Secondary school student in an arts and crafts class

She blinded me with science

What is this thing we call creativity and how does it apply to music?

Artists of all forms are credited with ‘creativity’. Although difficult to pin down precisely, it can be seen as a mental process generating a new idea or way of doing something, as opposed to copying what has already been done before. In that sense, creativity is not solely the domain of the artist but covers all innovative thinkers – including scientists.

All composers and songwriters are to some degree creative, producing novel works. But some are generally considered more innovative than others. Classical composers such as Mozart, Beethoven and Johann Sebastian Bach developed new forms of composition that profoundly influenced those that followed. Louis Armstrong pioneered innovations in jazz. Chuck Berry, some argue, invented rock and roll, while Kool Herc and others in New York created rap music.

Do these disparate individuals have anything in common? Some models of creativity emphasise individual personality traits – creative people may be more ‘complex’, in that they can hold apparently paradoxical views in their heads, or they may be better risk-takers, or less worried about upsetting the status quo.

Neuroscientific perspectives emphasise the importance of ‘divergent thinking’ – opening up new possibilities rather than closing them down. The prefrontal cortex, the high-level ‘thinking’ area of the brain, may be particularly important. In a 2008 study comparing trained musicians and matched controls, the musicians showed greater divergent thinking and stronger activation in this region of the brain.

Other work suggests that the ‘emotional brain’ and dopamine-based reward pathways are also important.

On the other hand, creativity does not operate in a social vacuum. The musical expression of creativity is rooted in the circumstances of people’s lives – be it Mozart’s hothousing in Vienna court life or rap pioneers’ urban New York. Igor Stravinsky, arguably the most influential classical composer of the 20th century, was part of a broader ‘modernist’ movement.

Lead image:

Secondary school student in an arts and crafts class building something using a welding torch.

Anthea Sieveking, Wellcome Images CC BY NC ND

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Music, Mind and Medicine’ in June 2009 and reviewed and updated in July 2014.

Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development