Background music “significantly impairs” creativity

1 March 2019

UCLan academics lead research into the impact of background music on performance

The popular view that music enhances creativity has been challenged by researchers who say it has the opposite effect.

Psychologists from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), University of Gävle, in Sweden, and Lancaster University investigated the impact of background music on performance by presenting people with verbal insight problems that are believed to tap creativity.

They found that background music “significantly impaired” people’s ability to complete tasks testing verbal creativity – but there was no effect for background library noise.

For example, a participant was shown three words (e.g., point, stick, maker), with the requirement being to find a single associated word (in this case “match”) that can be combined to make a common word or phrase (i.e., match-point, matchstick and matchmaker).

The researchers conducted three experiments involving verbal tasks in either a quiet environment or while exposed to:

·        Background music with foreign (unfamiliar) lyrics

·        Instrumental music without lyrics

·        Music with familiar lyrics

UCLan’s Dr Emma Threadgold, Research Fellow in Psychology, said: “On the particular tests of creativity presented to people, we found strong evidence that performance was impaired when people tackled the problems in the presence of background music, in comparison to quiet background conditions.”

Researchers suggest this may be because music disrupts verbal working memory.

"Background music appears to disrupt people's ability to plan and test out solutions using their inner speech."

Dr John E Marsh, a Reader in Cognitive Psychology, added: “Background music appears to disrupt people's ability to plan and test out solutions using their inner speech.”

The third experiment, exposure to music with familiar lyrics, impaired creativity regardless of whether the music induced a positive mood or whether participants typically studied in the presence of music.

However, there was no significant difference in performance of the verbal tasks between the quiet and library noise conditions. Researchers say this is because library noise is a “steady state” sound which is not as disruptive as the music used in the experiments

The paper on the study has been published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.