There are some things no one wants to hear, and unlike the music involved, this news is one of them. People have been found to be less creative when listening to music than when sitting in silence. The research only tested one form of creativity, so more work is required before we know how widely applicable it is, but now might not be the best time to buy shares in a streaming platform.
As the headphones in many an office or study center will attest, listening to music while you work is popular, and many people will say it helps them work. Dr Neil McLatchie of Lancaster University decided to test if that is true for the creative side of tasks.
Participants were shown three apparently unrelated words and asked to find a single word commonly combined with each of them. So the answer to “dress, dial, and flower” is "sun". It's a technique psychologists use frequently to test verbal creativity and the conditions that enhance it. In three experiments quiet conditions were compared with different sorts of music.
In Applied Cognitive Psychology McLatchie reports that for maximizing the number of answers people can provide, silence always wins.
In the first experiment, 30 English students solved 20 percent more of the challenges without distraction than when played a 1980s pop song with lyrics translated into Spanish.
The first experiment might be explained by the distracting effect of hearing a familiar tune with lyrics people could not make out. However, when 18 students listened to either music with lyrics or silence, their performance was dragged down by the sound even more.
Finally, a test was run comparing a quiet environment with upbeat pop songs with familiar lyrics. A third condition, low-level “library noise” was added to this comparison. In addition to the creativity questions, 36 participants were also given questions to asses their mood before and after the trial. Most liked the music and indicated it improved their mood compared to quiet.
Half the subjects said they usually studied while listening to music. Nevertheless, it reduced their capacity to answer the questions compared to quiet. Library noise did best of all, although its difference from near-silence was not statistically significant.
McLatchie acknowledged the work does not explain why music interferes with verbal creativity, referring to competing theories that background sounds either reduce overall attention or that even subconscious attention to music lowers what can be focused on the task at hand.
It's possible music could be good for some sorts of creativity and bad for others. One study of visuo-spatial problem solving found it was enhanced by background sounds, although music was not specifically tested. Music may also improve motivation, and a previous study found an increase in forms of creativity after listening to music.