Background music may actually hamper creativity

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MusicThe 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, 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 (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 (sundress, sundial and sunflower).

The researchers used three experiments involving verbal tasks in either a quiet environment or while exposed to: background music with foreign (unfamiliar) lyrics; instrumental music without lyrics; and music with familiar lyrics

Dr Neil McLatchie of Lancaster University said: “We found strong evidence of impaired performance when playing background music in comparison to quiet background conditions.” 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 performance of the verbal tasks between the quiet and library noise conditions.

Researchers say this is because library noise is a “steady state” environment which is not as disruptive.

“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.”

Abstract
Background music has been claimed to enhance people’s creativity. In three experiments, we investigated the impact of background music on performance of Compound Remote Associate Tasks (CRATs), which are widely thought to tap creativity. Background music with foreign (unfamiliar) lyrics (Experiment 1), instrumental music without lyrics (Experiment 2), and music with familiar lyrics (Experiment 3) all significantly impaired CRAT performance in comparison with quiet background conditions. Furthermore, Experiment 3 demonstrated that background music impaired CRAT performance regardless of whether the music induced a positive mood or whether participants typically studied in the presence of music. The findings challenge the view that background music enhances creativity and are discussed in terms of an auditory distraction account (interference‐by‐process) and the processing disfluency account.

Authors
Emma Threadgold, John E Marsh, Neil McLatchie, Linden J Ball

Lancaster University material
Applied Cognitive Psychology abstract


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