Can happy music make you more creative?

For years, research in neuroscience and psychology has shown the virtues of music for the brain, particularly in terms of memory, attention, and learning. A recent study, conducted jointly in the Netherlands and Australia looked into the positive effect of happy music on people's creative potential. What if listening to a piece of joyful music could help us find innovative and original solutions?

As Simone Ritter (Radboud University, the Netherlands) and Sam Ferguson (University of Sydney, Australia) point out: “Creativity can be considered one of the key competencies for the twenty-first century.” So it seems important for us to be able to study how to foster and improve it. Since the topic has been left relatively unexplored, the purpose of the research was to determine the effects of music on creative cognition. This is generally defined as the ability to generate "original” ideas and solutions. This means using both what is known as convergent and divergent thinking. The first focuses on precision and logic to achieve a conventional response, while the second requires unexpected combinations to produce multiple responses. In this study, both of these forms of creative thinking were taken into consideration.

In particular, the scientists wanted to test whether listening to specific types of music encouraged creativity. In their experiment, they selected four excerpts of classical music, one of which was classified as “calm” Carnival of the Animals: XIII The Swan, by Camille Saint Saens), one as "happy” (The 4 Seasons, Op.8 N°1, by Antonio Vivaldi), another as “sad” (Adagio for Strings, Op.11, by Samuel Barber), and finally as “anxious” (The Planets: Mars, Bringer of War, by Gustav Holst). 155 participants (average age = 22.3 years; 121 women) completed questionnaires designed to assess their mood prior to beginning the experiment. They each had to rate 22 emotions on a scale from 1 (not at all) to 5 (very much), according to how they felt since arriving at the experiment location. They were also asked to evaluate the musical excerpts mentioned earlier, and more generally, to answer questions about their relationship to music. The participants were then randomly divided into four groups (each group was assigned to one of the specific musical backgrounds) along with a control group (no music). They were informed that they were going to have to perform four different cognitive tasks (up to 3 minutes for each task) and fill out several questionnaires. The participants were asked questions such as, "what can you do with a brick?” In this case, the participant who answered, "build a house, a wall, a garage" would obtain a lower cognitive flexibility score than someone who responded, “build a house, break a window, use it as a pen holder.” This is one way of assessing creativity in terms of divergent and convergent reflective capacity.

The results of this experiment show that those participants that performed the tasks to the sound of joyful music showed more divergent creativity than those who worked in silence. However, there appeared to be no effect on convergent creativity. Despite this study’s limitations (assessing creativity is a complex undertaking), according to the authors, the results "may provide important practical implications—music listening may be useful to promote creative thinking in inexpensive and efficient ways in various scientific, educational and organizational settings.”
Source: Simone M. Ritter, Sam Ferguson, “Happy creativity: Listening to happy music facilitates divergent thinking”, in PLOS One, September 2017


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