The popular view that music enhances creativity has it all backwards, according to an international team of researchers.

Classical music.

Image via Pixabay.

Psychologists from the University of Central Lancashire, the University of Gävle in Sweden, and Lancaster University investigated the impact of background music on creative performance and let me tell you — the results aren’t encouraging if you like music.

Creatively uncreative

The team pitted participants against verbal insight tasks that require creativity to solve. All in all, they report, background music “significantly impaired” people’s ability to perform these tasks. Background noise (the team used library noises) or silence didn’t have the same effect on creativity, the team notes.

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

As an example, one of the tasks involved showing a participant three words (e.g. dress, dial, flower) and asking them to find a single associated word that can be combined with the three to make a common word or phrase (for example, “sun” to make sundress, sundial, and sunflower).

Each task was performed in three different settings: in the first, music with foreign or unfamiliar lyrics was played in the background. In the second setting, instrumental music (no lyrics) was played in the background. The third setting involved music with familiar lyrics being played in the background. Control groups performed the same task either in a silent environment or with a background of library noises.

All participants in settings with background music showed “strong evidence of impaired performance” in comparison to quiet background conditions, McLatchie says. The team suggests this may be because music disrupts verbal working memory.

The third experiment in particular (music with familiar lyrics) impaired creativity regardless of whether it also induced a positive mood, whether participants liked it or not, or if they usually study or work with music in the background. This effect was less pronounced when background music was instrumental with no lyrics, but still present.

“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.”

However, there was no significant difference in performance on verbal tasks between the quiet and library noise conditions. The team says this is because library noise is a “steady state” environment which is not as disruptive as music.

So it may be best for your productivity to close that YouTube tab when trying to study or work. Can’t say that I’m thrilled about the findings but hey — science is science!

The paper “Background music stints creativity: Evidence from compound remote associate tasks” has been published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.