As someone who works with and in music every day, I’m often asked: can music affect creativity? Does listening to music make us more creative? Is the Mozart effect for real? Or can music detract from our creative output? You can read my thoughts on these many questions below but here’s the funny thing: many of my friends and colleagues are surprised to learn that my favorite music in the world is actually silence. No, I didn’t say my favorite sound is silence. I said my favorite music is silence. Why?
Because silence is never really entirely… well, silent.
There are sounds of nature and machinery, neighbors and dogs, and if none of that is around, at the very least I can hear the sound of my own fingers tapping away. All these are not just sounds but the music of being alive and present in the world.
When asked whether music and art support heightened creativity, I would argue that no matter what “the studies” show, this is still a hugely personal preference and that the results would differ monumentally based on several factors: the industry in which you work, the environment in which you work, your mood, the task at hand, your upbringing, the schedule of the rest of your day… I could go on and on. And even if “the studies” show that listening to upbeat music increases our tendency towards creativity and lifts our mood, that doesn’t mean that it is for everyone or that someone who previously worked without music should immediately go and sign up for Spotify premium because it is going to radically change their work and creative life. It might… but it’s not guaranteed.
Playing music at work is a hugely personal decision and, I would argue, changes from day to day and task to task.
I can tell you that writing this post requires the music of silence to be around me. I find the rapid fire tapping of my fingers on the keyboard (I touch type so, my friends, there is a lot of sound going on right now) grounds me while music would – I’m fairly sure – distract me.
Some people ask whether listening to music that you do not know can counteract the tendency to want to “get into” a song or a piece of music, sing along perhaps, or try to figure out which instrument has the melody in a given phrase. For me, putting on music of any type requires me to make the following conscious decision: will I listen actively or passively? When cooking for example, more often than not, I find music to be a largely passive companion. When preparing our musical wine tasting programs or when sharing a moment with a friend, music becomes one of the central parts of the experience and therefore demands my entire active mind and attention.
So in answer to the question about whether music can affect creativity, the answer is obviously a resounding YES!
I am a woman of science and I love reading about studies that implement reliable methodologies to quantify the effects of music on the human mind, on memory, on emotion, or what have you. Yet I would still argue that no matter what those studies conclude, “creativity” still needs to be defined to hold meaning in such studies. We must ask then, whether we are more efficient at creating or executing the particular task at hand when listening to music or not? Does it mean perhaps that the number of ideas we have increases? Or is it more a qualitative response? Is the quality or viability of an idea more acute when we do or don’t listen to music?
Another big question is, what type of music should we listen to?
And there again we have a hugely subjective question. Some studies, such as the one cited here, point to the fact that listening to “happy music” promotes divergent thinking. But what do you think of as happy? Is that based on a particular key or rhythmic pattern? A particular tempo or combination of instruments? Forgive me, but I find that simplistic an assessment of music – as happy or, presumably also, not happy – pretty troublesome.
A final crucial question to address is: does our upbringing matter? I use the term “sensory ecosystem” a lot in my business as it’s hugely important to my life and to the reasons I started this company. I grew up in Germany in a particular ecosystem very different from that of someone who grew up, say, in Miami or Bangalore or Adelaide. Our home, cultural, and life experiences all factor into the way we process sound – and all sensory – input and impulses and how we assess them as supporters of or detractors from our power to be creative. What you grew up with as a child is imprinted on your sensory memory. With minimal effort you can change that but it will still always be there.
The truth is that some people prefer to work in a very calm environment while others thrive when music is being played nearby.
There’s no right or wrong answer to this question so, in the words of, well, pretty much everyone, you do you, boo.
And let us know how it goes!