Listening to background music "significantly impairs" people's ability to complete tasks testing verbal creativity, say scientists who challenge the myth that music makes us more creative. Psychologists from University of Gavle in Sweden, University of Central Lancashire and Lancaster University in the UK 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 (eg dress, dial, flower), with the requirement being to find a single associated word (in this case "Sun") that can be combined to make a common word or phrase (ie sundress, sundial and sunflower).
The researchers used three experiments involving verbal tasks in either a quiet environment or while exposed to background music with unfamiliar lyrics, instrumental music without lyrics, or music with familiar lyrics. "We found strong evidence of impaired performance when playing background music in comparison to quiet background conditions," said Neil McLatchie of Lancaster University.
Researchers suggest this may be because music disrupts verbal working memory. The third experiment -- exposure to music with familiar lyrics -- impaired 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. However, there was no significant difference in the performance of the verbal tasks between the quiet and library noise conditions. Researchers said this is because library noise is a "steady state" environment which is not as disruptive.
The findings challenge the popular view that music enhances creativity, and instead demonstrate that music, regardless of the presence of semantic content, consistently disrupts creative performance in insight problem solving, researchers said.