Listening to happy music while working may spark the kind of divergent thinking that’s associated with creativity and problem solving, a recent study in the Netherlands suggests.
In particular, classical music that ranks highly for positive and energetic qualities, such as pieces composed by Antonio Vivaldi, were most likely to encourage creative thinking, researchers found.
“Creativity is one of the core skills needed for dealing with a world that is changing faster than ever before,” said study coauthor Sam Ferguson of the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia.
“Knowledge about ways to facilitate this important skill is becoming more critical,” he told Reuters Health by email.
Ferguson and Simone Ritter of Radboud University Nijmegen played classical music for 155 Radboud student volunteers as they completed a creativity task. The researchers split the students into five groups, with each group randomly assigned to listen to one of four pieces of music or to silence before and during their creativity tasks.
The music pieces were chosen for their mood and arousal levels. The Swan by Camille Saint-Saens represented a positive mood but low arousal level, thus a calm piece of music. Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons was the happy piece, Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber was the sad, slow piece and The Planets: Mars, Bringer of War by Gustav Holst was used as a negative, arousing - in other words, anxious - piece.
To test creativity, the research team focused mainly on divergent thinking, which involves producing multiple answers from available information by making unexpected combinations, recognizing associations among ideas and transforming information into unexpected forms. Divergent thinking is key to today’s scientific, technological and cultural fields because innovation often pairs disparate ideas, the authors write in PLoS ONE.
“One thing to point out is that divergent thinking is not equivalent to creative thinking, but it’s a proxy measure often used in research,” said Rex Jung of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, who wasn’t involved with the study.
Ferguson and Ritter asked participants to list as many different and creative uses for a common object as possible, in this case, a brick. They also tested convergent thinking, which measures whether someone can come up with the best, well-established or correct answer to a problem when the answer already exists.
Answers were then scored by the number, quality, creativity, originality and usefulness of the ideas. The students were also asked about their moods before the test began, as well as how much they liked the music.
The research team found that the students’ moods before the test didn’t seem to make a difference in their creativity in the task. It also didn’t matter how much they liked the music or how familiar they were with the music.
Overall, the type of music did not make a significant difference in performance on the creativity test, compared to silence, with the exception of happy music. Happy music also appeared to make the most difference in divergent thinking but not in convergent thinking.
“Music is such an important part of everyday life, and it could be a potential avenue for fostering creativity in education and the workplace,” Jung told Reuters Health in a phone interview. “Even if people don’t play it themselves, they can appreciate it.”
The small number of participants and the fact that most were women are limitations of the study, Jung added. Factors such as gender, age, education level and socioeconomic status could influence how music affects creative thinking.
Future studies should further investigate how familiarity with and enjoyment of music affects creativity as well, the study authors write.
Inherent skill and aptitude are also important to study in relation to creativity, Jung noted. He and others are researching how visual, spatial and musical abilities intersect with creativity.
“If you have perfect pitch or tonal rhythm, are you more likely to be creative and more likely to pursue a creative field?” he asked. “And which abilities are most important to STEM careers in science, technology, engineering and math?”
Jung tells his patients that listening to music for creativity is similar to taking medication for depression. ”Medication can set the tone in your brain to do the hard work you have to do when talking to your therapist. Similarly, putting on music won’t make you more creative, but it can set the stage to help you.”