Engagement with Music Spurs Creativity and Innovation

This is a transcript of the podcast Distraction, your survival guide to our crazy-busy, ever-connected modern world hosted by Dr. Edward Hallowell, ADHD expert. Dr. Ned Hallowell and Dr. Daniel Levitin talk about the effects of music on the brain and how it spurs creativity and innovation.

Mini Episode 1: Your Brain On Music


DR. HALLOWELL: Hi. This is Dr. Ned Hallowell and thank you for joining us for a mini distraction. Like our full length show, these mini episodes will be different every time only they’ll be shorter. It’s a crazy, busy world and you don’t have a lot of time. We get it so these episodes are for you. Mini’s might include a few quick tips to help you stay focused or they could be an interesting conversation I had at a coffee shop. Even we can’t predict what we’ll include. In making this week’s full episode, I had a chance to speak with top neuroscientist, Dr. Daniel Levitin, and I wanted you to hear a part of it that isn’t included in the main show. We went off on a tangent about music.

“Tell me about music. Why is it so captivating?”

LEVINTIN: We human beings basically like surprises. You can have a chord sequence or a note sequence that isn’t what you expected and within that structure, you can have surprises because they’re an opportunity to learn something new about the world. Think about infants. One of the games they like most is when you hide your face and then it appears. It’s a surprise to them.

DR. HALLOWELL: Don’t we also like order?

LEVINTIN: We do and so music balances the two. The pieces of music that we find most compelling are predictable to some extent but not overly so. There has to be some surprises embedded in them.

DR. HALLOWELL: Is that why Mozart is better than Salieri?

LEVINTIN: I wouldn’t go that far. I don’t know that Mozart is better than Salieri. The thing is that musical taste is very subjective. One man’s Mozart is another man’s Madonna. One person’s Prince is another person’s Purcell. We find surprises in music based on our own background and our idiosyncrasies of how our brains are wired up and the experiences we’ve had.

What Does Music Do?

DR. HALLOWELL: What does music do for a person? Why is it good, or is it good, that I saw to it that each of my kids took lessons in a musical instrument?

LEVINTIN: Well, there are a lot of things. One is that music is an opportunity for us to express our individuality and creativity through an artistic medium. I think it’s important that we engage with the arts because I think the purpose of the arts is to allow us to look at the world differently than we did, to re-contextualize it. I’d go so far as to say if you’re engaged with a work of art and it doesn’t change the way you think or feel, that piece of art has failed you.

I think fundamentally when children engage with music, either to learn an instrument or to listen, they’re engaging with mode of thought that spurs creativity and innovation. Now of course, there are some more tangible benefits of learning to play an instrument. We find that children who learn an instrument have fewer behavioral problems in school and are better socialized and they do better in their other school work, on average.

Listening to Music While You Work

DR. HALLOWELL: The title of one of your books is This is Your Brain on Music. I always am listening to music when I’m writing.

LEVINTIN: Your experience is different than the majority in that in studies that have been done, people tend to perform worse at most things when there is music on in the background, particularly things that require concentrated thought. We do know that music allows us to enter a very special mode of attention, a mode of consciousness called the mind wandering mode. Music is a very reliable way to assist your mind in wandering. Writing requires a lot of mind wandering. It’s when you’re not really in control of your thoughts. They’re moving at a somewhat non-linear fashion and they’re loosely connected to one another.

This is where problem solving occurs and where we find the solutions to problems that we weren’t able to solve in the first mode of consciousness, which is what we call the executive mode. It’s when you’re complete undistracted and focused on something. You’re in control and are directing your thoughts. These two modes play off each other like a seesaw. We have to have them both and when one is increasing, the other decreases.

DR. HALLOWELL: Music induces the mind wandering mode.

LEVINTIN: For most of us, yes. I’m sorry. What did you just ask? I was distracted, listening to some music.

DR. HALLOWELL: That’s so true.

Closing Statements

Well, that’s it. Be sure to subscribe to the show and you won’t miss a thing. If you haven’t already, go download our first full episode, An Exploration of Distraction. You’ll hear Dr. Levitin and I talk about the science behind distractions and more. We’re really excited about the show and can’t wait to hear what you think. If you have an issue, a question or a suggestion, call us toll-free at 844-55-Connect or email us at [email protected] Or go to our website at DistractionPodcast.com. To hear more mini and full-length episodes, subscribe to Distraction on iTunes and thanks so much for listening.

This is a transcript of the podcast Distraction, “Your Brain On Music”. Distraction is available on iTunes.


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