Music At Work Messes With Your Mind: Study

Bobby McFerrin, “Be Happy” Image: Steve Jurvetson, CC BY 2.0

Does Listening to Music Stimulate Creative Thinking, or Stifle It?

By Markham Heid, July 16, 2019

TIME – Listening to music while you work “significantly impairs” creativity.

That was the conclusion of a study published earlier this year in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology that examined the effect of different types of background music on creative problem solving.

For the study, UK researchers presented people with a series of word puzzles designed to measure creativity and “insight-based” processes. The study participants completed the puzzles either in a quiet space or in one with music playing in the background.

Whether that music was familiar or unfamiliar, vocal or strictly instrumental, people’s scores on average fell on the creativity test compared to their scores in the quiet condition. “The findings challenge the view that background music enhances creativity,” the study authors wrote.

But don’t pitch your headphones or desk speaker just yet. More research on music and creativity has found that, depending on the kind of creative task a person is grappling with, certain types of music may be helpful.

A 2017 study in the journal PLOS ONE found that listening to “happy” music—defined as classical tunes that were upbeat and stimulating—helped people perform better on tasks that involved “divergent” thinking, which is a core component of creativity.

Divergent thinking involves “making unexpected combinations, recognizing links among remote associates, or transforming information into unexpected forms,” the authors of that study wrote. Basically, divergent thinking is coming up with new, outside-the-box ideas or strategies.

“We can only speculate why happy music stimulates divergent thinking,” says Simone Ritter, coauthor of the PLOS ONE study and an assistant professor at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

One theory put forward in her study is that the stimulating nature of lively music somehow energizes the brain in ways that promote a “flexible thinking style,” which leads to unconventional or innovative ideas. Read more.