤


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How to Get Better at Art By Producing Fifty Pounds of Crap

Art & Fear, by David Bayles & Ted Orland, has been one of my favorite books of creativity since my now-spouse introduced me to it in graduate school. In particular, I’ve come back to this story again and again:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Which brings me to a seemingly unrelated topic: Why do I keep spamming my blog audience with terrible Christmas songs?

Simply put: I’m trying to make fifty pounds of terrible pots.

Beginners are frequently the loudest about their struggle with “perfection paralysis,” but it can plague creators at any stage in their learning curve. For those of us in the performing arts, attempting to switch from performance to choreography or composing can cause a mental Blue Screen of Death. We’ve always executed what we were told to do; what should we do when there’s no one telling us how?

I became interested in composing back in high school, but it wasn’t until recently that I had both the tools and the time to try my hand at it. I’ve been playing music since my mother taught me how to plunk out the chorus to “Jingle Bells” on the piano when I was five, but except for a brief course in blues improv in high school, I’d never tried to write any.

And the sheer volume of my knowledge of music served to stall me out – big time. With thousands of hours of playing and hundreds of hours on music theory behind me, I should be able to produce something good on my first try, right?

…If you believe that, go listen to the Bad Carols, in order.

They get consistently better as you go down the list. The first one, in fact, is crap compared to any of the others. I didn’t really hit my stride until “Skin Carol” at the earliest, and I wasn’t close to happy with a piece until the melody of “By Candlelight Swans Three.” Halfway through “In Christmas Hot Damn” I switched gears to writing an arrangement of “Riu, Riu, Chiu,” which I also currently hate.

I had to get past my belief that I had to produce something good. I had to produce just anything.

And I was getting bored with just asking Botnik’s predictve-text keyboard to generate histories of various holidays. I wanted to do something more involved with the tool.

Hence “Christmas Carols Nobody Asked For.” They didn’t have to be good – in fact, limiting my lyrics to those generated by predictive text pretty much guaranteed they wouldn’t be good. They just had to appear regularly. And the automatic deadline of December 25 made it fairly easy to ensure they’d happen on time.

I generate a lot of creative work, every day. It’s literally my job. And I recommend this method for improving in any creative genre.

Want to be a better writer? Assign yourself half an hour a day in which your only goal is that your pen/fingers never stop moving across the page/keyboard. If you write “I’m a terrible writer and I should go walk into the sea” fifty times in that half hour, so be it. Eventually, you’ll learn what you need to know from that and try something else.

Want to be a better choreographer? Write 32 to 64 counts (4-8 sets of 8) at every rehearsal/practice session you have. If you can’t decide on a piece of music, set your playlist to random. If all you do is plies for your first 32 counts, fine. Eventually, you’ll learn what you need to know from that and try something else.

Want to create a better vlog, host a better podcast, draw better Lovecraftian horrors? Generate five new ideas every single day. Hell, make it ten. Make it twenty. If the first hundred are all variations on “Interview [insert Lovecraftian horror here],” fine. Eventually, you’ll learn what you need to know from that and try something else.

A lot of beginners, in particular, fear that if they just start with the basics – simply writing “My mind is a blank and I suck at writing” over and over, or drawing the same anime characters again and again – they’re wasting time. They’ll never move past those basics. Their masterpiece novel/manga/interpretive dance will never materialize.

As the ceramics class proved, however, the masterpiece won’t materialize if you don’t make fifty pounds of crap first.


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Christmas Carols Nobody Asked For, Vol 1: Is That You, Santa?

As a quasi-professional musician (meaning I sometimes actually get paid to perform), I am completely, utterly, pervasively sick of Christmas music.

I’m sorry. I know y’all love Christmas concerts, which is why I play several of them a year. But trust me when I say that playing any tune you recognize as a Christmas song is a sacrifice I am making out of love for my fellow human and the season as a whole.

Especially if it’s Sleigh Ride.

In the interest of expanding our Christmas music canon in…interesting ways, I’ve decided to create some new Christmas carols. With help.

I put the lyrics of several dozen popular Christmas carols into Botnik and used its predictive text keyboard to generate new holiday lyrics. Then I put these lyrics to music using Noteflight.

Here’s the first in a series of horrible experiments designed to make popular music, if not less horrible, at least more amusing.

Is That You, Santa?

