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Listening to music 'significantly impairs' creativity (eurekalert.org)
72 points by altairiumblue 19 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 57 comments

Misleading title.

"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)."

This seems more like a pattern recognition puzzle. Not the flow state of "creativity".

Yeah, I find their methodology unconvincing. This is a common problem in research, where some proxy test is presented and simply declared to be a way of measuring creativity, intelligence, empathy, honesty, criminal tendencies, ability to postpone rewards, etc. Eventually each of these methods falls apart due to lack of evidence and is abandoned, but it can take decades. There are still licensed professionals using Rorschach tests to measure personality traits, including creativity, criminal tendencies, and personality disorders, despite there being no evidence that the "test" works to do that. Or consider the use of the lie detector test. Or the ADE 651 "bomb detector". All with about as much evidence behind them as dowsing.

They do address this in the paper: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/acp.3532. It seems this type of test is fairly common.

I guess there are a lot of different kinds of creativity. This seems to target something I'd think of specifically as "lateral thinking." I agree it doesn't seem like a very satisfying test, though.

Regardless of the test, the title is misleading.

I have found this anecdotally to be true when doing the actual design work of a project. However, once I know what I want to do, music does typically put me into a groove. If you normally listen to music while coding, you may not realize how distracting it can be during periods of deep thought.

It took me years to convince my kids that studying with (vocal) music was not a good idea. After a particularly bad semester at college my daughter got desperate and decided to study without music. Her grades shot way up and now she’s a believer :)

I find I can either listen to music or think deeply. Not to say one prevents the other. When I emerge from a session of deep focus I am often surprised by the songs on my playlist—specifically, not being able to remember hearing any of those recently played.

ADD person here: I feel that this is true for me aswell when I am in the rare state of being able to focus. When I am understimulated, listening to music seems to increase my focus (and otherwise I will move or sing silently to create that stimulus myself).

This. I put a disc on repeat

Actively listening to music engages pattern recognition, prediction and working memory in the listener. It makes sense that this would disrupt concurrent 'creative' or more realistically, pattern matching tasks. However, this experiment does not seem to cover non-concurrent listening to music, aka the Mozart effect. It could well be that listening to music enhances creative ability when subsequently not listening to music. So that regular music listening enhances ability to make creative pattern associations over the long term.

It seems like what this study is really showing, which everyone should already understand, is that your brain cannot process two different information streams at the same time with any measure of success. The farther away your audio stream is from information and the closer it is to steady state (say, unvarying trance beats or, even better, brown noise) the less the impact will be. It's like comparing one person talking to you vs two people talking to you simultaneously. This has been studied before already to death.

But the OP article's premise of tying language center and word selection to "creativity" is weird and sounds like just bad science.

Exactly this.

fta: 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:

Background music with foreign (unfamiliar) lyrics Instrumental music without lyrics Music with familiar lyrics

What a pitri dish experiment. I don't give this any value whatever to actual creative tasks like painting or designing a video game. Music can help induce a state of flow to be creative in a multitude of work environs -- OK, but this research proved you can't solve a simple word riddle quite as well.


This was like studying the effect of food quality on mental function by having participants solve addition problems while eating one of: a Skittle, a carrot, or a Tylenol.

I think this is because you expect creativity to mean something resembling artistic ability (e.g. painting), while the paper's definition is closer to problem solving (performance on CRATs).

When a scientific definition is too far away from the common definition, using the word in a headline becomes a problem

Came here to basically say this.

Interesting. Does programming use this creative language part of the brain or more mathematical?

I have found that some songs with English lyrics as being distracting but not as much as people talking on the telephone in an office space

Programming has different angles. There’s the social aspect of being consciencous and seeing what your junior teammates are thinking in order to help them out. There’s the high level logic of how your app connects together, how it may scale in the future and how you’re going to maintain it. I believe that is more creative or perhaps a combination of creativity and experience.

Then there is the notion of doing hardcore coding. Maybe that’s more logic or a combination of logic and pattern recognition.

Why are we assuming that language = creative, and mathematics = not creative?

Well the article dealt with language, lyrics in music.

Neither, there has been research done of people programming, and they measured the most activity to be in areas related to short term (working) memory.

Also as a 10+ year musician, I prefer programming (or any task that needs focus) without any sound. Listening to music, makes me noticeably more relaxed in a "bad way", and I definitely can't get into the nitty gritty of an actual problem, with anywhere close of a hyperfocus "shit is real" kind of attitude.

Music can get me in the mood, but when I get there and the music is off, it's 5 hours later and I wrote a figurative 1000 lines of working code.

Music is helpful in other ways that might overpower any negative effect.

In my case, music helps me out with my tinitus, without it I'm in a lot of pain. And unlike, say, white noise, listening to music helps a ton with depressed mood. I can't get through my days without its help!

Surely others have similar or different reasons for using music while working!

Despite the title and article's claims, it appears that the researchers found the same:

> The third experiment - exposure 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.

Given that they had to specify this, it would imply that for music without familiar lyrics creativity was not impaired (at least, to a statistically significant level) when participants enjoyed the music or usually study to music.

Not so severe in my case - your experience sounds rough :( - but music helps working in an open plan office.

A pair of good, ear covering headphones improves my focus in a huge way. Great for crunch times - especially with distraction prone ADHD.

Since I've been working there for a while, the headphones have become an analogue for a DND sign. Someone else in the office picks up my calls. Nobody disturbs unless it's our managing director with a pressing issue.

The social sciences need to learn that some of the simplest words have the largest meaning. If your study is about one of those, you'd better be writing the General Relativity of your field.

This study is absolutely not about creativity. What -if anything at all- it is, about, I see was left as an exercise to the reader.

