Writers unblocked? Happy music boosts imaginative thinking, say researchers

Writers unblocked? Happy music boosts imaginative thinking, say researchers

Uplifting music can help people think more flexibly and avoid getting stuck in a creative rut, say psychologists

Ian Sample Science editor Wednesday 6 September 2017 14.00 EDT Last modified on Wednesday 6 September 2017 14.01 EDT

Jack London hunted it down with a club. Graham Greene found it on benzedrine. For Mary Godwin it struck one wet summer night after making up ghost stories with Lord Byron and her husband-to-be, Percy Shelley.

Artists have relied on muses, nature, drink and drugs to fuel their creativity, but according to new research there may be another way to boost imaginative thinking: a blast of happy music. According to psychologists, uplifting music can help people think more flexibly and avoid getting stuck in a creative rut.

Simone Ritter from Radboud University in Nijmegen and Sam Ferguson at the University of Technology in Sydney decided to test the power of music by setting 155 people in their late teens and twenties a series of puzzles to tackle in silence or while listening to classical scores ranked as either calm, happy, anxious or sad.

The psychologists scored the volunteers on two measures of creativity. The first, known as convergent thinking, calls for deep thought, accuracy and logic, and can help people reach the single best answer to a given problem. Ritter and Ferguson used a number of tests to measure convergent thinking, including what is known as the Duncker candle test, in which a person must work out how to fix a candle to a wall and light it without wax dripping onto a table below.

The second measure of creativity, known as divergent thinking, is needed to come up with original ideas: ones that connect previously disparate ideas, for example, or which use information in radical new ways. To measure divergent thinking, the participants sat a test called the Alternative Uses Task, which scores people on the uses they can find for a common object, in this case a household brick.

Music turned out to have no effect on convergent thinking. But when compared to sitting in silence, listening to happy music boosted people’s scores on divergent thinking from an average of 76 to 94. In the study, that meant more and better ideas came from people who listened to Vivaldi’s uplifting Four Seasons, than from those who heard Samuel Barber’s sad Adagio for Strings; Holst’s anxious Mars movement from The Planets; or the calm Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns.

Writing in the journal Plos One, the psychologists speculate that happy music can boost creativity by helping people to think more flexibly. “When getting stuck in a rut, it can be helpful, instead of digging deeper, to dig elsewhere,” they note. It is not only artists who could benefit from happy music, the authors add. “Music listening can be easily integrated into daily life,” they write, and may boost imaginative thinking in “scientific, educational and organisational settings when creative thinking is needed.”

And a boost is certainly needed, the authors claim. In their report, Ritter and Ferguson describe creativity as the “driving force behind scientific, technological and cultural innovation” and “one of the key competences” for the 21st century.”. “The problems we face in our complex and fast-changing world more than ever demand creative thinking. However, we are in a creativity crisis; people in general are thinking less creatively than before,” they write.

There is more research to be done. In future work, the psychologists are keen to explore how working to favourite musical pieces versus unfamiliar tunes affect people’s thinking. Other questions are whether rock, pop, dance and trance affect people’s creative powers in the same way, and whether ambient sounds, such as the tinkle of wind chimes or the grinding of machinery affect creativity as well.


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