Listening to music while doing work ‘significantly impairs’ creativity, study finds

LANCASTER, England — Listening to your favorite band while chipping away at a presentation for work or your memoir may not lead to your best stuff. While it’s often thought that having background music on actually boosts creativity, a new study finds that it actually can do just the opposite.

Researchers from the United Kingdom and Sweden collaborated to examine how people fared in an activity testing verbal creativity while various types of music played in the background. The results were then compared to how the participants performed while everyday library sounds were being played, as well as while in silence.

Thirty young adults — 15 men and 15 women from the University of Lancashire — were recruited for the experiments. The participants were shown a series of three words at a time and then asked for a word that could be added to each to create a new word or phrase. For example, someone could be shown the words “point,” “stick,” and “maker.” A correct answer in this case could be the word “match” for the group.

Meanwhile, the participants would either take on the challenge while in a quiet environment, or while listening to either music with foreign lyrics, music with familiar lyrics, or instrumental music. The individuals also completed the task with library sounds in the background. In all three cases of the background music, the authors say the participants’ ability to successfully take on the activity was “significantly impaired,” and the effect that wasn’t seen in a quiet setting or with library noise.

“We found strong evidence of impaired performance when playing background music in comparison to quiet background conditions,” says co-author Dr. Neil McLatchie, of Lancaster University, in a media release.

When it came to hearing the familiar song, the authors found creativity was worsened even if the song boosted the participant’s mood, was liked by the participants, or whether they were used to studying with music in the background.

As for why music was so problematic, the authors believe that music disrupts verbal memory. Because sounds from a library continue at a “steady state,” the noise was far less disruptive than the music.

“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,” the authors write.

The study was published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.

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