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Listening to happy music may boost creativity, say researchers

Do you sometimes find yourself in a creative rut? If so, you may want to try listening to some happy, energizing music.

A recent study found that people who listened to such music were measurably more creative compared with people who listened to other types of music — or no music at all.

Interestingly, the study also found that music — of any kind — has no effect on people’s ability to perform problem-solving cognitive tasks.

“Creativity is the driving force behind scientific, technological and cultural innovation, and it can be considered one of the key competences for the 21st century,” the authors write in their paper. “However, we are in a creativity crisis, people in general are thinking less creatively than before.”

Music — the right kind — might just help us get those creative juices flowing, they add.

Study details

For the study, behavioral psychologists Simone Ritter at Radboud University in the Netherlands and Sam Ferguson of the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, brought 155 volunteers (121 of whom were women) into a lab for a series of experiments.

The participants were put through a series of tests designed to evaluate two types of creativity: divergent thinking (the ability to transform information into unexpected combinations and forms) and convergent thinking (the ability to come up with the single best, or correct, answer to a particular problem).

While taking these tests, the participants were randomly assigned to listen to one of four selections of classical music. Each piece had been validated in earlier research to promote a particular mood based on its emotional valence (positive, negative) and arousal (low, high). Those moods (and their corresponding piece of music) were:

  • “calm” (the “Swan” movement from Saint-Saens’ "The Carnival of the Animals")
  • “happy” (the “Spring” movement from Vivaldi’s "The Four Seasons")
  •  “sad” ("Adagio for Strings" by Samuel Barber)
  •  “anxious” (the “Mars” movement from Gustav Holst’s "The Planets")

Some of the volunteers — a control group — listened to silence.

Each participant also answered questions about their preexisting mood on the day of the experiment and about the music they listened to — how much they liked it, for example, and what emotions it had evoked.

The results showed that divergent creativity was measurably higher for people who listened to one of the musical selections (but only one) — the “happy” music of Vivaldi’s “Spring” — than for those who performed the tasks in silence.

That finding held whether or not the participants were familiar with “Spring” or even whether they liked it.

None of the four musical works, however, improved convergent thinking, or problem solving. 

“The increase in divergent but not convergent thinking after listening to happy music may be explained by the fact that the convergent tasks rely less on fluency and flexibility, but on finding one correct answer,” the Ritter and Ferguson write.

Limitations and implications

This study, like all studies, comes with several caveats. Most notably, only a small number of people participated in the study, and most of them were college-age adults. (None was already involved in creative work, however.) The findings might not be transferrable to other age groups — or to people from non-European cultures.

In addition, only one type of music — classical — was used in the study. Whether selections of other types of “happy” music (pop? country? jazz?) would have the same effects on creativity is unknown.

Still, the findings are interesting and, if confirmed, may have practical implications.

“Creativity is one of the most important cognitive skills in our complex, fast-changing world,” Ritter and Ferguson write. “In past decades, various techniques to enhance creative thinking have been developed and tested. However, many of the currently available creativity enhancement techniques have to be trained and explicitly communicated, which can be time and cost intensive.”

Listening to music presents none of those barriers.

“Music listening can be easily integrated into daily life,” the authors point out, “and may provide an innovative means to facilitate creative cognition in an efficient way in various scientific, educational and organizational settings when creative thinking is needed.”

FMI: The study was published online in the journal PLOS One, where it can be read in full. If you want to test Vivaldi’s “Spring” movement on your own creativity, listen to violinist Itzhak Perlman playing and conducting the piece with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

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