According to a new study, listening to music can significantly impair people’s ability to complete creative tasks.
Earlier, the popular view that music enhances creativity has been challenged by researchers who say it has the opposite effect. In this study, psychologists from the University of Central Lancashire, University of Gävle in Sweden and Lancaster University investigated the impact of background music on performance by presenting people with verbal insight problems that are believed to tap creativity.
The results of the study were published in the journal ‘Applied Psychology: An International Review’. The researchers found that background music “significantly impaired” people’s ability to complete tasks testing verbal creativity - but there was no effect for background library noise.
For example, a participant was shown three words (e.g., dress, dial, flower), with the requirement being to find a single associated word (in this case “sun”) that can be combined to make a common word or phrase (i.e., sundress, sundial and sunflower).
The researchers used three experiments involving verbal tasks in either a quiet environment or while exposed to: background music with foreign (unfamiliar) lyrics, instrumental music without lyrics, music with familiar lyrics.
“We found strong evidence of impaired performance when playing background music in comparison to quiet background conditions,” said researcher and Dr Neil McLatchie.
Researchers suggested that this may be because music disrupts verbal working memory. The third experiment - exposure to music with familiar lyrics- impaired creativity regardless of whether the music also boosted mood, induced a positive mood, was liked by the participants, or whether participants typically studied in the presence of music.
However, there was no significant difference in performance of the verbal tasks between the quiet and library noise conditions. Researchers said that this is because library noise is a “steady state” environment which is not as disruptive.
To conclude, the findings 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.