Formal musical training appears to strengthen the link between working memory and creativity

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A study conducted on young Italians found that the connection between working memory and divergent thinking is influenced by whether an individual has undergone formal musical training. This relationship proved to be stronger among individuals who have had more extensive formal musical education. The paper was published in Brain Sciences.

Divergent thinking is a cognitive process that involves generating multiple, diverse solutions to a problem or question, often characterized by its open-ended and spontaneous nature. It is a key component of creativity, as it allows individuals to explore a wide range of possibilities and think outside the box. Creativity, on the other hand, is the ability to produce original and valuable ideas or solutions, often by combining or reimagining existing concepts in novel ways. While divergent thinking focuses on the generation of multiple ideas, creativity encompasses both the generation and the implementation of these ideas.

Previous research has shown that divergent thinking relies on a wide range of psychological factors including personality traits and emotional intelligence, but that it is also controlled by cognitive processes. Of these cognitive processes, working memory seems to play a critical role in divergent thinking because it allows an individual to hold the task instruction in mind, keep track of ideas without repeating them, and to mentally manipulate information.

Study author Maria Chiara Pino and her colleagues noted that people with formal musical background i.e., individuals who had formal musical training tend to show better working memory functioning. Due to this, they reasoned that people with more formal musical training might have higher working memory abilities and, consequently, be better at divergent thinking. They conducted a study to verify whether this is the case.

The study involved 83 healthy young adults, with an average age of 19-20 years, who participated in a larger study at the University of L’Aquila in Italy. Among these participants, 33 were female, and 39 reported having received formal music education at a conservatory.

Participants were assessed on their working memory (using the Digit Span Forward test) and divergent thinking abilities (using the alternative uses task from the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking). They also provided information on their experience playing musical instruments and their formal musical education.

Results showed that divergent thinking and working memory were indeed associated. Individuals with better working memory tended to score higher on the divergent thinking assessment. The number of years of formal musical training was not associated with either of these psychological factors. However, the association between working memory and divergent thinking was stronger among individuals with longer formal musical education.

“We found that a formal musical background moderates the relationship between WM [working memory] and DT [divergent thinking]. We hypothesize that musical training trains attentional processes and information processing abilities so that memory and idea-generation mechanisms are faster and more automatic,” the study authors concluded. “Additionally, our results show that the interaction of different individual resources can explain the divergence of thinking in individuals who practice music.”

“This is because a musical background is based on associative strategies and the strategy to focus on the relevant elements when integrating sensory, cognitive, and motor stimuli. The same associative and attentional processes are present when an individual faces a problem and tries to identify a better solution by generating several ideas. Thus, musical practices increase DT due to WM competences, which allow DT to activate associative processes and allocate attention resources.”

The study sheds light on the links between musical education and cognitive abilities. However, it should be noted that the study was conducted on a relatively small number of participants, all of similar age. Studies on different age or demographic groups might not yield equal results.

The paper, “The Association between Working Memory and Divergent Thinking: The Moderating Role of Formal Musical Background,” was authored by Maria Chiara Pino, Marco Giancola, Massimiliano Palmiero, and Simonetta D’Amico.



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