Does Music Help You Concentrate? Science Says It Might Not Always Help With Creativity

It seems to make the work day go by a little faster when you're listening to Elton John or Prince, right? That's how I feel at least, but according to a new study, while your favorite tunes might help you keep your cool throughout a busy day, music doesn't really help you concentrate. So if you're really gunning to get a project done, you might want to pop your earbuds out, or at least turn down the volume for a little while.

The new research comes from psychologists at the University of Central Lancashire, University of Gävle in Sweden, and Lancaster University, who conducted a study on background music and how it affects performance on creative tasks. According to the research paper, which has been published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, the researchers gave 36 study participants between 19 and 56 years old a series of "verbal insight problems" to solve with three different kinds of background music: music with unfamiliar lyrics, instrumental music with no lyrics, and music with familiar lyrics.

As for what those "verbal insight problems" actually looked like in the experiment, a press release from Lancaster University explains that it went like this: A participant was shown three words — such as dress, dial, and flower — and the task was to find a single word that could "be combined to make a common word or phrase (i.e., sundress, sundial and sunflower)," per the press release.

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After completing the experiment, the researchers found that background music of any kind seemed to be a major distraction for the participants as they tried to complete their creative word tasks. In particular, study author Dr. Neil McLatchie said in the study's press release, music with familiar lyrics significantly impaired participants' creativity and focus, "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." So yeah, that's kind of a bummer for those of us who feel like we can't make it through the day without our go-to playlist on in the background.

So why was it that music had such a strong effect on the ability to focus and get something done? Well, according to the study's press release, the researchers think it's because, in comparison, "library noise is a 'steady state' environment," kind of like white noise, whereas music as a form of background noise is a bit disruptive. Thinking about how Ariana Grande hits those ridiculous high notes while you're trying to concentrate on a task at the same time seems like it might be kind of hard, right? Dr. McLatchie explained in the press release,

To conclude, 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.
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Now let it be said that, while this particular study did indeed find that listening to some tunes while you work might hinder your creativity or problem-solving skills, other research has shown quite the opposite, like this 2017 study published in the scientific journal PLOS One, which found that listening to music that makes you happy "may provide an innovative means to facilitate creative cognition in an efficient way."

So, sure, maybe writing a paper with music on in the background could be a bit difficult, but if you're organizing your bedroom or painting a beautiful portrait, perhaps a good playlist couldn't hurt.