Do you know someone who seems to get lost in music? Put on some beats and their world dissolves around them. Eyes closed, mind adrift, they feel an almost transcendental connection with music.
For most of my friends, I’m that person.
Though I’m nominally an entrepreneur and “growth hacker,” I consider myself a musician first and foremost. I’ve loved music for as long as I can remember. My childhood memories didn’t revolve around Mario and Mortal Kombat. Rather, my childhood was spent practicing minor scales and saving up for an Akai MPC.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that music doesn’t just make me feel good; it has a profound effect on my creativity, stress level and overall mental health.
Music and intelligence
There’s a surprising amount of evidence that indicates that complex musical compositions, such as those within the genre of classical music, have a stimulating effect on the brain. Research shows that listening to or practicing music can improve performance on IQ tests and have a lasting impact on intelligence.
The first of these studies is named after the maestro himself—that is, the “Mozart effect.”
A 1993 article by Rauscher, Shaw and Ky, titled “Music and Spatial Task Performance,” referenced a study conducted by The Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California that examined the effect of Mozart’s music on cognitive performance.
This study involved 36 students undergoing three separate sets of spatial reasoning IQ tests (spatial reasoning can be useful when doing math problems).
Before each test, the students were required to listen to:
- A classical Mozart composition—the “Sonata for Two Pianos in D major”
- A relaxation tape of nature sounds
When the students were later evaluated via the IQ tests, it was found that performance increased sharply (by 7 percent, on average) after students listened to Mozart. The effect was temporary, but substantial enough to introduce the now-popular belief—that Mozart makes you smarter.
If listening to Mozart makes you smarter, temporarily, you can only imagine the long-term benefits of actually playing his compositions.
A 1999 study published in Neurological Research, titled “Enhanced learning of proportional math through music training and spatial-temporal training,” examined the effects of music lessons on spatial reasoning tests.
In the study, 78 children aged three to four years were divided into three groups. The first group of 34 children received private piano keyboard lessons. The second group, made up of 20 children, received private computer lessons. And the final group acted as control, receiving no lessons.
In all, the lessons lasted for six months. During this period, children in the keyboard lessons group learned music theory, sight reading and other keyboard skills. By the end of the six months, they could play basic Mozart and Beethoven melodies on the piano.
When the three groups of students were tested by standard spatial reasoning tests, it was found that the students who received piano lessons performed substantially better than they did previously. There was no significant effect on test performance for the other two groups.
On average, test performance for the piano lessons group was 30 percent better in comparison to other children of the same age.
Unlike the Mozart effect, these results weren’t temporary, either. The study established that the effects remained the same more than 24 hours after the end of music lessons.
The lessons here are simple:
- Listening to complex compositions makes you smarter—at least temporarily
- Learning music as a child results in a marked improvement in intelligence
Music and creativity
One of my favourite “productivity hacks” at work is to listen to instrumental music, especially tracks with repeating, rhythmic compositional patterns (such as those created by Nujabes). I started doing this to help myself focus (I work out of a loud co-working space). But lately, I’ve started believing that the music also makes me more creative.
Music doesn’t just have a marked effect on intelligence; it actually does make you more creative.
Turns out, I’m not entirely wrong in my beliefs. Music doesn’t just have a marked effect on intelligence; it actually does make you more creative.
The strongest evidence for this claim is provided in a 2017 study published in PLOS One, titled “Happy creativity: Listening to happy music facilitates divergent thinking.”
The study involved 155 participants with a median age of 22.3. Its goal was to test the participants on the two primary modes of creativity: divergent and convergent thinking.
- Divergent thinking is the process of coming up with new ideas from a core premise. That is, to diverge a single idea into multiple ones. An example would be finding alternative uses for a tool. Divergent thinking requires pure creativity and imagination.
- Convergent thinking is the opposite, i.e. the process of condensing multiple premises into a single idea. An example would be finding connections between seemingly unrelated concepts. Convergent thinking requires logic and reasoning.
During the study, the 155 participants were required to listen to fragments from four different pieces of classical music by Camille Saint-Saens, Antonio Vivaldi, Samuel Barber and Gustav Holst. The fragments were rated on their mood and arousal levels here.
A control group was made to listen to just silence.
After listening to each piece of music, the participants were evaluated via standardized tests that measured divergent and convergent thinking.
The study determined that:
- Listening to happy music increased divergent thinking scores significantly—up by 23 percent
- Listening to calm music increased divergent thinking scores only minutely
- There was no marked difference in convergent thinking
Listening to happy, high-energy music makes you better at divergent creative thinking.
So the next time you find yourself in a creative rut, you know what to do—listen to some Vivaldi or Mozart!
Music and wellness
But since my goal is to find scientific evidence for conventional wisdom, I looked at the latest research on music and stress.
The first useful piece I examined was a 2013 study published in PLOS One, titled “The Effect of Music on the Human Stress Response.”
In this study, 60 women with an average age of 25 were divided into three groups.
- The first group listened to a classical composition—”Miserere” by Gregorio Allegri
- The second group listened to relaxing nature sounds
- The third group listened to silence
Later, the three groups were evaluated by a standard stress test.
The study found that the individuals in the group that listened to Allegri had the lowest levels of cortisol, and thus, the lowest stress levels. This effect was also extended—cortisol levels took longer to return to their baseline in the Allegri-listening group than in the other two.
That’s not the only somewhat recent study showing the link between music and wellness. A 2000 study published in Rehabilitation Psychology, involving patients with serious brain injuries, evaluated the effect of music on mood and sociability.
In this study, 18 brain injury patients were sent to either a standard rehab program or a rehab program with music therapy.
At the end of the rehab, the patients, their families and their caregivers were asked to rate the patients on their mood, sociability and co-operation.
The study found that patients who underwent music therapy:
- Scored themselves higher on both mood and sociability
- Had family members who were happier with their moods
- Were deemed to be more involved and co-operative in their treatment by caregivers
Clearly, music has a lifting effect on how people feel about themselves—even people with serious brain injuries.
Over to you!
Music—listening to it, playing it, producing it—has been a lifelong passion. I’ve prescribed music as a therapeutic tool to countless friends, colleagues and relatives. As presented above, scientific evidence supports my beliefs as well: music helps you relax, reduces stress and improves both intelligence and creativity.
So the next time you listen to your favourite tunes, don’t feel guilty about it—you’re doing your brain a favour!