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The effect of music on creative cognition

In this fast-changing world, creativity is one of the most important cognitive skills. It is considered to be one of the key competencies of the 21st century, as it impacts all aspects of our lives and is the force behind innovation.

Oxford Dictionary defines creativity as “the use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness”.

The problems we face in this modern world require creative thinking more than ever. However, it seems that we are in a creative crisis as people are losing this more than ever, as we continue our daily routine in a mechanical way by killing our passions.

”To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination.” — Albert Einstein

Luckily, modern science claims that all humans have the cognitive capacity to come up with unique ideas – or what researchers call “divergent thinking”, and even “convergent thinking” or the ability to select from a series of ideas the one most likely to be successful.

The power of music on creativity

Friedrich Nietzsche once quoted, “Without music, life would be a mistake.”

Since it has been proven that music improves cognition, learning, and memory – Is it worth knowing whether the sound of music can make us more creative?

According to science, yes and no, the studies seem to contradict each other.

A recent study by Ritter & Ferguson has proven that listening to music while working can enhance divergent thinking that is associated with creative thinking and problem-solving. Particularly, listening to stimulating and complex music such as the classical genre with “Vivaldi’s classical concerto four seasons” winning first place as the most creativity-inspiring selection.

Dr. Simone Ritter and Dr. Sam Ferguson put 155 volunteers into five groups –  four groups were given a music genre to listen to and perform a task, while the fifth group did the task in silence.

The tasks were designed to measure divergent thinking and convergent thinking. Ritter and Ferguson found that people’s creativity was enhanced when listening to music they perceived as positive, coming with more original ideas than the ones that worked in silence.

“We also tested other musical excerpts that were sad, anxious and calm, and didn’t see this effect,” says Ferguson.  “It seems that the type of music present is important, rather than just any music.”

The study revealed that “happy music” (example classical music that is linked to enhancing positive mood and high arousal ) is associated with an increase in divergent thinking, not convergent thinking. The researchers believe that “happy music” may not have enhanced convergent thinking because this relies more on logic and less on arousal.

Mozart Effect

This research was inspired by the famous “Mozart effect” study, where it was proven that listening to classical music can improve spatial reasoning. Unfortunately, this theory has been debunked:  It has since been redone using a wide range of musical genres. When the subjects listened to their preferred genre, whether it’s jazz or classical music, they performed better on cognitive tests. The tempo and the major-minor tonality of the song also had an effect on how happy the listeners where (what researchers call “arousal”) which in turn influenced their performance.

As long as music can get you in a positive mood or increase your “arousal”, the cognitive benefits will be enhanced.

Dr. Daniel Levitin, a professor of neuroscience at McGill University, states that it is when our brains enter a “mind-wandering” mode where almost all of our creativity occurs and according to him, music listening is one of the most effective ways to enter that mode.

Is it dopamine?

Music listening can affect our cognitive abilities and creative cognition, and it is believed that this effect is caused by music’s impact on our mood.

Ritter and Ferguson suggest that their findings can be used to boost creativity in places like schools, universities, laboratories and organisational settings. They claim that happy music boosts divergent thinking because it is more stimulating and arouses the brain.

Irma Jarvela, a professor at the University of Helsinki says creativity is enhanced by “happy music” because it triggers the release of dopamine, a brain chemical involved in pleasure.

Choosing the right kind of music – volume & tempo is key

Research revealed that exposure to a moderate level of ambient noise (approximately around 70 decibels) enhances performance on creative tasks and increases abstract thinking.

According to research by Spotify, upbeat music, with 50-80 beats per minute boosts arousal.

Thus, if you want to enhance your creativity and focus, listen to a song that increases your arousal and puts you in a good mood, preferably an upbeat one in moderate volume. Depending on your taste it can be a classical piece such as Beethoven’s Fur Elise or a pop song such as Mirrors by Justin Timberlake. Whether a small or big difference, listening to music does make a difference.

Can music actually impair our creativity?

On the contrary, recent research published in the Applied Cognitive Psychology journal found that listening to music can actually impair certain types of creative thinking. The international team of researchers wanted to test that claim that music enhances creativity. To do this, they asked the participants to complete creative tasks in various environments which where either quiet, or had background music with unfamiliar lyrics, instrumental music without lyrics, or music with familiar lyrics.

“We found strong evidence of impaired performance when playing background music in comparison to quiet background conditions,” Neil McLatchie, a researcher from the study claimed. Thus the findings here challenge the popular view that music boosts creativity.

Our brains are wired differently so it is possible that music could be good for some and bad for others. Whether you prefer the sweet sound of silence or classical music, why don’t you experiment to find out what works best for you? Let us know your thoughts, say hello!

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