I have always struggled to work in a conventional environment. Studying for my HSC, my exasperated parents would plead with me to study without distraction (music) and to please stop balancing my text books on my feet as I lay reading in the hammock and sit at a desk like a normal person instead.
To this day, I am happiest working while sitting on the floor (sorry HR) with music playing. It creates an environment where I feel relatively relaxed and the music provides a certain momentum and energy necessary for a rolling deadline.
Although I find certain background noise distracting (a television or people talking loudly) I can hardly think when I’m sat at a desk in silence so I was rather pleased about a new study that found music while we work can enhance creative thinking.
The research, published in the journal Plos One, explored how different types of music affect our ability to think creatively.
“Creativity can be considered one of the key competencies for the 21st century. It provides us with the capacity to deal with the opportunities and challenges that are part of our complex and fast-changing world,” said the researchers from the University of Technology, Sydney. “The question as to what facilitates creative cognition – the ability to come up with creative ideas, problem solutions and products – is as old as the human sciences, and various means to enhance creative cognition have been studied.
“Despite earlier scientific studies demonstrating a beneficial effect of music on cognition, the effect of music listening on creative cognition has remained largely unexplored.”
So, 155 participants listened to the following music, known from previous research to elicit specific emotions, and were given creative thinking tests.
Calm: Camille Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals: XIII. The Swan
Happy: Antonio Vivaldi’s The 4 Seasons, Op. 8, No. 1, RV 269, Spring–Mvt 1. Allegro
Sad: Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Op. 11
Anxious: Gustav Holst’sThe Planets: Mars, Bringer of War
“We used the pieces of music that other people have used [in previous research] so that we could compare and contrast our results against theirs,” says lead author, Sam Ferguson, a senior lecturer and co-director of the UTS’ Creativity and Cognition Studios.
“We looked at a number of different measures of creativity. The main test we used was the ‘alternative uses’ test which is where we asked people to come up with as many possible uses for a brick as they could think of – it’s a pretty classic test of creative functioning.”
Obvious answers for using a brick include building a house or a wall.
“They’re pretty obvious uses but you can also use a brick to smash a vase or you can use it as a pen holder for pens on your desk because it has the nice little holes – there are lots of different uses for a brick,” Ferguson explains. “We then scored each of those ideas on a few different types of measure and then compared the results people got when they were listening to happy music, sad music, calm music, angry music and nothing – silence. When we compared results for silence and happy, we got a significant increase for the happy music.”
On the other hand there was no change when people listened to other types of music.
“There are possibly quite a lot of explanations. our study didn’t really hone in on the mechanism directly, but essentially we’re looking at flexibility of thinking and we think it has something to do with that,” Ferguson says.
“We tested convergent thinking – where you are required to come up with the correct solution – and didn’t see anything there. It was just divergent thinking – where you have to come up with lots of ideas quickly.”
Does it have to be classical or, is my dad right, it becomes a distraction?
“There is quite a lot of research that says familiar music and music you have a preference for works better as far as arousing emotion and should probably work well for this study as well – one future direction is to get people to bring in the music they like along,” Ferguson says. “But that is obviously a lot more complicated when you’re running a study – it’s nice to have everything clean and neat.”
He adds that the findings are not relevant only to those in creative industries.
“I would expect it’s applicable to lots of people because creativity happens all over the place – one of the most creative things I can do is look at what’s in the fridge and try and work out how to make something really tasty – it’s quite complicated,” he says. “Everybody is doing creative things all the time, it’s certainly not only the creative industries where people do that. Just about everybody has jobs where they need to come up with solutions that fulfil a specific set of requirements and there are multiple ways of doing that.”
And a little of the right ambience can help us all to do better at that.
“Understanding how music can be used in the workplace is something that hasn’t been looked into in a great deal of detail. We tend to think of the layout of the office as something that’s important, but music and background noise are still relatively unexplored,” Ferguson says.
“There are a lot of cases of people working quite industriously with headphones on, listening to a particular type of music that they know gets them going – I’m sure there are things to find out about that … but [this research gives] a greater deal of understanding about how we can use music in our daily lives and basically regulate the way we work so that we can get better outcomes more often.”