Listening to music significantly impairs creativity, according to science

New research debunks the myth that working to music boosts creativity

Olivia Petter
Thursday 28 February 2019 16:38 GMT
(Getty Images)

It’s a common belief that listening to music while you work enhances creative thinking, but the opposite might in fact be true, according to new research.

Psychologists at Lancaster University, University of Central Lancashire and University of Gävle in Sweden investigated the effect that listening to background music has on someone’s ability to complete verbal creative tasks. They found that it “significantly impaired” performance.

The researchers conducted three experiments designed to test people’s verbal creativity. They presented 30 participants between the ages of 19 to 30 with three words and asked them to think of a single word that could connect them all.

One example saw participants given the words "dress", "dial" and "flower". The word that connects them all is "sun," which adds to each word to become sundress, sundial and sunflower.

Participants completed the task in one of four environments: a quiet one, a room in which a song was played in a foreign language, a room in which instrumental music without lyrics was played and a room in which music with familiar lyrics was played.

The results, published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, showed that completing the task while listening to music impaired creativity. This was the case for all forms of music.

The researchers concluded that this may be because listening to music disrupts verbal working memory, which would make it harder to think of ways to unite the three words given to participants as part of the task.

Participants were also tested on how well they performed such tasks with background library-like noise, and found that this, unlike music, did not hinder their creativity because the noise is part of a “steady state” environment and is subsequently less disruptive.

The study’s co-author Dr Neil McLatchie of Lancaster University says: "We found strong evidence of impaired performance when playing background music in comparison to quiet background conditions.

"To conclude, the findings here challenge the popular view that music enhances creativity, and instead demonstrate that music, regardless of the presence of semantic content (no lyrics, familiar lyrics or unfamiliar lyrics), consistently disrupts creative performance in insight problem solving."

McLatchie's results go against those in previous studies with larger sample sizes, many of which tout the benefits of working while listening to music.

For example, one study of 155 people published in the journal PLOS One in 2017 found that listening to upbeat music enhanced participants creative "divergent thinking" and helped people come up with more original ideas.

Speaking to The Independent, McLatchie insists that despite his study's small sample size, he considers his results to be fairly reliable due to the strength of the evidence.

"Our conclusion was based on a meta-analysis across all three studies," he explains. "The meta-analytic result combines all three samples and provides a more accurate estimate than any single study. This meta-analysis again supported the conclusion that exposure to music reduced performance."

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