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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How to Easily Write Your Way to Blissful Relaxation

A pair of feet in relaxation mode at the end of hammock surrounded by trees.

Do you worry that the Coronavirus pandemic has made relaxation a thing of the past?

Is this worry creating additional stress in your already hectic life? And does that stress feel overwhelming some days?

You’re not alone.

The Household Pulse Survey, conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) and the Census Bureau, confirmed that the rates of anxiety and depression are on the rise across most demographics.

It’s no wonder.

Human life has been altered in ways not experienced since the pandemic of 1918. Negative changes to how we live, work, and play have caused increased tension for people worldwide. Many businesses and jobs have been lost. For those lucky enough to still be employed, working from home poses specific challenges. Essential workers are exposed to the virus everyday. Parents have assumed the roles of teacher as schools shut down. Senior citizens face ongoing isolation from family members who are fearful of infecting them.

So, is it even possible to observe this year’s National Relaxation Day?

While we can’t magically make Covid-19 disappear, it’s more important than ever to find ways to unplug from the constant worry. And there are things we can do to ease the apprehension it’s causing in our lives.

Relaxation simply means obtaining a state of calm in one’s mind, body, or both. Because the brain is home to our emotions, the mind and body have a strong connection. The various methods to relax one or the other often work for both.

Clear glass teacup filled with and surrounded by colorful herbs for relaxation purposes.

Relaxation Techniques for the Body

  • Yoga – Involves movement, breathing exercises, and a focus on thoughts and feelings as they happen (mindfulness).
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation – The process of tensing a group of muscles as you inhale and relaxing them as you exhale.
  • Physical Activity – Walking, bicycling, or anything that requires physical movement, which get the endorphins or “feel good” hormones flowing.
  • Massage/Back Rub – Stress causes cortisol to be released into the bloodstream, which then cause muscles to become rigid. Massaging the muscles can help to release the tension.
  • Warm Beverage – such as herbal tea or warm milk. (No alcohol or caffeine!)

Relaxation Techniques for the Mind

  • Mindful Meditation – Studies show that regular meditation can alter the brain’s neural pathways making us more resilient to stress.
  • Breathing Exercises – Slows the heart rate and lowers blood pressure.
  • Guided Imagery – Imagining a calm, peaceful setting helps us relax and relieves nervousness.
  • Warm Bath, Soothing Music, Being in Nature – Activities that impact our senses can create calm. Even just looking at images of nature can help.
  • Writing/Journaling – Getting our thoughts and concerns on paper are helpful.

There are significant benefits to relaxation. A calm mind leads to clear thinking, which results in improved decision-making. We’re better able to resist stressors, which makes for a more positive outlook overall. Achieving a tranquil mindset also reduces the risk of illness and disease.

Too much anxiety causes both physical and mental problems. Poor sleep, headaches, and the exacerbation of any current health issues can result. Forgetfulness, appetite swings, and depression often create irritability, among other things, and a reliance on drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms.

Writing/Journaling for Relaxation

The advantages of writing for relaxation are well-established. It encourages problem-solving by putting the issues down on paper. It promotes mindful integration of events by engaging both hemispheres of the brain through exploring and releasing emotions. The writer also gains self-knowledge by clarifying thoughts and feelings.

However, it doesn’t work for everyone. Folks with disabilities, or people reluctant to relive difficult memories may not benefit. Perfectionists can get hung up on the format, structure, frequency, or even the type of journal to use – paper or computer?

Regardless of who is journaling, it’s important to build in potential solutions, the things that you appreciate, and what gives you hope.

I remember receiving a diary as a youngster in elementary school. While I didn’t write consistently, there were periods of regular, rather feverish scribbling. Those usually centered around special events or milestones. Holidays, birthdays, a first crush, and a broken heart were chronicled throughout the pages.

Person doing expressive writing for relaxation.

It got me to thinking about why we record our life experiences and how it benefits us. When nothing much was happening I only wrote periodically, musing about mundane things like what I had for dinner and who got the lead role in the school play. But, when important stuff occurred I filled up the allotted space, spilling over into the next day.

I realized that to successfully deal with overwhelming emotions, both good and bad, we must adequately express ourselves. This is why clear communication is so vital to relationships, including the one we have with ourselves.

