Developing Creativity with Music

Jul 29, 2015

The connections between music and memory are well documented, and even someone who has spent the last 10 years living under a rock will have a basic understanding of their link. The same could be said of the connection between music and learning. But there is once trick of the brain with a deep connection to music that we are all aware of on some level, but isn’t discussed as often as the others: music and creativity. “Of course there is a link!” you might be yelling at your computer right about now, but I’m not talking about the obvious link between creative people and the making of music. No, I’m talking about music as a facilitator of creativity, specifically not musical creativity.

Of course, when talking about something like creativity, which can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, it’s best to start with a basic definition we can all agree on. But how do you define something so broad that in includes physicists like Albert Einstein, artists like Michelangelo or even Bob Ross, and other, harder to pigeon-hole creatives like Jim Henson? The best way is to break creativity down into its core components: problem solving, self-expression, and the ability to see beyond the physical, also known as imagination, all working together, overlapping and cooperating.

Let’s begin by discussing one of the all-time greatest academically creative minds to ever grace the planet Earth: Albert Einstein. The man himself once said “The greatest scientists are artists as well,” and he lived up to his own hype as an amateur pianist and violinist of some talent. Something that might surprise you about this legendary mind is that he himself admitted that he did not think in numbers, figures, and equations. Instead, Einstein’s paradigm shifting ideas came from intuition and insight. He often came to ideas and conclusions he knew were correct well before he did any of the math to prove it. In fact, he would often say that the math always came secondary to his initial flash of inspiration; the math was just a way to express it to others so it could be understood. But what does this have to do with music? As it turns out, Einstein himself often attributed his mental prowess to music, once stating, “If I were not a physicists, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music… I get most joy in life out of music.” Later his children would confirm this attitude when remembering their father, agreeing that whenever he felt stuck, or at a loss in his work, we would retreat into music. After playing at the piano, he would stand, saying, “There, now I’ve got it,” and return to work. Something about music helped to guide his genius mind in new and creative directions.

Everyone can agree that Albert Einstein was a true genius, but can music really have a significant impact on a more average person’s creativity? The simple answer is “yes,” but let’s take a closer look at what is actually happening in the brain to find out why, and how you can use it in your every day life to give your creative juices that boost.

Have you every felt that musicians think a little different than those without musical talent? Well, if you have, you’re not alone, and a recent study has shown that you’re not all that far off. Researchers at Nashville, Tennessee’s Vanderbilt University set up an experiment to look at how naturally creative people solve problems that require “out of the box” thinking. The researchers decided to focus their attention on musicians because, as lead scientist Bradley Folley put it, “…creative thinking is part of their daily experience.” Comparing the through processes and brain activities of the musicians with a control group of non-musicians as they solved creative problems lead the researchers to some interesting findings on the subject of music’s link to creativity. Firstly, they found that the musicians were much better at using a creative technique called “divergent thinking,” which is an ability to think up new answers to open-ended, varied problems. They also found that their musician participants used the left and right sides of their frontal-cortex more heavily, and with more cooperation than the average non-musician. One possible reason the researchers proposed for this elevated activity in both hemispheres of the brain is that playing music requires that both hands be used independently to play most instruments. As Folley describes, “Musicians may be particularly good at efficiently accessing and integrating competing information from both hemispheres. Instrumental musicians often integrate different melodic lines with both hands into a single musical piece, and they have to be very good at simultaneously reading the musical symbols, which are like left-hemisphere-based language, and integrating the written music with their own interpretation, which has been linked to the right hemisphere.” When the experiment was completed and all the numbers were crunched and data was processed, there was one inescapable conclusion: there is a verifiable, and measurable difference in the way their musician participants thought about the information they were given.

Another study, from Charles Limb, an associate professor of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at Johns Hopkins University, “looked at jazz musicians playing the blues as a way to understand how the creative brain emerges from a neuroscience perspective.” Utilizing a small plastic keyboard that could be played and heard inside an MRI machine, Limb took pictures of jazz musicians’ brains while they played. He had them perform two pieces: the first was something they had memorized before hand, and the second was to be improvised with another musician playing in the control room. Seeing the different parts of the brain light up as a talented musician plays is certainly interesting, but the best results came when they switched to improvisation. There was a noticeable change in brain function, especially in the lateral prefrontal lobes, which are responsible for conscious self monitoring. Basically your internal filter on your thoughts and actions gets turned way down, or even turned off. This allows the musicians to create new ideas (music in this case) without mental restrictions. Another interesting result was that they found the language center of the brain also lit up during improvisation, lending credence to the idea that two musicians improvising is like its own language.

So what does this mean for you, the average person? Einstein was a genius, and the participants in both studies were professional musicians with years of training. Can any of this really be applied to you? Of course it can, creativity is a wonderful quality that we are all born with, sometimes it just needs to be nurtured and developed. As Professor Charles Limb put it, “You have to cultivate these behaviours by introducing them to children and recognizing that the more you do it, the better you are at doing it.” Like all the benefits that music can give you, it’s best to start young, and allow the brain to develop with music as an ever present accompaniment, but even if your childhood is long past, just picking up an instrument and taking beginner music lessons can help develop your creativity ten-fold.