Music enhancing creativity: fact or fiction?

Music enhancing creativity: fact or fiction?
© iStock/talip

Psychologists from the University of Central Lancashire, Lancaster University, UK and University of Gävle, Sweden are challenging the idea of music enhancing creativity.

The popular notion that music has the ability of enhancing creativity has been challenged by researchers who claim it has the opposite effect – could this change the way we think our cognitive abilities work?

The researchers examined the impact of background music on performance by presenting people with verbal insight problems that are believed to tap creativity.

Enhancing creativity or discouraging creativity?

According to the study, the researchers found that background music significantly impaired an individual’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., 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 (i.e., sundress, sundial and sunflower).

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

  • Background music with unfamiliar lyrics
  • Instrumental music without lyrics
  • 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 that this may be because music disrupts verbal working memory.

The third experiment that exposed participants 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.

Challenging past views

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.” Says McLatchie.

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