Being able to share feelings is also crucial. When we’re happy we want our world to celebrate with us. When we’re crushed we need our world’s support.

Expressive Writing for Relaxation

Specifically helpful for stress and traumatic life events is something called expressive writing.

Dr. James W. Pennebaker of the University of Texas conducted a majority of the research on the benefits of this type of writing. His studies showed that the impact of expressive writing on physical conditions such as cancer, HIV, and migraines was positive. The same thing is true of one’s emotional condition. Over time it helped with relaxation of the patient and outcomes were more favorable.

It takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a habit to form. This is why daily writing is encouraged. The goal is to make it a regular part of your day, but the writer chooses when and where.

Another important aspect is to “free write.” The object is to get as many thoughts, ideas, and feelings on paper as quickly as possible. All inhibitions must be released and no attention should be paid to grammar, spelling, or punctuation. It’s totally confidential and won’t be graded.

Four Elements of Expressive Writing

  1. Expressive writing prompts you to think about your experiences and express buried emotions. This is significant because writing helps to organize thoughts and assign meaning to emotions, a critical first step to acknowledging any pain or unhappiness.
  2. By fostering the intellectual process regarding a situation, you’re better able to regulate emotions (thinking with your head versus thinking with your heart.) Expressive writing helps to accomplish this and can also stop any brooding or ruminating that you may be doing.
  3. Writing confidentially reassures the sense of safety, while clarifying your thoughts. It assigns well-deserved value to the experience and can inspire you to reach out for social support, which is often needed.
  4. Timing is important. Writing too soon after a traumatic event can make matters worse. Therefore, Dr. Pennebaker recommends waiting 1 – 2 months.

Writing is therapeutic when you need to vent or unload negative emotions; think about the posts you often see on social media!

It’s a helpful first step before we sharing private affairs, but we’re wise to remain anonymous until then. We need time to process our sentiments in a rational way.

We’re social creatures that reside within a community and our need for a supportive network is strong. Whether we’re celebrating or mourning a loss, it’s gratifying to have someone to share a toast with, or lend a shoulder to cry on.

So, if relaxation is eluding you these days give writing a try. You’ll likely become better acquainted with yourself and achieve a sense of peace amidst the ongoing chaos.

“Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are. The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences. In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.”

Meg Rosoff



#WeekendCoffeeShare: Dealing with Struggle

Happy Saturday!

If we were having coffee I’d tell you that a fellow blogger inspired me to find my #WeekendCoffeeShare image and create a post about some personal struggles.

We all have them and it’s helpful to talk with a trusted friend. Or, for our purposes here, to write it out (WIO), which is kind’ve the same thing!

Struggles come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They impact our lives in assorted ways. Sometimes it’s a small annoyance, but other times it can be life-altering.

Fortunately, my life is calm right now. My struggles are minor. But, it wasn’t always that way.

I spent two decades in a toxic marriage. My spouse was a verbally and emotionally abusive alcoholic. Addiction is progressive and grows worse over time. Life became a daily struggle to survive. I eventually found the courage to divorce him and move on.

It took an additional eight years to develop true self-esteem and confidence.

During that time I went back to school and earned the degree I’d always wanted. I left a dead end job and spread my wings in other areas, as well.

Eventually, the realization dawned on me: the only chains we wear in life are those we self-impose or allow others to place on us.

It was a hard lesson that required a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. But, the freedom and sense of self that I gained in the process were well worth the fight.

My struggles today are more benign. I want to tackle some projects that I’ve been putting off. It’s time to commit to eating healthy and exercising more regularly. Writing must be a priority again. All the usual stuff going into the new year.

However, in creating my To-Do list for 2020 I’m going to remind myself of all that I achieved in the past year: I reestablished a connection with an old friend, strengthened the bonds with those closest to me, took my first trip to Europe, and finished renovations in two bedrooms. I also welcomed my first grandchild!

As we attempt to work through our struggles, it’s important to celebrate our accomplishments. We must raise our level of self-awareness and live more intentionally. Reminding ourselves of our inherent value should be a daily meditation.

Looking ahead is important, but so is looking back. As human beings, our histories contain both failures and victories. Having the courage to acknowledge weakness is crucial for growth. And learning the lessons offered by of those experiences are solid building blocks for a brighter future!