Music is not only a creative art—it serves as a source of inspiration for human imagination, creativity, and insight into a wide range of other fields.
With problem-solving skills and the creative insights that come along with “divergent” thinking increasingly recognized as key to higher-level professional accomplishment, productivity, and personal fulfillment, teachers, parents, and employers are looking to music to help young people develop these habits of mind.
Here are only a few notes on what science, art, and psychological research have to say about music’s ability to inspire creativity:
Ratiocination through music
Sherlock Holmes, the fictional detective invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in Victorian-era England, famously found relaxation and renewed focus (i.e., ratiocination) to tackle his most difficult problems through playing the violin or listening to music. Doyle also often depicted Holmes as rushing off to enjoy an opera after finishing a particularly challenging case.
Seeing farther through musical images
Did you know that Albert Einstein was an accomplished violinist and pianist? He credited his love of music as a major inspiration for his scientific insights, and he is known to have commented that had he not chosen a career in physics, he would have become a musician.
In fact, Einstein attributed his ability to discover previously unknown mechanisms behind the workings of the universe to the inspiration and intuition that he gained from music. He once told the Czech psychologist Max Wertheimer, one of the founders of Gestalt psychology, that he thought in images and emotions and often built out his scientific and mathematical ideas within a type of mental musical architecture. (Wertheimer himself was an accomplished violinist and composer.)
A paint box filled with music
The early 20th-century Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky is only one of the many artists who tried in his compositions to present a visual counterpart to a piece of music. Kandinsky had synesthesia, a neurological condition in which a person processes information and experience through multiple senses simultaneously (for example, “seeing” sound and “hearing” color).
Kandinsky drew inspiration for a number of his works from musical pieces such as Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin. After hearing the opera, Kandinsky created Composition 8, a painting that makes use of shape and color in an attempt to create a feeling in the viewer similar to that evoked when listening to music.
Some experts have pointed to music’s capacity to induce a state of “mind wandering” as one of the reasons for its creativity-boosting powers. When we listen to music, we are no longer mentally confined to our immediate environment. Our minds are more likely to play and to agglomerate ideas, memories, and images that were previously stored in separate conceptual boxes. We are also more apt to fall into a state of reverie, in which our imaginations take flight without being exposed to the judgments of others.
Research supports music as a creative spark
A study published in 2017 found music to be a powerful inspiration for creativity. Earlier research had already proven music’s strong role in enhancing intellectual performance, memory, and our all-around ability to learn new information.
In this particular study, test subjects went through exercises that attempted to gauge their degree of convergent or divergent thinking as they sat in either a completely silent environment or in one where they could hear classical music that encouraged one of four different emotional states.
The psychologists conducting the research project defined “divergent thinking” as the ability to generate more distinct ideas, as well as greater numbers of unusual and creative ideas, in pursuit of a solution to a problem.
The researchers looked at comparisons of their subjects’ performance on both types of thinking across the five possible sound environments. They discovered that test subjects who did the exercise while listening to upbeat, joyful music performed measurably better in their capacity for divergent thinking than those who had been tested in a silent room.
The three other types of music—sorrowful, anxious, and calming—did not produce a noticeable increase in divergent thinking as opposed to the silent room.
The conclusion: When people listen to happy, uplifting music, their performance on tasks requiring divergent thinking and creativity trends significantly upward. The researchers stated that this type of music likely makes cognitive function nimbler and more pliable, resulting in the ability to “see” multiple innovative possibilities. The test subjects who listened to “happy” music seemed to gain in the type of mental flexibility that allowed them to move quickly and easily from one viewpoint or idea to another. They were also less apt to become bogged down in less-useful perspectives.
One interesting side-note: Whether or not the test subjects enjoyed the particular “happy” music they heard did not seem to have any influence on their ultimate ability to display divergent thinking in their task performance. This finding suggests that the cognitive benefits they attained had nothing to do with their own emotions at the time. (Incidentally, none of the four types of music seemed to enhance participants’ convergent thinking, the ability to simply find the “correct” answer to a problem.)
The researchers in this case also speculated that the sheer act of listening to happy-sounding music created an optimistic, playful frame of mind in their test subjects, one that allowed them to experience positive feelings about exploring, learning, and problem solving. This idea is in line with other research that suggests strong linkages between a positive attitude and creativity.
Music uplifts everyone’s creativity
A steady stream of psychologists, scientists, and artists have published essays and books describing the many ways in which some of the most accomplished creative minds throughout history have drawn inspiration from music. Some experts on the subject even believe that regular immersion into listening to or performing music might be able to help almost anyone achieve Einstein levels of intellectual and creative power.