Listening to music while working ‘significantly impairs creativity.’

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 giving people verbal insight problems that tap creativity.  They found that background music ‘significantly impaired’ people’s ability to complete tasks testing verbal creativity. In contrast,  no effect was discovered for usual background library noise.

For example, a participant was shown three words (e.g., dress, dial, flower), and asked to find a single associated word (e.g. “sun”) that can be combined to make a common word or phrase (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 and music with  already known lyrics.

Dr Neil McLatchie of Lancaster University reported: ‘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 induced a positive mood, was liked by the participants, or even whether participants normally studied with music being played. But there was no significant difference in performance of the verbal tasks between background quiet and usual library noises. 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.’

This wholly independent survey – most such surveys are not – confirms earlier research from Swansea University and contradicts familiar arguments in favour of piped music.