Music Inhibits Creativity, Study Shows…wait, what?

Vibration patters of musical notes.

One legacy of my varied academic background (both science and history, not to mention the kind of liberal arts education that is often sniffed at these days) is that I have a fairly finely-tuned BS detector.  Critical thinking, once you’ve acquired the skills, is something you can apply to fields where you are not an expert, at least when it comes to asking questions.

Take this article that I ran across in one if the music groups I follow.

“Listening to Music Inhibits Creativity, New Study Shows”, read the headline.  At first, I thought that perhaps someone had just pasted on a clickbait-y headline, but then I read the opening paragraph.

“Those of us who enjoy putting on a bit of music to work might reconsider doing so next time, opting instead for the quiet of a library or the silence of an empty room. A new study has shown that all background music, with or without lyrics, substantially inhibits our creativity, running counter to the widely held belief that it boosts imagination.”

OK.  That’s a pretty absolute statement.  Let’s see what the proof is.

“As detailed in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, researchers from the University of Central Lancashire, Lancaster University and the University of Gävle in Sweden investigated the effects of background music on performance by presenting subjects with a series of Compound Remote Association Tasks. These tasks, thought to measure verbal creativity, saw participants presented with lists of three words, such as ‘dress’, ‘dial’ and ‘flower’, and asked to come up with an associated word, like ‘sun’.

The first experiment asked 15 male and 15 female university students to solve 38 of these tasks, with 20 considered relatively easy and 18 that were significantly more challenging. Half of the group were played a pop song that had been translated into Spanish to find out whether vocal music in a foreign language would be distracting enough to impair performance, while the other half completed the tasks in a quiet environment. The researchers found that those working in the quiet solved substantially more problems than those listening to music.”

So, what we have here is a single study with a relatively small number of participants, asked to solve wordplay problems. Let’s continue reading.

“The second experiment was similarly structured, with half the subjects listening to an instrumental piece of music without lyrics. Again, those participants working in a quiet environment solved significantly more tasks. This result was borne out by the third and final experiment, which saw half the group played a song with “positive lyrics” in English, with a fast tempo averaging about 160 beats per second. Although the upbeat music appeared to boost the mood of those who heard it, this did not translate to increased levels of creativity, and again more problems were solved by those in quiet environments.”

Similar findings for instrumental music and music with lyrics in English.  But did you catch it?   The absolutely impossible part of the statement?

Hint:  Look for the “fast tempo.”

160 beats per second.  That’s not a “fast tempo.”  That’s a tempo so fast that it cannot not be resolved into individual beats by the human ear.  So, let’s assume they made a mistake, and meant 160 beats per minute, or bpm.  Songs at 160-180 bpm are commonly used by runners and others doing cardio training.  They’re meant to stimulate physical activity, not thinking.  And they are very, very difficult to ignore.

Let’s finish up the article:

“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 as measured by CRATS,” said the study’s co-author, Dr Neil McLatchie.

“Background music appears to disrupt people’s ability to plan and test out solutions using their inner speech.”

So:  The study’s co-author rather specifically caveats the findings as limited to “creative performance in insight problem solving as measured by CRATS”, but it would be easy to miss that with the first statement in the paragraph.  We then hear that what “background music” disrupts is “people’s ability to plan and test out solutions using their inner speech.”

So, again, a specific type of problem solving. Small study size. Dubious as to whether at least one of the samples was really “background music.’  And from this,  drawing massive, sweeping generalizations about how “creativity” is affected by music.

Let’s think for a moment about tasks that require concentration.  A word-association test with some degree of difficulty?  Yep, that sounds like the type of thing that would.  And so the results aren’t really all that surprising.  But it’s the massive generalization to music’s effects on creativity as a whole that rings alarm bells.  Creative problem-solving is not the same thing as creativity.

This is bad science reporting.  Given the fact that the journal cited seems to be a reputable one, I suspect that the sweeping generalizations were not made by the researchers themselves.  Where they are quoted, their statements appear to be very specific about the narrow focus of their findings.  But the article leaves much to be desired–starting with failing to link to either the original article itself, or a scholarly abstract or summary of it (given it’s in an academic journal, probably behind a paywall).

It also points out the difficulty in attempting to quantitatively measure an abstract quality such as creativity.  You might be able to measure a very specific type of situational creativity at a micro level–as the assessment used in the study seems to be designed to do–but trying to apply these findings at a macro level is fraught with difficulties, the first of which is that there are many types of creativity. You can be creative as an artist, a writer, a philosopher, a mathematician, a chef, an architect, or a musician, but one thing they have in common is that creativity is built on a foundation of knowledge and skill, finding the language to express what it is you want to express.  And this requires big-picture thinking, an awareness of the world around you and both its logic and emotional impacts.  Many of the most brilliant thinkers and artists in their fields turn out to be polymaths–I am thinking of Einstein and his violin, or Frank Lloyd Wright and his encyclopedic knowledge of Japanese prints.  Being creative, almost by definition, requires input from many sources.  In the assessment mentioned in the article, how would I even have the foundational tools to solve creative wordplay problems if I were not engaged with the world around me–well-read, familiar with the use of descriptive language and metaphor?  Music, for me, is one of the elements that helps me build the kind of mind that makes solving wordplay problems even possible. Its influence is not in the background music played during the study, but long before, throughout my lifetime.  The same goes for the visual arts, for literature, for science.

I posted the link to the study to my Facebook timeline, with some commentary about my issues with its conclusions.  I received multiple replies from friends–many of whom are extremely talented writers and artists–about how they have used music to expand and enhance their creativity, although one reported finding it distracting for writing, but not other creative activities.

In my experience, music that is meaningful to me opens up emotions and perspectives at the macro level, and so enhances my overall creativity.  That “meaningful” part is important–random background music will not have the same effect, and might even have a detrimental impact if I find it annoying.  I certainly would not find random 160 bpm running music to be particularly conducive to anything except maybe running.  Incidentally, there is some music that is, in a way, too meaningful, in that it demands my full attention while listening.  I use those pieces as a way of clearing out the mental cobwebs, or as “nasal spray for the brain” to clear out the gunk and extraneous noise.  They bring focus going forward, and prep the mind for concentration.

So short answer:  this study, as presented in this article, does not challenge the “popular view that music enhances creativity.”  It demands more details:  What kind of music? When? Played by whom?  How do you define creativity? Have larger studies been done?  What were their methods, and what were their findings?  Be specific, and show your work. Because that’s what separates the science from the BS.

It does suggest that if you’re doing a creative verbal problem-solving task that requires concentration, random background music might be distracting. That’s it.  And that’s a conclusion I can understand.

I leave you with this list of five 160 bpm songs (or rather, songs that support 160 steps per minute while running):

The Butthole Surfers – Pepper
Grateful Dead – Touch of Grey
Barenaked Ladies – If I Had a Million Dollars
Meatloaf – Two Outta Three Ain’t Bad
Marcy Playground – Sex and Candy

Happy trails!