Music is one of the major triumphs of human creativity, often moving us in a way that can be universal across cultures. It has powerful effects on our brains and bodies beyond what we see in other animals; encouraging us to dance and sing, giving us goosebumps, moving us to tears, and often inspiring and facilitating our other creative endeavors. While there are countless research studies on how music affects our creativity, here are four main findings that should have you reaching for your headphones.
1. Music Can Improve Your Mood
One of the most amazing benefits of listening to music is that it can influence how you feel and can even alter your mood. As you listen to a song that you like, the brain triggers the release of dopamine and serotonin — “feel-good” neurotransmitters that flush your brain with positive emotions and enhance functioning. The power of these chemicals is sometimes so strong that they result in the sensation of a “chill” or “tingle” as you listen to a song, and interestingly, these effects can continue to have an impact even after the music has ended.
For example, in a cross-cultural study, Canadian undergraduates performed better on an IQ test after they listened to an upbeat piece by Mozart than after a slow, minor-key piece by Albinoni. So, if you’re about to tackle a difficult task or begin a creative project, listening to upbeat music beforehand can be a great way to boost your mood and give you a motivational jumpstart.
2. Music Relaxes Us
Just as music can fill us with happiness, it can also act as a tension reliever when we’re feeling stressed. Numerous studies have shown that music’s relaxing effects can be seen in almost anyone, including newborn babies. As we listen to soothing music, our muscles relax, the pace of our breathing slows, and our stress levels reduce. The more relaxed we feel, the more our minds tend to wander, and the more likely we are to come up with creative solutions.
3. Music Sparks Inspiration
Most of us have experienced how listening to a specific song can transport us back to a previous time, place, or emotion we’ve experienced. Sometimes, a song evokes a general recollection — memories from a period of life such as college, a particular summer, or a friendship from childhood. At other times, a song can bring to mind a specific event or moment in our lives, such as a party, or maybe a difficult break-up. If you’re in search of inspiration, music can act as a strong memory cue and a powerful catalyst for sparking ideas.
4. Music Can Increase Your Focus
Individual differences in preference mean that what works well for you may not have the same effect on the person next to you. It’s partly for this reason that the question of whether music helps or hinders our concentration has been a topic of debate for years. Some people seem to struggle getting through a day of work without having their headphones on, while others prefer to work in silence. While research on the topic points to different findings, the general consensus is that music’s ability to help or interfere with your work will depend on the nature of the task you’re trying to perform and the type of music you’re listening to.
When it comes to music type, classical or easy listening music, played at low or moderate volumes, has been found to improve our focus, attention span, and overall ability to concentrate. On the other hand, music containing vocals, played at higher volumes, usually has a negative impact on our concentration levels and acts as a distraction. That said, the effect of music is highly dependent on the type of task at hand. If you’re faced with a repetitive task that doesn’t require a great deal of cognitive processing, playing music you like has been found to boost energy and concentration levels. In a study published in the Journal of Applied Ergonomics, workers in an assembly line who listened to music were happier and made fewer errors than when there was no music.
On the other hand, if a task requires greater cognitive functioning (i.e. mental effort), listening to music is likely to interfere with our ability to concentrate. For example, in a study conducted at the University of Wales Institute, adults were asked to perform a complex task of recalling a series of sounds. In every instance, their performance significantly decreased if they were listening to music at the same time. So, before you hit play, be mindful of choosing your music to complement the type of task you’re facing, and experiment to find out what works best for you.
Top Image: Young man with headphones by Luna Vandoorne