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Listening to music may be damaging your creativity

The results of a new study suggest that listening to music can significantly impair your ability to perform creative tasks. Whilst music was found to disrupt creative processes, ambient “library noise” was found to have no significant effect.



Ask a group of friends whether listening to music while working get the creative juices flowing, and you’ll be practically certain to find anecdotal arguments supporting both sides. A new study sought to answer the divisive question by putting volunteers through a series of tests.


Participants in the project all spoke English as their first language, and had no deficiencies of sight or hearing. Three experiments were conducted in which the volunteers were asked to carry out a series of tasks commonly used to measure creative verbal performance. For example, an individual would be presented with a set of three words, like stick, maker and point, and asked to find the linking word. In this example the answer would be “match.”


During each experiment the participants were asked to perform the exercises in a quiet setting, and then while being played music, or ambient noise.


The first experiment saw volunteers complete tasks while being played music with vocals that wouldn’t mean anything to them – for example, English-speaking listeners being played music with Spanish lyrics.



In the second experiment, the participants were played instrumental music with no vocals, and in the third the volunteers were played music with familiar lyrics that they could understand. During the third experiment, the participants were also subjected to “library noise” conditions, which involved ambient noise such as unintelligible distant speech, photocopier noise, typing, and the rustling of papers.


The team discovered that creative performance dropped significantly when listening to music over the course of all three exercises, as compared to periods during which participants were allowed to complete the exercises without distraction. Even when participants declared that the music improved their overall mood, in the third exercise, it still impaired creativity.


Whilst music was found to be detrimental, the library noise conditions made no significant impact to creative performance. According to the researchers behind the study, this could be because it is a steady noise, whereas music with or without lyrics is characterized by changes in pitch or tone. It is believed that these state-change characteristics could be affecting performance by interfering with verbal working memory.


“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 researchers state.