Got Writer’s Block? Try Listening to Happy Music

A new study suggests that an upbeat tune can boost creativity

Eva-Katalin via iStock

In any given coffee shop, you can find person after person with headphones on, tapping away. While the espresso might be important to perk up their creative juices, the type of music they are listening to might also play a role. As Inga Vesper at New Scientist reports, a new study suggests that listening to “happy” background music is related to increases in creativity.

Researchers tested the imagination-boosting power of tunes by dividing 155 subjects into five groups. One group acted as a control, completing the designated tasks in silence, while the other four groups were each given a different type of music to listen to while undergoing different types of tests.

The type of background music didn’t seem to improve or worsen performance on tests of convergent thinking, which measures accuracy, logic and deep thought, reports Vesper. But when it came to divergent thought—aka creative thinking—the participants listening to happy music scored much higher (94) than those taking the tests in silence (76). In this case, the test was coming up with as many uses as possible for a regular, old brick. The research appears in the journal PLOS One.

“We also tested other musical excerpts that were sad, anxious and calm, and didn’t see this effect,” co-author Sam Ferguson of the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, tells Vesper. “It seems that the type of music present is important, rather than just any music.”

So what constitutes “happy” music? According to the study, the researchers define it as classical music with “positive valence” and “high arousal.”  For the research, happiness was represented not by Pharrel but by Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” reports Ian Sample at The Guardian. Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” represented sad music. Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War” from his work “The Planets” was the musical embodiment of anxiousness while Camille Saint-Saëns “Carnival of the Animals” represented calm.

So why does happy music have an impact while other emotional music does not? Irma Järvelä, of the University of Helsinki in Finland, not involved in the study, tells Vesper happy tunes may induce a little squirt of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that relays pleasure. “Dopamine also increases creative thinking and goal-directed working,” she explains.

Whatever the cause, the researchers believe that piping in a little upbeat music may be an inexpensive boost to creative thinking. “When getting stuck in a rut, it can be helpful, instead of digging deeper, to dig elsewhere,” they write in their paper. “Music listening can be easily integrated into daily life… [and in] scientific, educational and organizational settings when creative thinking is needed.”

But don’t invest in a new office hi-fi and the collected works of Vivaldi just yet. In the 1990s, researchers found something called the “Mozart Effect.” After listening to 10 minutes of a Mozart sonata, test subjects scored higher on a spatial reasoning test than those who did the tests after listening to a monotone voice, Alix Spiegel reported for NPR in 2010. The effect lasted about 10 minutes, but the research led to a widespread belief that listening to Mozart every day could boost IQs and that making babies listen to a little Amadeus could supercharge their brains. Based on this idea the states of Georgia and Tennessee started sending classical CDs to newborns.

Later research, however, found that it wasn’t Mozart in particular that led to the modest effect. It was the stimulation of music in general. “The key to it is that you have to enjoy the music,” Frances Rauscher, one of the original Mozart Effect researchers tells Spiegel. “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.”

That’s something the researchers of the new paper have in mind. According to Sample, they hope to follow up the study by seeing how rock, pop and trance music affect creativity and whether knowing a song by heart versus hearing new music impacts the creativity effect.

It will take a lot more research to figure out whether these other musical genres can help boost creativity. But until then, it probably won't hurt to turn on some happy tunes.

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