More Than a Mood Booster: How Happy Music Enhances Your Creativity

There is one type of task where happy music is ineffective

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Not only does listening to happy music uplift and energize you, but it can even enhance your creativity. Professor Vishton describes a famous study that provides the evidence. There are some instances, though, when happy music can be counterproductive.

Man listening to music on smartphone
Photo by ESB Professional / Shutterstock

Music and Creativity Study

One of the simplest ways to enhance your creativity is to listen to happy music. One of the best studies on music and creativity was conducted by cognitive and social psychology specialist Gene Rowe and his collaborators, using a type of puzzle called a Remote Associates Test (RAT)

In every trial of a RAT, you’re given three words. Your task is to come up with a fourth word closely associated with all three that can form common phrases of two words with each.

Participants in the Rowe study were randomly assigned to one of three mood induction conditions: positive, negative, and neutral. In the positive condition, participants listened to a jazzy version of the “Brandenburg Concerto.” 

Participants in the negative condition listened to Prokofiev’s “Alexander Nevsky: Russia under the Mongolian Yoke.” This depressing song was rendered especially depressing by playing it at half speed. 

For the neutral condition, participants read a series of facts and figures about Canada. That might sound potentially negative to you, or positive—that’s the point. Reading facts and figures turns out to be close to neutral.

Taken together, these three methods have been used to induce different moods by other researchers in the past. After 10 minutes engaged in one of these three tasks, participants in the positive condition gave higher ratings of their positive mood level; neutral participants were in the middle; and negative participants’ moods were significantly lower. 

Mood Level

The participants then engaged in several tests, one of which was the RAT. As you might guess, the performance of participants tracked with their mood level. 

People who listened to the positive music answered significantly more RAT questions correctly. To the extent that this test taps into important aspects of creativity, we can conclude that listening to happy music significantly boosts creativity.

A concern you might have is that perhaps people were generally more motivated in the positive condition than in the other two. Perhaps it’s not their creativity but their overall level of engagement that changed. 

That’s a possibility, of course. It’s worth noting that, even if it is just a motivation booster, listening to happy music will still improve performance on a creative task

Music and Focus

Moreover, the experimenters obtained other evidence that it’s not just motivation that’s influenced. In fact, this experiment was mostly testing for how well participants can focus visual attention on a target and ignore extraneous information.

A flanker task was also performed by participants in these three experimental conditions. In this flanker test, participants watch a computer screen and respond as quickly as possible to the appearance of a letter in the middle of the screen. 

For example, if the letter is a K, participants press a key with their right index finger. If the letter is A, the participants press a key with their left index finger. 

This is an easy task, and it’s even easier if you present more than one of the same letter. That is, participants are a little faster to respond to a K if it’s presented with another K on its left and a third K on its right. 

However, if you flank the target K with the other target—the A in this case—then participants are slower to respond. The task is essentially to focus your attention on that one location on the screen and to ignore the flanker letters. 

Listening to happy music makes you worse at this task. Listening to sad music, however, improves performance on this flanker measure.

The researchers argue that a happy mood broadens your focus of attention. It makes your brain more open to considering a wider range of different information. 

This happens in terms of your visual attention—we see this with the flanker task. It also seems to happen in terms of your general cognitive performance—we see that broadening of scope with the remote associates test.

If you want to focus your attention on one particular solution to a problem, and thus to not be distracted by other information, listening to sad music would be a good thing to do. If, on the other hand, you want to open your mind to a wide range of potentially related information and consider that in creative ways, then listening to happy music will help.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.

About Kate Findley 450 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.