Although music has long been thought to enhance creativity, new research says that it may actually have the opposite effect. According to the new study, listening to background music while performing verbal tasks ‘significantly impairs’ creativity.
For the study, psychologists from the University of Central Lancashire in England, the University of Gavle in Sweden and Lancaster University, also in England, recruited 30 people to participate in a series of three experiments.
In each of the experiments, the participants were asked to identify an associated word among three words and then demonstrate how it may be used to make new words and phrases. In one instance for example, they may have been shown the words: ‘dress’, ‘dial’ and ‘flower’. From there, they could have said that ‘sun’ is the associated word and can be combined with the other words to create ‘sundial’ and ‘sunflower’.
In each of the three experiments, subjects were either asked to conduct the task in a quiet room or in a room with music with foregn (unfamiliar) lyrics, instrumental music with no lyrics or music with familiar lyrics.
In the end, the researchers found ‘strong evidence’ that participants' ability to associate words decreased in the presence of background music compared to that in quiet conditions. In particular they noted that even if exposure to familiar music with lyrics enhanced mood, participants still exhibited less creativity than those in quiet rooms.
The researchers said that this may be the case as music disrupts verbal working memory. They also found however that there was no significant difference in performance of the verbal tasks between those in quiet rooms and in rooms with ‘library levels’ of noise. They concluded that this may be because noises in the library occur ‘steadily’, and thus are not disruptive like music.
"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." say the researchers.
Although interesting findings, as their sample size was small, further research is needed before these results may be considered conclusive. Moreover, the researchers’ use of a ‘verbal task’ may be a limited measure of creativity and should thus perhaps not be used to make broad conclusions about creativity in general.