Strange Science

Trying to write? Kill the music!

There is a popular conception that listening to music will enhance your creativity; in fact, new parents will often play soft music in the baby’s room for that reason (and to soothe the little one to sleep, of course).

Do you sense a big “However” coming? Oh, yeah.

A crew of psychologists at Lancaster University has reportedly discovered that background music can actually interfere with your creative process, especially if you are working on a writing project.

The researchers designed an experiment to measure the effects of background sounds. First, they presented their subjects with problems that require verbal insight, which are believed to trigger creativity. And, they played various types of background music and other sounds.

Surprise! The scientists found that background music “significantly impaired” the subjects’ ability to perform tasks that call for verbal creativity; but the background noise from a library had no effect on their performance.

Here’s how the experiment worked, according to Science Digest. “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”

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

The question now is “why is background music a problem?”.  Well, the researchers theorize that music disrupts your verbal working memory. Simply put, it’s a distraction.

Interestingly, the third experiment reportedly found that the type of music makes no difference. If you’re familiar with the lyrics, the tune lifts your mood, you’re used to studying with music on, or you just plain like the song, apparently it’s still going to reduce your verbal creativity.

However, researchers say they found no significant performance differences between total quiet and library noise conditions because the library is a “steady state environment” that isn’t disruptive.

For more info, please go to And turn off your music.


About the author

Dave Segal

Dave Segal

Dave Segal, a Detroit native, has been a journalist since 1977. He has worked as a reporter, commentator, and news director at radio stations in Detroit, Denver, and Montrose.

Dave has been writing and editing for the Monitor since its first print issue in 2003. He is editor and senior writer for the digital magazine. On the side, Dave has also done freelance writing, media relations, and a variety of volunteer work.