Under the Hood

Can Listening To Music Impair Creativity?

Most of us would say the act of listening to music has a positive effect on us. It can be therapeutic, reducing our stress levels and potentially doing the same for pain perception.

Medical studies have also explored the potential of music therapy to treat conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, dementia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and more. Neither is it surprising that we like working out to an uptempo soundtrack — research has shown that music can increase excitement which enhances exercise performance and delays tiredness. But when it comes to the effect of music on creativity, the answer appears to be complicated.

Experts note that creativity involves both divergent thinking and convergent thinking. According to a study published in 2017, listening to happy music could facilitate the former.

Listening to music may, thus, be "useful to promote creative thinking in inexpensive and efficient ways" in various settings when creative thinking is needed, the researchers stated. They added that the link between positive mood and creativity could be the underlying mechanism.

However, a new study from the United Kingdom is now challenging this theory. In a series of experiments, psychologists presented participants with verbal insight problems.

For example, a participant is provided with three words — dress, dial, flower — and is tasked with finding a single word that can be associated with all of them. In this case, the answer would be "sun" i.e., sundress, sundial, and sunflower.

The experiments were either conducted in a silent room or while exposing participants to one of the following types of background music — music with unfamiliar lyrics, instrumental music with no lyrics, or music with familiar lyrics.

And the result? "We found strong evidence of impaired performance when playing background music in comparison to quiet background conditions," Dr. Neil McLatchie, a lecturer in the department of psychology at Lancaster University, said in a statement.

It was suggested that music, regardless of whether it contained lyrics, may disrupt verbal working memory. Creativity was impaired even if the participant experienced a boost in their mood after hearing a song they were familiar with. Of course, it is not far-fetched that music may distract people from complex thinking, though more research is needed to shed better light.

But if you are performing a task which is more repetitive than creative, Dr. Joanne Cantor of the University of Wisconsin–Madison says background music is more likely to boost efficiency and accuracy.

"Workers on assembly lines or quality-control operators need to stay focused on their work even though what they’re doing is not necessarily inherently interesting, and attention typically fades over time," she writes for Psychology Today. "In these situations, music can make the task seem less boring, and it can also increase arousal and alertness."

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