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105: Listening x Creativity: Kalya Ramu, Jazz Vocalist

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

Can listening to music make us more creative?

Some sources point to ‘yes’, others to point to ‘no’. In a fascinating 2019 article by TIME entitled ‘Does Listening to Music Stimulate Creative Thinking or Stifle It?’, author Markham Heid shares the results of a series of studies, the findings of which point to both yes and no.

For example, a 2019 study published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology found that listening to (familiar or unfamiliar, vocal or instrumental) music while you work “significantly impairs” creativity. However, it’s important to note that the tasks participants were asked to complete in this study were a series of word puzzles that likely required significant focus. So while these types of analytical tasks demand silence, there are other types of open-ended creative tasks in which studies show that creative thinking can be heightened through listening to music.

A 2017 study in the journal PLOS ONE found that listening to “happy” music (defined as “classical tunes that were upbeat and stimulating”) helped participants tackle divergent thinking tasks. Think about a traditional brainstorming session that includes coming up with unexpected combinations of ideas and linking information together in unconventional ways. This is the type of open-ended creative thinking that music can help promote. Happy music can help us ‘ think outside the box’. While researchers in this study can only theorize about why happy music helps, the team suggests that music energizes the brain to promote a more flexible thinking style. Furthermore, music can lower anxiety and improve mood, which promotes an environment that facilitates creative insights. Further research suggests that music can stimulate the brain’s default mode network, which allows us to connect disparate ideas to produce creative insights. So listening to music can be the subtle diversion our brains need to relax and but still ponder the task at hand. If you’re looking for creative inspiration, crank up the jams. If you’re looking to focus and work on a detailed creative task, hit pause.

In an interesting interdisciplinary initiative by the auto manufacturer Kia (in partnership with SoundCloud and working with DaHouse Audio and world-leading synth builder Arthur Joly), the world now has access to ‘The Kia Instrument’; a free digital synthesizer that anyone can use to compose music derived from “the sounds of movement from nature” that have been scientifically proven to enhance creativity through the production of ‘pink noise’. Pink noise increases alpha waves in the brain and induces a flow state that facilitates creativity. There are four neuroscientific parameters that Kia suggests considering when composing music using the Kia instrument for maximum impact:

  1. Beats Per Minute: 120 BPM is the tempo suggested to synchronize to one’s heartbeat, eliciting positive and calm focus.

  2. Harmonic Progressions: Harmonic variations are better remembered by the listener and have been shown to activate areas in the brain.

  3. Melodic Intervals: These create a sense of movement and establish a sense of anticipation; “pleasurable longing” being central to inspiration.

  4. Texture: Layering the sounds of movement in nature to create layered pink noise. There are eight recorded sounds: thunder, geiser, forest, forest birds, wind, water, beach and forest night.

I’m not 100% sold on the Kia instrument’s advertised benefits, but I do think it’s an interesting approach to what I can imagine being an elaborate marketing vehicle used to enhance the auto maker’s redesign and rebranding efforts as an innovative organization. The instrument was used to create Kia’s new “sound logo”, the backdrop underlaid in their commercials when their visual logo and slogan “movement that inspires” is shown. The instrument has also produced sounds that chime in Kia vehicles. My best guess is that they designed the Kia instrument to elicit global publicity, hoping for organic virality through the campaign. The Kia instrument’s ‘story behind its creation’ video plays as a two minute commercial, interweaving images of the instrument’s interface, fashionable people walking through nature wearing impractical outfits and Kia vehicles.

The marketing angle to this story is for another conversation on another day (I sound a little salty, but I do actually think it’s a pretty neat initiative). However, as it relates to listening and creativity, I’m curious as to how music made through the Kia instrument would perform under the same conditions as the first study I mentioned. My prediction is that it wouldn’t perform well on these same types of focused tasks, just as all other familiar or unfamiliar, vocal or instrumental music proved unhelpful in this process of solving creative puzzles. Furthermore, the brains of participants who listened to music made on the Kia instrument were studied using EEG technology, which demonstrated that the music brought them closer to a state of flow. I’d be curious to see how other “happy” music performs under the same test conditions. My guess is that it would fare just as well. Clever marketing aside, it’s clear that music (either produced through the Kia instrument or traditional means) has its place and time in the creative process.

And today’s guest lives and breathes the world of music. Kalya Ramu Is a professional jazz vocalist (and also an incredible visual artist) whose voice you’re hearing right now. As a bandleader and performer, Kalya has a passion for storytelling and reinventing old jazz music. In 2019 Kalya released her debut full-length album Living in a Dream, from which the title track (an original song) was featured on the soundtrack of CBC show Frankie Drake Mysteries.

In this conversation, Kalya describes how listening is quintessential to performing live music, as well as how making music happens in a virtual environment. Kalya shares how she actively listens to a piece of music as a professional and how we can all benefit from this type of meditative music listening experience too.

On with the show!

Listening invitation:

Whether on vinyl, a cassette tape, CD or MP3, I invite you to try listening to a piece of music in the way that Kalya described. Take a few minutes to dedicate to listening – really listening – to a piece of music. Put away all your distractions, crank up the volume and sit back to listen. Aim to listen to the instruments and the voices, trying to identify what you hear and where.

For someone who is actively overcoming the guilt of inefficiency, this one is hard for me. But I’m going to try my best to really make listening to a piece of music an experience. I anticipate friction and frustration and wanting to do something else while I listen, however I think I owe it to myself to really try this exercise and see where it takes me. I encourage you to do the same.

I’ll leave you with Kalya’s Beautiful voice. Enjoy.

About Our Guest:

Canadian vocalist, composer and visual artist, Kalya Ramu, is a rising star in Toronto’s current Jazz scene. As a bandleader and performer, Ramu has a passion for storytelling and reinventing old jazz music. She began her musical journey at the age of 12, participating in Toronto jazz jams and performing with community big bands. At 22 she graduated from the Humber College Bachelor of Music Degree Program and jumped straight into building her career as a performer. She has performed with several heavy-weight musicians in the Toronto scene including Barry Harris, Ted Quinlan, Jackie Richardson, Ross MacIntyre and Reg Schwager. In 2019 Ramu released her debut full-length album Living in a Dream, from which the title track (an original song) was featured on the soundtrack of CBC show Frankie Drake Mysteries. Ramu’s latest work, Duo, is a short album of all original material performed by piano and voice. All tracks were cowritten with and feature pianist Ewen Farncombe.

As a visual artist, Ramu focuses on watercolour portraiture. She is currently working as an illustrator for smART Magazine (by Lighthouse Immersive) and was recently published in their second print issue! She has designed album art for Canadian musicians Marshal Herridge, Chris Platt, Tayua, Claire Coupland, Shealagh Rose, and Trevor Peverley.

Instagram: @kalyaramu @kalyaramuart

Music by Kalya Ramu (in order of appearance in episode):

1. The Things I Do

2. Find in Me

3. Comfort

Talk Paper Scissors Theme Music: Retro Quirky Upbeat Funk by Lewis Sound Production via Audio Jungle

Boat Origami Photo: Boat Origami Photo by Alex on Unsplash

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