The fear that Americans, in general, are becoming less creative has inspired stacks of studies, which identify a variety of techniques that may stimulate innovative thought. These range from mild inebriation to electrical stimulation of the brain.
In a study published in the online journal PLoS One, participants proved more skillful at generating creative ideas if that cheerful, chirpy concerto was playing in the background.
"Creativity is one of the most important cognitive skills in our complex, fast-changing world," write Simone Ritter of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, and Sam Ferguson of Australia's University of Technology Sydney. "Music listening can be easily integrated into daily life, and may provide an innovative means to facilitate creative cognition in an efficient ways in various scientific, educational, and organizational settings."
Their study featured 155 people recruited online, the majority of whom were college students. All performed a series of creativity-related tests, including the well-known Alternative Uses Task, in which they were given three minutes to list as many "different and creative uses" they could come up with for a common object—in this case, a brick.
Performance on that task is used to measure "divergent thinking," the ability to use one's imagination to come up with new concepts, or combine old ones in unexpected, fruitful ways.
Additional tests measured "convergent thinking," the part of the creative process in which all those crazy ideas are narrowed down to find the optimal solution to a problem. These included the Remote Associates Test, in which participants were given three-word combinations and asked to come up with a fourth word that connects them all.
Twenty percent of participants completed these tests in silence, while the others listened to one of four pieces of music: The aforementioned first movement of Spring from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons; the lovely and calming The Swan by Camille Saint-Saens; Samuel Barber's achingly sad Adagio for Strings; or the energetic but anxious Mars, Bringing of War from Holst's The Planets.
The key result: Compared to working in silence, listening to the uplifting Vivaldi was "associated with an increase in divergent thinking." Convergent thinking, on the other hand, was not significantly affected by background music.
The researchers argue that this suggests the music inspired higher levels of "fluency and flexibility," which are needed to come up with original ideas, but are less important in the paring-down process.
As noted earlier, researchers have found many ways of successfully stimulating creativity, from recalling your dreams to surrounding yourself with the color green. But putting a little Vivaldi on in the background may be the simplest method yet. And it dovetails nicely with research that finds a positive mood—which such music can produce—may improve divergent thinking.
This is a small study; it remains to be seen whether the results can be replicated, and if the effect of music wears off at some point. That said, testing its conclusion for yourself requires minimal effort; a short trip to YouTube will suffice.
Listening to Mozart may or may have cognitive benefits; opinions vary. But this research suggests those coveted imaginative leaps may be spurred by the buoyant sounds of the baroque.