October 4, 2019
by Tina Arnoldi
A study in the Applied Cognitive Psychology journal found that listening to music while working “impairs creativity.” But other research finds that music is helpful depending on the type of task, such as those requiring divergent thinking.
It’s common in many of today’s open workplaces to have music playing in the background, without regard for the type of task at hand. So which is it? Does it enhance or inhibit creativity? I invited mental health experts and musicians to weigh in.
Marie Anne June Tagorda, a sound and vibration therapy practitioner and brain management consultant, says “depending on the sound or music elicited, the human response can vary from deep relaxation, clear focus, and enhanced creativity and imagination, to increased heart rate and blood pressure, restlessness, irritability, and even signs of anxiety. The pitch, tone, tempo, and intensity can contribute to how it affects the body. The relationship of a certain sound to a person's life experience or memory can also affect how he or she reacts to those sounds.”
Vincent James believes listening to music can absolutely be a boon to creative thought - when utilized intentionally. While he believes the referenced research study makes some good points, he believes “that for many, listening to instrumental music of a new age, jazz or classical variety allows the mind to creatively wander into a place where innovative discoveries can be made. The key is for each person to experiment listening to different styles of music while working on creative tasks to determine which offers the most positive results.”
Alex McCormick, a Content Writer at Anglo Liners notes that while this study claims music is a hindrance to creativity, other studies show that “music increases dopamine flow in our brains, helps us to relax, and allows our subconscious to think of more creative solutions to problems.”
One might assume a full-time musician would definitely support the use of music for creativity, but Victor Bailey says creativity suffers from background music. He said, “As a full-time musician, it seems counterintuitive to say that background music can hinder creativity but I couldn’t agree more. In fact, by being surrounded by music almost every day, I notice a massive difference when I think in a silent environment. Silence allows me to reach the depths of my brain that the background music would never let me connect with. If I create music, then the task itself implies background noise however I do my best to do other things without any audio distractions. What happens is you get drowned in sound and disconnect from the present moment which doesn’t allow you to fully focus and exercise your thinking muscles. I’ve performed an experiment on myself and would read books with some concentration music in the background for a few weeks. In the following weeks, I’d do the exact opposite and only read in complete silence. My reading comprehension has improved massively and I strictly avoid background music from that day.“
Julie Austin is a creativity speaker and workshop leader who points to a John Hopkins researcher who found that when jazz musicians improvise, their brains turn off areas linked to self-censoring and inhibition, which we need to be creative. She said “they found that the creative state (or "being in the zone") benefits from having fewer active areas so that different regions are able to communicate with each other and produce new and novel insights.”
What experts do agree on is that there are a lot of variables, such as the type of music and the task at hand, and not all were explored in this Applied Cognitive Psychology study. More research is needed to determine when music is beneficial to an individual. But as Austin says, “Whatever get your creative juices going is a good thing!”
Tina Arnoldi, MA is a marketing consultant and freelance writer in Charleston SC. Learn more about her and connect at TinaArnoldi.com