Listening to Music Impairs Creativity

New research suggests that background music, with or without lyrics, "consistently disrupts creative performance."
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Headphones working creativity

Newly published research debunks the notion that listening to music can increase creativity.

Do you need to come up with a creative solution to a problem? If so, your inclination may be to close your office door, turn on some music, and hope it provides some inspiration.

In fact, those melodious sounds may be inhibiting your imagination.

Newly published research debunks the notion that listening to music can increase creativity. Its three studies suggest precisely the opposite, indicating that background music, with or without lyrics, "consistently disrupts creative performance in insight problems."

The researchers, led by psychologists Emma Threadgold and John Marsh of the University of Central Lancashire in England, describe the three studies in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology. In each, the team measured subjects' creative problem-solving by their score on a Compound Remote Association Task—a common test, in which subjects were presented with lists of three words (such as "dress, dial, and flower") and asked to come up with a fourth that paired naturally with each ("sun").

The first study featured 15 male and 15 female university students, who were assigned 38 such tasks: 20 that were considered relatively easy, and 18 that were notably difficult. Half did so while listening to a 1990s pop song that had been translated into Spanish. The idea was to discover whether vocal music in a foreign language would be distracting enough to inhibit their performance.

It was. Students solved significantly more problems when they worked in silence.

The second experiment was similarly structured, except the music was performed in a purely instrumental arrangement, without lyrics. Again, participants solved more of the problems if they worked in a quiet environment.

For the final study, a song was chosen that featured "positive lyrics" (in English) and a fast tempo (about 160 beats per second). The 46 participants attempted to solve problems either while listening to that upbeat tune, hearing only ambient library noises, or in silence.

Significantly more problems were solved by people who worked in silence (or in the hushed sounds of a library) than by those who worked with the happy tune playing. The music did tend to boost the mood of the participants who heard it, but that did not translate to higher levels of creativity.

Altogether, the results suggest that "a changing sequence of sound disrupts serial recall to a far greater extent than a non-changing sequence of steady-state sound," the researchers conclude. Those musical changes tend to capture our attention, and make it harder to keep in mind the various factors we are attempting to compare or combine to find a creative solution to whatever problem lies before us.

On the surface, the new results contradict those of a 2017 study, which found one specific type of music—fast-paced, uplifting classical pieces, such as Vivaldi's The Four Seasons—enhanced a key component of creativity: divergent thinking, or the ability to use one's imagination to come up with new concepts, or innovative hybrids.

But even that study found no effect of music on convergent thinking, the all-important second half of the creative process, in which the off-the-wall ideas you came up with get narrowed down until you find one that actually works. The tests participants took in this new study fell into the convergent-thinking category.

It appears that music's ability to spur creativity is, at best, extremely limited. Staring at that blank page in silence may be incredibly frustrating, but it may also be the best way to focus on the task at hand, and summon up the mental resources needed to make unexpected connections.

There's more than one reason why Shakespeare never wore headphones while writing Hamlet.