Is that you, Santa?
The Christmas baby
My merry cheer
Whispering my good ol’ joy


Is it beautiful again
holding Grandpa in
this house like Christmas?
Michelle yooou baby

CHORUS
oh yeah
this starry night
paradise me and my sleigh
oh you
this merry merry
holy christmas tree lights


twinkle christmas
shining times
drinking cheap and
faster than love

CHORUS
oh yeah
this starry night
paradise me and my sleigh
oh you
this merry merry
holy christmas tree lights

BRIDGE
in my baby ‘s christmas tree
born three sitting chime again
you and jesus hold the snow
the christmas tree such joy

Is that you, Santa?
The Christmas baby
My merry cheer
Whispering my good ol’ joy

CHORUS
oh yeah
this starry night
paradise me and my sleigh
oh you
this merry merry
holy christmas tree lights

oh you
this merry merry
holy christmas tree lights

Here’s the sheet music (pdf).

Here’s the audio file (mp3).

Musicians are underpaid and overworked, especially during the winter holidays. Help me keep going by sharing this post and/or filling my tip jar.

“Happy Birthday” is the Worst Song Ever Written

Folks, there’s something I need to get off my chest.

It’s “Happy Birthday.”

THIS SONG IS A GARBAGE NIGHTMARE DISASTER.

Think about it. If you were writing a song that all kinds of people would be obligated to sing several times a year, regardless of their background in music, wouldn’t you pick something that was, say, easy to sing? Something with notes and intervals that were easy to hear and mimic?

Well, we didn’t get that. We got this monstrosity.

Here’s why “Happy Birthday” is absolutely the worst song ever written.

worstbirthday

First of all, it doesn’t start on do. Try to write this thing down, or accompany it on piano or guitar, based on what you think you know about simple children’s melodies every freaking person in the Western world has known for a century and GET READY FOR THE ACCIDENTALS BECAUSE HOLY CRAP THEY’RE EVERYWHERE.

So the first note: crap.

The second note: also crap. Sol-la is one of the hardest intervals to sing in tune. You can fake your way through “Happy,” but “Birth” is always going to sound like your dog just died. Always.

“Day” is back to sol, but hold onto your cheap paper hat, because “to” jumps all the way up to “do,” and then “you” lands on “ti.” Wanna know what the other hardest interval to sing in tune is? SURPRISE IT’S RIGHT HERE.

We’re four words in and this song is already a nightmare. Not least because the shape of that line puts the emphasis not on any word that ACTUALLY MATTERS. What’s the most important thing about this event? Not happy, birthday, or you. Oh no. It’s TO.

Oh good, at least the lyrics repeat! But wait…

THE MELODY DOES NOT REPEAT EVEN THOUGH THE LYRICS DO.

You think it’s going to. You even get a second try at that crappy sol-la interval. But instead of going back up to “do,” you need to push even higher, to “re.” I hope you practiced your sixths haha just kidding of course you didn’t.

Again, the most important thing in this song, according to the melody, is that it is TO someone. Who they are or what day it is or what kind of day you wish them to have is irrelevant nonsense.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!

Quick: Name a song that forces you to jump an octave and that is easy to sing. You can’t. But you’re about to do it anyway, because the next leap between “birth” and “day” is one.

Why is this melody so unsingable? Ah well, it’s not like anyone will ever need to sing this in public OH WAIT.

Next up is do-la-do, an absolutely astounding set of intervals. It’s definitely not just close enough to do-sol-do, THE ONE EVERYONE CAN ACTUALLY HEAR, to royally mess with everyone’s feeble attempt to sing it. You can’t even remember who you’re singing to at this point anyway, so mumbling their name wildly out of pitch is for the best.

Also, you are now mumbling a tenth lower than you were forced to sing earlier. Sure. Fine. Whatever. 1000 years of Western music went home drunk four measures ago.

And the chord structure. Dear God, the chord structure.

I’ll accept I-V-V-I, which are the first two lines. Uninspired, but at least it sounds okay.

Then we skip to IV, which is a nice way to indicate that something new is going on. Okay.

But then. BUT THEN.

I. We’re back on I. But it’s not just any I; it’s do-fa-la, not do-mi-sol. And it lasts only two beats before we’re back to IV, aka fa-la-ti.

I would accept this in a normal song, but “Happy Birthday” is not a normal song. It’s a toxic hellbeast bent on making every human with a functioning set of vocal chords sing out of tune. TWO BEATS ON THE ROOT AIN’T GONNA CUT IT.

Now, normal chord structures for simple songs repeat. Does this one? OF COURSE NOT. Have two beats of IV, then V, then I. You haven’t seen this pattern before or since!

HAVE A COMPLETELY BIZARRE AND POINTLESS CHORD STRUCTURE ON THE HOUSE. IT’S SOMEONE’S BIRTHDAY APPARENTLY.

The only good thing – I repeat, the ONLY good thing – about this song is that it resolves on do, in a nice solid I chord, allowing everyone present to clap heartily that this overrated vocal nightmare has finally ended.


Birthday songs are terrible; birthday coffee is awesome.