I love music. All kinds of music. I have to agree with Plato, who said,
Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.
Sometimes I want to listen to music when working on a project that requires creativity. Other times I want quiet. Anyway, this got me thinking about whether music really does boost creativity. Clearly, some people believe it does. In my research for this post, I found a Pandora user with a stream that purports to stimulate his creativity.
Additionally, I asked my Twitter followers about listening to music when working on projects that require creativity.
Beyond the anecdotal tales of Twitter followers, there is some evidence that listening to music can improve your performance on cognitive tests. A few years back, there was a study suggesting that listening to Mozart could improve your creativity. The media narrative became “if you listen to Mozart 20 minutes a day, it could raise your IQ.” As usual, the media narrative was skewed, but that’s another post.
According to the Huffington Post,
Unfortunately, the theory has been debunked. It’s not Mozart that makes you more apt to solve visual problems — any music you like can have this effect. The experiment has since been replicated using a wide range of different recordings. Each time, those who preferred a type of music — whether it’s classical, pop or jazz — performed better on cognitive tests after hearing that type. The tempo of a given song, as well as its major or minor tonality, also had an effect on how happy and alert listeners felt (what researchers call “arousal”), which in turn influenced their performance.
Huffington goes on to say,
If music is a universal language, then we’re born fluent speakers. When we hear a song, our brain springs into action, as the music fires up our emotional, memory and motor centers. It’s no wonder music has been linked to creative individuals since (practically) the beginning of time.
Daniel J. Levitin explained that the field of neuroscience has identified two primary modes of brain operation: Either you’re paying attention to something very closely and you’re deeply engaged in a task, or you’re in “mind-wandering mode,” which involves daydreaming and flitting from thought to thought. As Levitin put it, “It’s a flood of different thoughts that feel unconnected and loose.”
It’s in this mode where almost all of our creativity happens, and where we’re able to come up with innovative solutions to problems.
For your thinking pleasure, here’s a little Mozart.
Some other research indicates that any ambient noise can make you more creative. An article in The American Genius tells us,
A Journal of Consumer Research (JCR) study found that ambient noise actually benefits and improves creative cognition. This means that it can be easier for you to focus and increase your productivity when you have that noise in the background, but not just any noise. The average, busy coffee househas a noise level of about seventy decibels, which happens to be the perfect noise level for reaching optimum levels of creativity and professional production.
Ambient noises get our creative juices flowing because moderate noise leves imcrease processing difficulty, promoting abstract processing, leading to higher creativity (and more creative problem solving, of course). When noise levels increase, creative thinking is reduced, and the brain cannot process information as efficiently.
A 2009 Lifehacker article asked the question: Does music really make you more productive?
The answer falls somewhere between “Listening to Mozart makes you a genius” and “Just be quiet and work.”
The most often cited study into the question of music’s effect on the mind involves the so-calledMozart effect, which suggests that listening to certain kinds of music—Amadeus Wolfgang’s classical works, in particular—impacts and boosts one’sspatial-temporal reasoning, or the ability to think out long-term, more abstract solutions to logical problems that arise. The Mozart effect has been overblown and over-promised, and even outright refuted as having “bupkiss” effect, but that doesn’t mean a great mind-juicing playlist can’t be created.
The Workplace Doctors site details both sides of the question. In one study, University of Illinois researchers found that listening to music in “all types of work” increased work output 6.3% over a control group. In another study (dissected at MetaFilter), 56 employees working on basic computer tasks were found to be more productive when there was no music playing over the same period tested with music.
So the real answer turns out to be, unfortunately, “it depends.” It depends on whether your office or workspace is noisy enough that a good kind of noise or music is preferable to the natural cacophony.
In the end, listening to music to improve creativity or productivity is a personal choice. So, listen to Slayer, Grace Potter or nothing at all, if that works for you. But right now, I am cranking some Led Zeppelin.