Does Music Make You More Creative?

Antique radio on chair in a field to represent music.When one of your favorite tunes comes on the radio, how does it make you feel?

The fact that it’s a favorite often means there’s a connection to a specific memory.

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” is reminiscent of my high school years and coming-of-age. As seniors, we chose it for our class song. It was the one we marched to, diplomas in hand, out of the auditorium and into the rest of our lives.

Memories, composed of significant people, places, and events, have the power to transform the moment. Regardless of my current mood, “Free Bird” immediately takes me back to a time filled with adolescent fun and youthful optimism. When I hear it four decades later, I welcome that familiar twinge of nostalgia and the smile it brings to my face.

On the other hand, Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” awakens a sense of poignancy and grief. It was my Dad’s signature song and served as background music for the video that played during calling hours at his funeral.

Lyrics tell all types of stories, both positive and negative. Often times we can relate, because those tales are familiar and align with our own experiences.

However, there are many more songs, unconnected to memories, that also have the ability to impact our emotions. Upbeat numbers with a fast tempo that get the toes tapping and the melancholy ballads that slow us down and quiet our thoughts.

Music certainly affects our frame of mind, but can it aid our creativity?

The components of creativity are:

  • Finding hidden patterns
  • The ability to perceive the world in original ways
  • Making connections where there don’t appear to be any
  • Developing solutions

Down through history it was thought that only Renaissance geniuses and the divine inspiration of the Middle Ages could produce real creative thought. However, modern research has shown that creative thinking, or creative cognition, is part of normal cognitive functioning.

Simply put, it’s the ability to think in original ways and solve problems.

To better understand how music impacts the brain, it’s important to know the difference between convergent and divergent thinking.

Infographic showing the difference between convergent & divergent thinking.Convergent Thinking

Convergent thinkers use established facts to figure out the single best, or most correct answer. This reasoning stays within the confines of known information and established rules, and “narrows down” to a final solution based on logical interpretations. Typically, answers are either right or wrong.

Subjects like math, science, and standardized testing are examples where convergent thinking come into play.

Divergent Thinking

Divergent thinkers look outside the box of traditional thought, which stimulates their minds even further. Their reasoning expands outward, generating multiple ideas since there is no one “right answer.”

Some examples of this type of thinking are:

  • Artwork
  • Free writing
  • Bubble mapping
  • Subject mapping
  • Brainstorming

Some research demonstrates that music improves cognition and enhances learning. But, one newer study measured divergent and convergent thinking specifically. They found participants scored higher in divergent thinking when exposed to happy music. Silence and other types of melodies produced no change with convergent thinking. A personal preference in style of music also registered no effect.

Happiness is a positive emotion that encourages an open mind and the desire to explore. The authors feel this increases mental flexibility, which enables respondents to consider a wider range of creative options.

Sculpture bust of Mozart to illustrate Mozart effect.Mozart Effect

In 1993 psychologist Frances Rauscher conducted an experiment with 36 college students. This test was designed to measure the effect of music on spatial reasoning. Each group listened to 10 minutes of three different sounds:  a Mozart Piano Sonata, a monotone speaking voice, and silence. The group who heard Mozart scored higher than the other two.

The results got a lot of unexpected attention from the press. The “Mozart Effect” was spontaneously born and spawned many distorted proclamations about its ability to increase creativity and intellect.

Rauscher emphasized that her experiment measured only one aspect of cognition and not general intelligence. She also pointed out the increase was short-lived, lasting only 10 – 15 minutes.

A newer 2019 study in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology found that music can  actually hamper creativity in some instances. Participants had to complete word puzzles while listening to various types of music or quiet conditions. Those who worked in silence scored better than the rest.

Other investigations find that ambient noise is a greater alternative to music or a quiet atmosphere. Nature sounds (birds, crickets, and ocean waves) or coffee shop sounds (distant conversations, dishes rattling) are good choices for those who don’t like complete silence.

Further research suggests that the type of creative task can be enhanced with certain kinds of music, and this has been my experience.

For expository writing I require silence or soft instrumentals in the background. Lyrics are a distraction when I’m gathering facts, examples, and explanations.

Other types of writing, such as narrative and description, are complemented by certain songs. If I’m writing about my Dad, I’ll play music by the Rat Pack. When writing about a high school  experience, I’ll turn on Southern rock. Oftentimes, associations between the subject and genre, buried in long-term memory, give rise to details that would otherwise stay hidden.  Mood also has much to do with whether music will help or hinder the writing process.

Experimentation is the best way to decide what works for you:

  • Try different types of music.
  • Pay attention to how you’re feeling physically & emotionally.
  • Make note of how those moods respond to different genres or alternate methods.
  • Try different locations for your writing session & the natural ambient sounds they provide.
  • Adjust the volume, as needed.
  • Alternate when you listen: before or during the writing process.

The key to any creative pursuit is to think outside the box. Flexibility is important, because what’s working today may not work well tomorrow. Be ready to change things up if necessary.

Whether it’s a Mozart Sonata, crickets chirping, or the dryer balls reverberating from the laundry room, be aware of what gets the creative juices flowing. And then go with it!


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