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Background Music May Impair Creativity

Background Music May Hamper Creativity

Do you enjoy playing your favorite music while working on your homework or other creative project? A new study suggests you might want to turn it off.

The findings of the U.K. study challenge the popular view that music enhances creativity, and suggests it may in fact have the opposite effect. This proved to be the case even when the music boosted the listener’s mood.

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

They discovered that background music “significantly impaired” the participants’ ability to complete tasks testing verbal creativity, but there was no effect for background library noise.

For example, the participants were presented with a set of three words (dress, dial, flower), with the requirement being to think of a single associated word (in this case “sun”) that can be combined to make a common word or phrase (sundress, sundial and sunflower).

The research team 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.

“We found strong evidence of impaired performance when playing background music in comparison to quiet background conditions,” said researcher Dr. Neil McLatchie of Lancaster University.

Researchers suggest this may be due to the fact that music disrupts verbal working memory.

In the third scenario, exposure to music with familiar lyrics reduced 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. The 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,” said McLatchie.

Source: Lancaster University


Background Music May Hamper Creativity

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2019). Background Music May Hamper Creativity. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 4 Mar 2019 (Originally: 5 Mar 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 4 Mar 2019
Published on Psych All rights reserved.