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As a confirmed music fan and a person who likes to think of themselves as creative, a press release from Lancaster University piqued my interest. It detailed a study that looked at students and their ability to perform creative tests with or without music playing in the background.

For myself, I’ve found that I only listen to music (or podcasts, or video essays) if I’m doing something mindless. If I have to concentrate or try and be creative, the music has to stop. It literally feels like I have too much going on in my head.

This research appears to confirm my impressions, but it should be noted that the experiments only had a small number of participants (30, 18, and 36), and the differences, whilst highly significant, were small. Interestingly, in the third experiment, general background noise (library noise, so not loud and distracting) didn’t appear to impact creativity.

Here is the press release:

The popular view that music enhances creativity has been challenged by researchers who say it has the opposite effect.

Psychologists from the University of Central Lancashire, the 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.

They 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

Dr Neil McLatchie of Lancaster University said: “We found strong evidence of impaired performance when playing background music in comparison to quiet background conditions.”

Researchers suggest 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 the performance of the verbal tasks between the quiet and library noise conditions.

Researchers say this is because library noise is a “steady state” environment which is not as disruptive.

“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.”

Reference:
Emma Threadgold et al, Background music stints creativity: Evidence from compound remote associate tasks, Applied Cognitive Psychology (2019). DOI: 10.1002/acp.3532

3 thoughts on “Creativity and Listening to Music (possibly) Don’t Mix

    1. If you dig deep enough into the methods you’ll find the answer. All the music used was low-mid tempo pop or soul music. In one experiment they used a Spanish version of a 90s UK pop song, in the others it was English language.

      So even with that sort of non-confrontational music, they still got distracted.

      But, still small sample. I’d love to see how much it differs from easy listening through to black metal.

      Liked by 1 person

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