The commonly held belief that listening to music enhances creativity has been debunked — or at least challenged — by new research from a team of British psychologists.
Not only did the researchers discover that music fails to inspire more imaginative thinking, they found that it has the opposite effect — it “consistently disrupts creative performance in insight problems.”
Listening to music does this even for people who say they typically like to listen to music while engaged in creative pursuits.
“We found strong evidence of impaired performance when playing background music in comparison to quiet background conditions,” said Neil McLatchie, one of the study’s co-authors and a psychologist at Lancaster University, in a released statement.
The study, published recently in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, is a series of three separate experiments.
In each of the experiments, McLatchie and his colleagues used the Compound Remote Association Task (CRAT), a test designed by psychologists to test creative verbal problem solving. CRAT presents people with lists of three words that appear to be unrelated, such as “dress,” “dial” and “flower.” They are then asked to come up with a fourth word that can be added to all three of the other words to make a new word or phrase (such as “sun” — “sundress,” “sundial” and “sunflower”).
In the current study’s first experiment, 30 British university students (15 men, 15 women) were given 38 CRAT tasks, of which 20 were considered relatively easy and the others were deemed difficult. The students had 30 seconds to come up with a creative solution for each task.
Half of the students performed the test in silence. The other half did it while listening to a 1990s popular British pop song whose lyrics had been translated into Spanish.
A comparison of the test scores of the two groups found that listening to a familiar tune with unfamiliar lyrics was distracting. The students who worked in silence solved a significantly higher number of the easy CRAT tasks (although, interestingly, not more of the difficult ones) than did the students listening to the music.
The second experiment, which involved 18 students, was similar in design. This time, however, an instrumental-only version of the British pop song was played. The researchers wanted to see if it was the sound of speech rather than the music itself that had distracted the students in the first experiment.
They found it wasn’t. Once again, the students in the quiet group solved a higher number of the easy CRAT tasks.
When the music is ‘upbeat’
The third experiment investigated whether exposure to music that instilled an upbeat mood would also impair creativity. This time, McLatchie and his colleagues divided the student participants (36 in all) into three groups. One group performed the CRAT test in silence, while another did it while listening to sounds similar to what you’d hear in a library, including distant, unintelligible speech, photocopier noise and the rustling of papers.
The third group of students did the test while listening to “a popular 2013 mid-tempo soul and neo-soul song that contained positive lyrics and had an upbeat melody.”
Yet again, those students who worked either in silence or in the relative quiet of a “library” scored higher on the CRAT test than those listening to the music. The happy song in the third experiment did lift the mood of the participants who heard it, but it still proved distracting.
That was true even when the participants said they liked the music. It was also true for people who say they typically listen to music while engaged in creative tasks.
“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,” McLatchie and his co-authors write in their paper.
Limitations and implications
The study comes with caveats, of course. It involved a relatively small number of participants — all of whom were students at a British university. In addition, only three different pieces of music were used in the experiments.
The findings might have been different if the experiments had involved a more demographically diverse group of participants — and a greater variety of music.
Also, this study tested only one component of creativity: convergent thinking, the narrowing down of options to come up with the best solution to a problem. It did not look at divergent thinking, the generation of a free-flowing list of different, imaginative options to solve a problem. (Divergent creativity is often tested by asking people to come up with as many possible uses for, say, a paper clip, in a short amount of time.)
And, indeed, a 2017 study found that listening to “happy” classical music enhanced divergent thinking.
But that study also found that the happy music did nothing for convergent thinking, which is an all-important component of creativity.
So, the next time you find yourself needing to do some creative problem solving, you might want to take off the headphones and listen to the sounds of silence instead. You might solve that problem a bit more quickly.
FMI: You can read the study in full at the Applied Cognitive Psychology website.