Music and Creativity : Sad or Happy Music For The Creative Brain?

Dr Don Davis Articles, Dr Don's Dartboard, Stress and Anxiety, Uncategorized 0 Comments

Music and Creativity are closely connected: everyone loves music, and many of us listen to music when creatively working. “Working” in this sense can mean solving problems, looking for creative solutions, or going into the “zone” for inspiration.  But what kind of music should we use to do that?  Well… that depends.

First of all, we should be clear that creativity is an attribute that is in all of us, not only those with genius but a product of a normal, healthy brain.  And obviously, it will be a required skill for our next decade and century. Unfortunately, it appears that people are thinking less creatively than in the past (Ref).

Neuroscientists have been looking for a way to explain the creative process by outlining certain brain circuits that they think are involved, and imaging research has shown a slow march toward at least some understanding of artistic pursuits.   But recent studies have shown that this is too simple an approach to explain matters of creativity like novel business solutions, scientific discovery and jazz improvisation.

At ClearMind,  we are particularly interested in ways to facilitate both cognition and creativity, and one of the easiest and cheapest approaches is music and creativity.

Music and Creativity: Sad or Happy Music?

In a new study (Ref), Simon Ritter tested four types of music (happy, sad, calm, anxious) along with silence to see the degree to which the creative process was changed and which music was the most effective.  They divided creativity into divergent or “open-ended” solutions, what most people would associate with creativity, and convergent thinking, like coming up with the best correct answer to a problem.   It turns out that happy music helps facilitate divergent creativity but not convergent (best solution) thinking.   Creativity, according to the authors is a function of persistence and flexibility, essentially “dig deeper” or “dig elsewhere”.  Happy music helps with both of these.

In a previous study (Ref), Jazz musicians looking at positive images were able to more easily improvise during fMRI scans.  The scans showed that a particular area of the brain was deactivated (the DLPFC).  This area is associated with the self, so the theory goes, that music improvisation (music and creativity) uses non-self areas of the brain that are less goal-oriented, with less evaluation, less concerned with social structure or accepted rules. This certainly fits the circumstance of improvisation.  Essentially, you get into the “zone”.

The Correlation Between Sad Music and Creativity

music and creativity

Even more interesting is that the brain’s reward regions called mesolimbic pathways, were excited when musicians improvised sad music after seeing a heartfelt negative image.  These particular pathways identify and remember pleasurable activities, and in this case, would cause a drive to play more sad music.  But it also will activate the prefrontal cortex bringing you out of the “zone” to focus attention or solve a problem.  This is at least one reason why sad music is different from happy music and why our creative process is affected in a variety of ways, and why either sad or happy music can be pleasurable.  It’s just for entirely different reasons.

So first, the artist, or creative CEO, must be able to voluntarily shut off the DLPFC, much like an experienced meditator can shut off the “default mode network” responsible for “mind wandering” and negative self-talk.

It’s no wonder that so many experienced creative people talk about “letting go” or forgetting the rules when describing their technique to functioning at the highest level.

Now I’d like to know if you have tried music to increase creativity, and what seems to work best for you.

You can also try the experiment for yourself. Here is one of the pieces they used in the research, it’s Glinka’s “La Séparation” in F minor. How does it make you feel?


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