“SCAMPER” Your Way to Great Ideas (no theremin needed)

50 years ago last week, the Beach Boys were riding high at #1 on the UK singles chart with their song “Good Vibrations.” Considered by many one of the greatest pop songs ever written, “Good Vibrations” earned the Beach Boys a Grammy nomination for Best Vocal Group performance in 1966 and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1994. “Good Vibrations” was voted number one in Mojo’s “Top 100 Records of All Time,” number six on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” and included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.” According to Wikipedia, the song “is credited for having further developed the use of recording studios as a musical instrument” and for “heralding a wave of pop experimentation and the onset of psychedelic and progressive rock.”

Not bad for a song inspired by Brian Wilson’s mother, who told him as a child that dogs sometimes bark at people in response to their “bad vibrations.”

One of the most interesting aspects of “Good Vibrations” is its use of a musical instrument commonly misidentified as a theremin (it’s actually an electro-theremin, but let’s not quibble). Listen for the weird, spacey “woooooEEEEEEoooooo” sound on the recording and you’ll hear it. According to engineer Chuck Britz, “[Brian Wilson] just walked in and said, ‘I have this new sound for you.’ I think he must have heard the sound somewhere and loved it, and built a song around it.” At the time Wilson was considering the theremin, its use was limited to soundtracks to movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound and low-budget horror and sci-fi films. But in a flash of inspiration, Wilson thought that its eerie, high-frequency tone would sound good on a track that also included cello, harmonica, sleigh bells, and harpsichord. And thus, a classic was born.

Wilson knew intuitively that one of the best ways to generate new ideas is to combine elements that don’t typically go together.  Here’s another classic example, this one from my formative years:

“Combine” also happens to be the “C” in the acronym “SCAMPER,” one of my favorite creativity techniques for generating new ideas. “SCAMPER” encourages experimentation and exploration through:

  • Substituting
  • Combining
  • Adapting
  • Modifying
  • Putting to other use
  • Eliminating
  • Rearranging or reversing

It’s an easy and fun exercise. This brief video shows how to do it:

Try it and see what bubbles up. Even if you don’t create the next great pop song or candy, I guarantee you’ll have a new perspective on whatever problem, issue, or challenge you’re facing. Let me know how you do!