Does Music Boost Creativity?
There is a towering pile of research about music and the brain. But how can we actually apply this to our own creative work, to make us more productive, more adventurous, more willing to stay in the chair? (I’m using the term “creative work” loosely here - in my view baking a cake or changing the way you do your eye makeup are valid creative enterprises).
I have always been crazy about music, a passion shared by my entire family. Growing up it wasn't unusual to have four radically different genres blasting from different rooms - Ravi Shankar and Miles Davis (my father), Johnny Cash and Meatloaf (my mother), Siouxsie and the Banshees (sister) and Patti Smith (me).
But it was only very recently that I realised what an important role music plays in my creative process. I was on a writing retreat, locked in a room with 12 other people with the insane goal of completing a short story by Sunday evening. Everyone was hammering away feverishly on their laptops but I couldn’t seem to get going. Something felt out of whack, but I couldn’t figure out what. Finally, it dawned on me. I’d forgotten to bring headphones, and my fellow writers didn’t look like they’d thank me if I cranked out the Sigur Ros.
It made me realise how much I rely on music - I’d never had it switched off like this before. And that got me wondering. Like most people, I’d read all about the “Mozart effect” but what if your tastes run more to P.J.Harvey and yoga chants?
Luckily, my experience on Psychologies magazine means I am adept at decoding research abstracts. In this way I was able to come up with some useful answers about how we can all use music to our creative advantage.
1. A fast-track to daydreaming
According to research by Daniel J. Levitin, director of the Laboratory for Music, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University, listening to music puts the brain in ‘mind-wandering’ mode, the state of daydreaming and loose connections that leads to greater creativity. So basically, it’s a proven short-cut to ‘getting in the zone’ and losing oneself in one’s own creative flow.
2. A way to access complex emotions
If you want to access complex emotions in your work, be it writing, painting or photography, or if you are writing a memoir, listening to sad music could enhance your work. A study by scientists at the Free University of Berlin discovered that listening to sad songs stir up a mix of complex emotions including peacefulness, tenderness, transcendence and wonder. Interestingly listeners are more likely to feel nostalgia rather than sadness.
3. You don’t have to listen to Mozart.
Psychologist Frances Rauscher originally discovered the link between Mozart and brain stimulation. However she recently told NPR that subsequent research showed that any music that you enjoy will have the same effect.
"The key to it is that you have to enjoy the music," Rauscher says. "If you hate Mozart you're not going to find a Mozart Effect. If you love Pearl Jam, you're going to find a Pearl Jam effect."
4. Avoid music with lyrics if you're working with words
This sounds like a no-brainer but there's also strong research to back this up. Instrumental music provides a greater boost to concentration than singing along with Florence and the Machine. Personally I find listening to world music or opera is just as good.
5. Make a playlist
Or failing that, tune in to my Music For Creation playlist specially curated for Psychologies readers.
Is there a piece of music, a track or album that inspires you? We'd love to hear from you.