Keep the song in your heart, not your headphones: Music disrupts verbal creativity

March 11, 2019

If you think listening to music helps you work better, you soon may be changing your tune.

In fact, it does just the opposite, based on findings of a recent study conducted by researchers from the United Kingdom’s University of Central Lancashire and Lancaster University, as well as from Sweden’s University of Gävle.

The researchers tested the verbal creativity of 30 study participants—15 men and 15 women—under three conditions: while they listened to background music (with familiar lyrics, foreign lyrics, or no lyrics); while they listened to common library sounds;  and while they worked in silence.

The participants were shown a series of three words at a time and then asked for a word that could be added to each to create a new word or phrase.

For example, participants were given the words, “point,” “stick,” and “maker.” A correct answer in this case could have been the word “match”—which makes sense when it is added to each word in the grouping.

When the three types of background music were played, the authors report that the participants’ ability to successfully take on the activity was “significantly impaired”—an effect that wasn’t seen in a quiet setting or with library noise.

 “We found strong evidence of impaired performance when playing background music in comparison to quiet background conditions,” said co-author Dr. Neil McLatchie, of the Department of Psychology at Lancaster University, in a media release.

Specifically, exposure to music with familiar lyrics impaired the subjects’ creativity, regardless of whether the music also boosted mood, induced a positive mood, was liked by the participants, or whether participants typically studied in the presence of music.

By contrast, there was no significant difference in performance of the verbal tasks between the quiet and library noise conditions.

As for why music was so problematic, the authors believe that music disrupts verbal memory. Because sounds from a library continue at a “steady state,” the noise was far less disruptive than the 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,” the authors write.

The study was published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.

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