Listening to Music Can Actually Impair Creativity, Study Finds

music, creativity
Listening to music can impair creative problem solving, according to a new study. Lancaster University

Music is often associated with creativity. However, a study published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology has found that listening to background music impairs certain types of creative thinking.

An international team of researchers from Lancaster University, the University of Central Lancashire—both in the U.K.—and the University of Gävle, Sweden, wanted to test the claims of some scientists that background music enhances creativity.

To do this, the team conducted a series of experiments involving verbal insight problems known as CRATs (compound remote associate task), which are typically used in psychological research to study insight-based creative problem solving.

"A CRAT involves a participant being shown three words (e.g., dress, dial, and flower), with the requirement being to find a single associated word (in this case "sun") that can be combined with each presented word (either being placed before it or after it) to make a common word or phrase (i.e., sundress, sundial, and sunflower in the present example," the authors wrote in the study.

The researchers asked participants to complete the problems in different environments which were either quiet or had one of three different types of music playing: background music with foreign (unfamiliar) lyrics, instrumental music without lyrics or music with familiar lyrics.

The results of these tests showed that when participants listened to music while completing the verbal tasks, their performance was "significantly impaired," in comparison to quiet background conditions, according to the researchers.

"We found strong evidence of impaired performance when playing background music in comparison to quiet background conditions," Neil McLatchie, an author of the study from Lancaster University in the U.K., said in a statement.

While the team did not test why this may be happening, they suggest that the effect could arise because music disrupts our verbal working memory, therefore making it harder to complete the given tasks.

"Furthermore, Experiment 3 [in which participants were exposed to music with familiar lyrics] demonstrated that background music impaired CRAT performance regardless of whether the music induced a positive mood or whether participants typically studied in the presence of music," the authors wrote in the study.

"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 wrote.

Music is known to affect our brains in a variety of mysterious ways. Various studies have indicated, for example, that our favorite tracks can have a profound affect on our mood, while others have suggested that music can even influence what food we order in restaurants or buy in supermarkets.