Researchers find that listening to happy music may enhance our ability to be creative. Boardrooms, lecture halls, and laboratories might soon be blaring out Vivaldi.

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Could happy music enhance creativity?

The importance of creativity needs no introduction; without it, science, technology, the arts, business, and education would all grind to a halt.

In a world of ever-increasing complexity, approaching problems with insight and innovation is vital. But some researchers believe that, as a society, we are becoming less creative as the decades pass.

If this is the case, it could be a serious stumbling block for future generations facing the wealth of challenges involved in a postmodern society.

Recently, two teams of researchers – one from Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and another from the University of Technology Sydney in Australia – joined forces to investigate a simple way of influencing creativity: listening to music.

Their intriguing results are published this week in the journal PLOS ONE.

Over the years, a number of studies have looked at whether listening to music enhances cognitive performance, and the so-called Mozart effect is still debated. However, studies looking at whether or not music can influence creativity are few and far between. The authors of this most recent study explain their focus.

The current project aims to shed light on the potential association of music listening for optimizing creative cognition. This project is unique as, to the best of our knowledge, it is the first to experimentally test whether listening to specific types of music […] facilitates creative cognition.”

The researchers, led by Simone Ritter in the Netherlands and Sam Ferguson in Australia, recruited 155 participants.

Firstly, they filled out a questionnaire to assess their current mood. Next, they were split into five experimental groups, four of which would be presented with different pieces of music while the fifth (the controls) was presented with silence. The pieces of music were classified by mood and arousal state:

  • Calm (low arousal): Carnival of the Animals: XIII. The Swan by Camille Saint-Saëns
  • Happy (high arousal): The 4 Seasons, Opus 8, Number 1, RV 269, Spring – Movement 1. Allegro by Antonio Vivaldi
  • Sad (low arousal): Adagio for Strings, Opus 11 by Samuel Barber
  • Anxious (high arousal): The Planets: Mars, Bringer of War by Gustav Holst

Once the music had begun, the participants were asked to complete a range of cognitive tasks testing levels of divergent and convergent creative thinking.

The authors explain divergent thinking as “producing multiple answers from available information by making unexpected combinations, recognizing links among remote associates, or transforming information into unexpected forms.” In other words, a relatively creative process.

Convergent thinking is more logical and produces the best single answer to a given problem, meaning that it is considered to be a less creative process, in general.

Individuals who came up with the most innovative and useful solutions to the tasks were rated higher in divergent creativity, while those who came up with the best possible solution got marks for convergent creativity.

The team found that listening to happy music, compared with silence, increased divergent creativity but not convergent creativity.

The authors explain that one model of creativity describes it as a marriage of persistence and flexibility, and that listening to happy music may boost one of these two parameters. Because convergent creativity was not improved, it may be that happy music enhances mental flexibility, and, therefore, creativity.

The study opens up a vat of new questions to be answered, and there are a range of variables that could be tinkered with, such as the influence of cultural background, age, and musical experience.

Also, volume levels and musical genres could play important roles. Because music is such a simple and cheap intervention, these findings could have sizable ramifications in education, science, and business alike.

The results will need to be replicated in larger trials, but it is somewhat pleasing to consider that someone’s creative musical outpouring may enhance another individual’s ability to be creative.

One cannot help but wonder whether the presence of music in virtually every culture on earth has helped humanity to overcome the many problems and puzzles that it has faced over millennia.