I listen to lofi hip hop or a rain aimbient [0] while programming often. According to "Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Noise on Cognition" [1], this is actually fine. I think the rain ambient is fine, and perhaps even helpful, because it is steady and consistent, like the submission suggests.

[0] https://asoftmurmur.com/ [1] https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/665048?seq=1#metadata_i...

When having to do architectural code stuff, then yeah quiet is usually best for me. But when I need to implement it (which involves a lot of "micro-creativity") then usually some pumping beats (but no vocal), fex[1], helps me keep the energy up and the code flowing.

[1]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lwk9gsRlaPs

Pet peeve -- the article says music "significantly impairs" creativity. But I believe the paper only found evidence that there is a "significant chance that music impairs creativity." I'm not a stats expert, but I feel like these are different things?

Either this is an incredibly widespread mistake in science journalism, or it's not a mistake and I'm an idiot?

That statement is not particularly precise and tacitly claims a lot of things. It’s best to think of it as shorthand for something like “When the test, which is thought to measure creativity, is run with music (vs. without music), the subjects’ performance decreases more than the sampling variability we’d expect when repeatedly running one of the conditions in the experiment over and over.”

This is essentially a Frequentist claim, which is a bit different from your Bayesian belief updating about music’s effects. If, when, and how you can from one to the other has been a major debate in statistics and science.

From years ago, I remember reading about a study involving punch-card batch processing, where two teams were given a stack of input data and an algorithm to implement. One team listened to music, the other not. Both teams completed the task in about the same time, but the team not listening to music saw that after the complex algorithm, the output was the same as the input.

Consistent with the study... Creativity (as insight in thought) is a form of blending from concept to output. You're saying that access to this insight was not achieved by members of the music-listening group.

This doesn't surprise me. Music is particularly detrimental to difficult cognitive tasks for me (i.e. coding), but to "true creativity" as well.

Tedious tasks music is fine with. Like tweaking pixels in a paint program or something. Things that don't take concentration.

Personally I recommend music be reserved for when you can really "get into it", such as when doing physical activities (dance, exercise, etc...especially ones you can do to the rhythm), or just sitting back and listening. And that should be often.

But using it as background when doing other things that tax your brain is to me a waste of the music. (as well as the problems noted in the study)

I'm a classical singer and just all around lover of music.. I'm also a software developer. Listening to music while I program is an absolute disaster. It either has to be a video or an audiobook.

I also have a classical music education and cannot write code (or anything really) with music playing. Vocals, non-vocals, doesn't matter, no matter how hard I try I find myself getting distracted in trying to dissect the music.

I recently restarted classical music education, and have found it makes it much harder to listen to music and concentrate on my software engineering. It used to be okay if the music doesn’t have vocals, now it has to be something simple I’ve heard many times before.

same. I think this tends to affect people with musical training or experience; my non-musician friends can happily listen to music and work, but I can’t.

Video or audio books sound a lot more distracting than music

I listen to music because I find conversations very distracting so an audiobook is disastrous for me.

The problem is that the test subjects were listening to unfamiliar music. If they were listening to what they're always listening to, they wouldn't be nearly as distracted. Personally, most of my hobby projects were coded while listening to loud music (mostly punk rock) that I guess would be quite distracting to unfamiliar people, but I don't think it stifled my creativity in any way.

I wonder if the type of instrumental music makes a difference. I find that soft techno like dub techno helps me focus, while classical does not.

+1 for dub techno when working. Pretty much the only thing that helps me focus

I hate to see this. I really like music.

I guess when I'm doing something repetitive and manual (like painting a house), then some music is just a welcome distraction. But when I'm working on something that requires heavy brainpower (like debugging some failing computer process), then silence does seem to be best.

Indeed, music probably helps only when used as a tool to cut off distractions or to tune our mood. I used to work in an office where junk music (local popular radio) played aloud all day long so I listened to a nicer kind of music in headphones (although what I actually wanted was perfect silence).

Music is a huge distraction while working. White noise or nothing. Some people on my team listen to podcasts while coding, and most of them were watching Cohen's testimony in the background on Wednesday. If they're not fooling themselves about their productivity, I'm really jealous.

For me it's "nothing". My home office is very calm but if I need to dive into something really fully and feel like I'm in my own bubble, I use a pair of big ear muff normally used in construction industry or other high noise environment (31dB noise reduction). It's like sensory deprivation just for audio.

Well, the idiotic, counter-productive ‘open office’ trend doesn’t give most of us much choice - listen to music (productivity impairing or not) or listen to coworkers (productivity killing) inane pointless chatter.

So what is the solution to drown out ambient noise for example a noisy work place?

I can't recall where I got this, but I find the generated noise really good at reducing the distraction from co-workers' conversations, and it's not as boring as straight noise

  play -n synth  brownnoise synth pinknoise mix synth sine amod 0.2 60
'play' is from the SoX package

https://mynoise.net/NoiseMachines/cafeRestaurantNoiseGenerat... is oddly helpful. The unintelligible babble sounds cover up real chatter.

Brown noise?

If you're listening to music/watching Netflix during work, your work will probably be automated or outsourced

It's funny the result sounds slightly controversial because music doesn't have the bad rep that TV does. If the study's conclusion was "Watching TV significantly impairs creativity", everybody would be like "d'oh!". However, listening to music is also an act of passive consumption, just like watching TV, so the result is not too surprising to me.

I think you're confusing "music" with "radio" here.

I'm pretty sure I'm not confusing anything. However you want to define "music" and "radio", both are passive consumption. Sure, there might be some types of music that engage your brain more than others but that would still be nothing, compared to, say, reading a book.

(Anecdote) music with lyrics impairs creativity. I think its because lyrics makes you think.

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