Need inspiration? Happy background music can help get the creative juices flowing.
Simone Ritter, at Radboud University in the Netherlands, and Sam Ferguson, at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, have been studying the effect of silence and different types of music on how we think.
“People in lots of contexts use music to help them work,” says Ferguson. A better understanding of how different types of music affect creativity is likely to be useful for many people, he says.
They put 155 volunteers into five groups. Four of these were each given a type of music to listen to while undergoing a series of tests, while the fifth group did the tests in silence.
The tests were designed to gauge two types of thinking: divergent thinking, which describes the process of generating new ideas, and convergent thinking, which is how we find the best solutions for a problem.
Ritter and Ferguson found that people were more creative when listening to music they thought was positive, coming up with more unique ideas than the people who worked in silence.
“We also tested other musical excerpts that were sad, anxious and calm, and didn’t see this effect,” says Ferguson. “It seems that the type of music present is important, rather than just any music.”
However, happy music – in this instance, Antonio Vivaldi’s Spring – only boosted divergent thinking. No type of music helped convergent thinking, suggesting that it’s better to solve problems in silence.
Dose of dopamine?
Ritter and Ferguson write that their findings could be used to enhance creative thinking in places like educational institutions or laboratories. They think that happy music may work because it is more stimulating, so boosts divergent thinking by arousing the brain.
But Irma Järvelä, at the University of Helsinki in Finland, says happy music may boost creativity by triggering the release of dopamine, a brain chemical involved in pleasure and satisfaction. “Dopamine also increases creative thinking and goal-directed working,” says Järvelä.
The researchers think happy music may not have helped convergent thinking because this kind of thinking relies more on logic and less on arousal. But the experiment was organised so that everyone did the divergent tests before the convergent tests, meaning it could simply be that Vivaldi’s piece has less of an effect the second time you hear it.