Scientists Find 'Happy' Jam That Boosts Creativity in Experiments

You've definitely heard this one before.

Chances are, if you work in an office you don’t have Spotify on full blast. Same goes if you’re a student cramming in a quiet library. Many studies have shown that silence is golden if your goal is to be productive, but the same might not hold true if you’re trying to boost your creativity, scientists report in a PLoS One study on Wednesday. Listening to music has a profound impact on opening up the creative mind, they argue — but only if it’s the right kind.

The study, authored by Radboud University’s Simone Ritter, Ph.D., and the University of Technology Sydney’s Sam Ferguson, Ph.D., built on earlier research showing that listening to music can boost cognition by investigating whether doing so could boost creative cognition. It may seem obvious to some that music could jump-start the less analytical sides of our brain, but scientists had never tested the hypothesis.

In their investigation, Ritter, an expert in creativity research, and Ferguson, a musician and programmer who studies the effect of music on humans, found that music did make a difference in creativity, but only when it was music you could classify as “happy.”

In particular, they used the classic Vivaldi jam below.

This and the other songs that Ritter and Ferguson had their 155 participants listen to in silence had been linked, in previous experiments, to the promotion of certain moods: happy, calm, sad, and anxious. They were also sorted by “emotional valence” — either positive or negative. To test how the volunteers’ creativity changed as a result of the listening experience, the researchers had them take a series of commonly used creativity tests after listening to the songs.

These well-known classical pieces were linked to certain emotions in previous studies. 

Ritter and Ferguson/PLoS One

They found that music has an effect on “divergent creativity,” the type of creativity that leads to a person coming up with new ideas and new perspectives, like coming up with different uses for a random object. (The other type is “convergent” creativity, where the goal is to find the single correct solution to a problem; music had no effect on this.)

Overall, Ritter and Ferguson found that listening to Vivaldi’s happy “Spring” movement of his Four Seasons concerti quartet (high arousal, positive valence) was linked to much better scores in the divergent creativity test compared to sitting in silence. The other songs — Samuel Barber’s sad “Adagio for Strings,” Gustav Holst’s anxiety-inducing “Mars, the Bringer of War,” and Camille Saint-Saëns’ calm “The Swan” — in contrast, weren’t linked to any particular effect.

It isn’t clear yet what exactly happy music does to the brain, but the researchers suggest that it might enhance cognitive flexibility, which in turn helps listeners consider options that they wouldn’t otherwise consider while listening in silence. When you’re stuck on a problem, they write, you can find a solution by either persevering with your approach — or changing your approach altogether.

“However, when getting stuck in a rut, it can be helpful to, instead of digging deeper, dig elsewhere,” they write, noting that convergent creativity doesn’t really require flexibility, so it makes sense that it wasn’t affected by music.

Happy music — however we categorize it — it seems, can help us do that, and the researchers suggest that offices and educational institutions take note, writing that putting on a bit of cheerful music is an “inexpensive and efficient” way to promote creative thinking in scientific, educational, and organizational settings where simply being productive just won’t cut it.

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