Turn that down! Listening to music disturbs creativity, study finds

LANCASHIRE, England — From Mozart to Metallica, tons of people enjoy listening to various types of music while they paint, write, or draw. Many believe that music helps boost creativity, but an international study conducted by English and Swedish researchers is challenging that notion.

Psychologists from Lancaster University, The University of Gävle, and The University of Central Lancashire say that their findings indicate music actually stymies creativity.

To come to their conclusions, researchers had participants complete verbal insight problems designed to inspire creativity while sitting in a quiet room, and then again while music played in the background. They found that background music “significantly impaired” the participants’ ability to complete tasks associated with verbal creativity.

The research team also tested background noises such as those commonly heard in a library, but found that such noises had no impact on subjects’ creativity.

The tasks were simple word games. For example, participants were given three words, such as dress, dial, and flower. Then, they were asked to find a single word associated with all three that could be combined to form a common phrase or word. The single word, in this case, would be “sun” (sundress, sunflower, etc.).

Participants completed the tasks in either a quiet room, or while exposed to three different types of music; music with unfamiliar lyrics, instrumental music, or music with familiar lyrics.

“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.

Dr. McLatchie and his colleagues theorize that music interferes with the verbal working memory processes of the brain, hindering creativity. Also, as far as the library background noises having seemingly no effect, the study’s authors believe that was the case because library noises create a “steady state” environment that doesn’t disrupt concentration.

It’s worth mentioning that even familiar music with well known lyrics impaired participants’ creativity, regardless of whether or not it elicited a positive reaction, or whether participants typically studied or created while listening to 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 study reads.

The study is published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.

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