Recent research questions the popular notion that listening to music increases creativity. Instead, it proposes that quietness, or even background library noise, is more beneficial.

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Many people say that music helps them focus, but the researchers behind a new study beg to differ.

After conducting a series of experiments with human volunteers, researchers from the University of Gävle in Sweden and the University of Central Lancashire and Lancaster University, both in the United Kingdom, have concluded that music can "significantly impair" people's ability to solve tasks that involve verbal creativity.

A paper that now features in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology describes how the team set out to "critically examine the claim that background music enhances creativity."

The researchers investigated the effect of listening to music on people's ability to complete word tasks that call for creativity. The tasks were a variant of "Compound Remote Associate Tasks (CRATs)," which many scientists use to study creativity that involves "insight-based processes."

"We found strong evidence," says co-author Dr. Neil McLatchie, who works in the psychology department at Lancaster University, "of impaired performance when playing background music in comparison to quiet background conditions."

Testing creative performance

A CRAT verbal creativity test involves showing a person three words and asking them to think of a fourth word that they can add either to the front or the end of each of the three words to make three new words or phrases.

For example, giving the word "match" in response to "stick/maker/point," would be a correct answer because it creates the three words or phrases "matchstick, matchmaker, and match point." Another example is the word "sun" in response to "dial/dress/flower" to create "sundial, sundress, and sunflower."

The researchers maintain that there is little scientific evidence to back the claim that music enhances creative problem-solving.

They refer, for example, to a study that claimed to show that music helps creativity. That study used the Alternative Uses Task, in which participants give as many novel uses as they can think of for an everyday object, such as a paper clip or a brick.

However, the Alternative Uses Task only involves "divergent thinking," which helps a person generate different options. CRATs, on the other hand, also demand "creative convergent thinking," which the authors say includes the "connection of different ideas to determine a single, correct solution to a problem."

Does music disrupt verbal working memory?

In the recent study, the investigators ran experiments in which they invited volunteers to complete CRAT verbal creativity tests under different background sound conditions.

The participants did the tests while experiencing either a quiet background, a library noise background, or music playing. There were three different types of music: instrumental only, with familiar lyrics, and with unfamiliar lyrics.

The results showed that listening to music "significantly impaired" performance on the verbal creativity tasks compared with a quiet or library noise background. This finding was consistent across all three types of music.

In addition, in tests on the effect of music with familiar lyrics, listening to music impaired performance regardless of its effect on mood and whether or not the participant liked it. The team found that this was still the case for those who typically listen to music while they work.

Although they did not examine the underlying mechanisms, the researchers suggest that listening to music could disrupt the verbal working memory that supports creative problem-solving.

Working memory is like a temporary scratchpad for holding and manipulating information. Everyday activities, such as driving, writing, holding conversations, and making decisions, use working memory.

Brain imaging studies have revealed that working memory activates "secondary motor areas," even when the "primary motor areas" for speech are inactive.

Scientists suggest that there are two types of working memory: verbal working memory, which temporarily stores and manipulates word-based information, and visuospatial working memory for doing the same with visual information.

The researchers also found no significant difference in the performance of tasks that the participants completed in a quiet background as opposed to a library noise background. They suggest that this was because the "steady state" nature of library noise intrudes into verbal working memory to a lesser extent.

The authors conclude that:

"[T]he 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."