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Cognitive Flexibility, or Music as Mind Yoga

Cognitive Flexibility, Creativity, and Music

In my previous posts, I’ve written about the connection between music and cognitive skills such as attention, memory, and perception. Indeed, these skills are the hallmarks of mental life, but they don’t capture everything that makes us interesting, creative, or even human. Even squirrels can remember where they hide their nuts, and birds can recognize patterns in songs. But what gives us human beings[1] our cognitive vibrancy and productivity[2] is our ability to control how we use these different cognitive skills. We can control what we remember, what we pay attention to, and what we recognize. This mental ability is termed cognitive flexibility, and it allows us to adapt to new information, find new connections, take new perspectives, and change our behaviour quickly and efficiently.

Cognitive flexibility is part of everything we do, but some activities call on this skill more than others. An activity that requires switching quickly between two different tasks, (like sorting cards into suits, then into numbers, for example), uses your cognitive flexibility. Another way we use our cognitive flexibility is in categorizing objects and coming up with new examples. For instance, sorting your music into different genres, or finding a new route home when construction blocks your usual way.

Any creative endeavor depends on this cognitive skill (making it a favourite in my music psychology classes). It’s not hard to find ways in which musicians use their cognitive flexibility. Whenever you find a new interpretation of a phrase, realize a figured bass (a type of musical notation), or even playing a complex rhythmic pattern like a hemiola, it uses cognitive flexibility. Perhaps because of this, recent evidence indicates that musicians perform better on cognitive flexibility tests, which may transfer over to non-musical tasks as well.

We try to bring this skill into the Smart Start classroom, too, by incorporating age-appropriate cognitive flexibility exercises. Children make categorization decisions, such as suggesting musical accompaniments or appropriate instruments for parts of a song. They learn to switch quickly between different song styles, tempi, or rhythms, holding each option in mind. During a music lesson, variety, choice, and opportunity for creativity keep children interested and, at the same time, help them to develop the cognitive skills that will help them on their music and life paths.

Cognitive Flexibility and Creativity

Though it may seem that creativity is about making something from nothing, in reality, most creative acts have solid cognitive foundations. Writing a new piece of music, for example, requires a grounding in what has come before. A composer often draws on the work of his or her predecessors and general already has knowledge of the general styles of composition. To create something truly original, then, this knowledge must be adapted in new ways, a different perspective must be taken, or a unique component must be added. These practices engage cognitive flexibility and pave the way to exciting new music.

Take Beethoven, for example. Trained in composition by Joseph Haydn (among others), he learned traditional techniques such as counterpoint and musical form. Beethoven’s earlier pieces reflect this formal training; his style could be characterized as a classical continuation of the works of Mozart. But later, Beethoven began to draw on other musical influences like traditional folk dance rhythms (as heard in his 6th and 7th symphonies). Even events outside of music, such as the developing German romantic literary movement and the ongoing revolutionary wars, were primary influences for his 3rd, 5th, and 9th symphonies. The combination of Beethoven’s classical training and his new influences prompted an overall shift in the art form, from classical to romantic styles of music, and more importantly, was an impressive act of cognitive flexibility.

Beethoven didn’t stop there, either. In his final years, he used his growing deafness (which would normally be an impediment to a composer) to focus on innovations of form and counterpoint, while relying less on consonance or melody. As a result, his later string quartets are considered to be precursors to more modern composers such as Stravinsky and Bartok. Beethoven’s genius was in his ability to remember, master, and combine musical and extra-musical influences, to expand on current understanding, and to find new perspectives on the goals of musical composition. That’s why it’s Beethoven’s bust that sits on Schroeder’s piano in Peanuts cartoons, and why he is recognized as the prototypical composer[3].

Although not all of us will grow up to be Beethoven, we can all use these Beethoven-like skills in our lives. Cognitive flexibility is what helps make that happen.

[1] I realize I’m making an assumption about my readers here

[2] Yet another assumption here

[3] I could write a similar case about the Beatles, but I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

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Recent evidence indicates that musicians perform better on cognitive flexibility tests, which may transfer over to non-musical tasks as well.