Listening to music stimulating creative thinking or distracting?

Listening to music at work significantly reduces your creativity. That’s the conclusion of a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology after looking at the influence of different types of music on creativity.


In this study, researchers from the UK came up with a series of word puzzles designed to assess the level of creativity and thought processes. Participants must complete the quizzes in a quiet space or a place where music is played. Music can be familiar or novel melodies, with or without words. As a result, the average score for creative tests is lower than their scores when working in quiet conditions. “This result really raises the conclusion that listening to music enhances creativity,” the researchers said.

Research has shown that listening to music can reduce anxiety and improve mood, and these changes can facilitate creative thinking. Mark Beeman, head of the psychology department at Northwestern University and principal researcher at the NU Innovation Lab, said: “To have breakthrough moments, the mood of excitement plays a role. It also means that if someone is worried, this anxiety tends to make them more focused, which is not helpful for creativity”.

How is focusing on a creative problem a bad thing? Beeman spent two decades studying the brain and its creative processes, revealing his findings in a book he wrote in 2015 – “The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain”. He explained that the creative problem-solving process tends to be broken down into phases.

He said the first phase, involving studying a problem or dilemma, evaluating solutions and realizing that no solution was effective. This is where music works. When a person has examined a problem and encountered an obstacle, the next thing will be what Beeman calls incubation.

On the other hand, listening to music maybe just a kind of light navigation that relaxes the brain while allowing it to implement new ideas effectively, he said. And in fact, there’s plenty of evidence that listening to music can stimulate the brain’s default network mode – a set of connected brain regions related to the creative nature.

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Beeman does not argue over the results of new research that shows music interferes with creative problem-solving. He said that music may not help solve the kind of word puzzles, he himself helped design a similar experiment and confirmed this many years ago in an effort to better measure certain aspects of creative thinking. According to him, this particular type of puzzle requires a lot of cognitive processes, some of which require intense attention. And all the distracting factors, including music, create a distraction.

In those cases, what kind of music should you play? “I think that will vary greatly depending on the individual. For most people, I think something pleasant and familiar should not be too new or distracting”.