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Blog // Creativity
April 27, 2019

Can The Music You Listen To Make You More Creative?

Does the music we listen to affect how creative we are? Can you shape your creativity by changing the music you play?

Every morning, around 8am, I sit down to write. But not before putting on some music. It’s almost always upbeat jazz. Recently it’s been Washington Suite by the Lloyd McNeil Quartet, Gail by Michael Sardarby, or Jimmy Smith At The Organ. And when I say recently, I mean every morning for the past three years. If I have to do deep creative work at other times of the day I turn to a playlist of instrumental world music, which has changed now and then, but really not very often.

I’m not alone in this. Stephen King wrote about listening to a small selection of albums while he works. For him it was loud, aggressive rock.

It’s well documented in fact, the way music seems to set the imagination going.

Does music fuel your creativity as you work, and if so, how? Should you be thinking about music as something more than just “a thing to put on in the background?”

One study looked at the effect of music listening on two kinds of creative thinking; divergent creativity, which is involved in coming up with new ideas, and convergent creativity, which is involved in problem solving.

Participants were given tasks while listening to four different kinds of classical music as well as doing the tasks in silence. Listening had no effect on the problem-solving. But music not only aided divergent thinking; those listening to positive or happy music seemed to be the most effective. One reason may be that pleasing music releases dopamine, which helps creative thinking.

Another study asked participants to come up with creative names for kinds of rice, while either listening to “happy music” or to someone reading the Japanese Constitution.

Perhaps not surprisingly, those listening to the jazzed-up version of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 were more creative!

It’s well established that a positive mood can help you be more creative (see here and here).

The academics in the rice-naming study suggested it could be the positive mood from the music encouraged switching from convergent to divergent thinking. So perhaps when you listen to feel-good music your mind kind of wanders a little, helping you come up with fresh ideas in much the way your mind can do when you go for a long walk.

Sometimes the role music plays in inspiring creativity is called the Mozart Effect, after a study in which participants who listened to Mozart’s Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos did better on an IQ test than participants who listened to nothing or a relaxation recording. But the findings of this study have been disputed and it seems that neither Mozart nor classical music have any magic to them.

You have to like the music in order to derive any benefits, and various genres can yield similar results.

Even appreciating the tone and timbre of music can help your creativity. Which perhaps helps explain Einstein famously saying his theorising was helped by his taking time to play the violin.

So, what sort of music should you listen to? It depends on your taste. This article goes into some depth with recommendations for writers, although a lot of the differences between one recitation and another merely reflect taste and genre-preference. So when we say positive, upbeat music, it might be jazz, or rock, or folk, or country, or electronic music. Many prefer instrumental music but that’s not a universal choice.

But, as this study suggests, if the music feels like something you need to tune out in order to concentrate, or it just feels like background noise, then you might be better off not listening to anything at all.

There is another possibility. Maybe you could listen to non-music, to background noise. It seems a little noise can help us to focus our minds, even if it isn’t musical (which is why some people find working in cafes, with the background hum of customers and coffee makers, to be creatively inspiring).

You can take control of your creative mindset with the music you listen to! Put on something you like, that gives you positive or happy vibes, something reasonably upbeat, not too fast, not too slow, perhaps without lyrics, and trust your mind to respond, to prompt you and start coming up with fresh ideas.

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