Your Personal Soundtrack to Creativity: Does Music Impair Our Ability to Problem-Solve?

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By: Niki van den Heever

Photo by: daffa rayhan zein from Pexels

A recent article published by Reading Eagle on 13 March, tells of a study done at both UK and Swedish Universities and suggest that listening to music while engaged in creative problem-solving has a serious negative impact on the brain, impairing one’s ability to focus and solve problems. The study was published in the Cognitive Psychology journal as part of the investigation into the subject.

The study involved a nice round number of 100 students, each presented with Compound Remote Associate Tasks. These tasks are used to evaluate insight-based creative problem-solving. Simple tests where participants are shown three words and are required to name one word that links all three words.

The test was done in four stages.

1: While listening to nothing.

2: While listening to background music with foreign lyrics

3: While listening to instrumental music without lyrics

4: While listening to music with familiar lyrics

As explained by co-author Neil McLatchie “We found strong evidence of impaired performance when playing background music in comparison to quiet background conditions,”

Though these scientists did not study why exactly these results would show this, they hypothesize that music disrupts our verbal working memory which would have an impact on our ability to complete a task.

Now while that all sounds very legitimate and might even make you take pause to consider such absurdities, especially with how professional and official the study sounds. I put it to you that all that is, in fact, complete and utter nonsense. Yes, I said it.

I could obviously just present various studies that all sound just as conclusive and official as the previous one. Studies that show findings quite to the contrary of this one:

Dr. Lesiuk’s research which focuses on how music affects workplace performance for example, where she found that those who listened to music completed their tasks more quickly and came up with better ideas than those who didn’t, because the music improved their mood. She also noted that personal choice in music was very important.

PubMed.gov published their findings on Background music and cognitive performance, done with 56 university students and reported that “Background music increased the speed of spatial processing and the accuracy of linguistic processing. The findings suggest that background music can have predictable effects on cognitive performance.”

Even in life-risk situations, like for example a medical publication studying the effects of music in surgery. 50 surgeons were observed in a Hospital psychophysiology lab and the results concluded that “speed and accuracy of task performance were significantly better in the surgeon-selected music condition than in the experimenter-selected music condition, which was also significantly better than the no-music control condition.”

And if it interests you, feel free to do your own research on the subject. The study of music on the brain is an actual thing and it’s called Neuromusicology, published by Michael H. Thaut. However, what I would like to do here is put it quite plainly.

What these ‘anti-music’ scientists failed to consider is the relationship of the 100 individuals to the music chosen for the study. I will not deny that there are a significant number of people who find that they cannot concentrate on any kind of work while listening to music. But that is less about the fact that there is music playing and more to do with the fact that there is any kind of sound happening in the background. These people would also find it impossible to concentrate while the television, hairdryer, lawnmower or indeed, their little brother is causing distracting noise in the working environment. From the start, people who are aware of their need for silence should have not been eligible for the study.

Secondly, the area where this study fails is that these scientists were under the impression that music can be used this broadly. And this is where we find the divide between science and art. What I mean by this is that music is personal. Everyone has their own idea of what kind of music inspires, drives, and promotes productivity. It is emotionally and spiritually based.

If you have a room of 100 individuals, each of whom have their own taste and idea of what is or fails to be ‘music’… And you are the only one controlling the playlist, chances are very good that you won’t be the most popular DJ in the classroom, my friend. Anyone who’s ever thrown a house party filled with even their own friends knows that if you don’t free up that playlist, plenty sulking is bound to happen. Any piece of music that an individual is forced to listen to that inspires no connection, immediately falls under that same distracting category of ‘background noise’.

I put it to these scientists, nay… I challenge these scientists to get those same rooms, those same 100 people, sieve out the ones who cannot concentrate with any form of background sound, replace them with people who can. Give each individual a pair of good earphones/headphones (depending on what the individual is most comfortable with) and let each person chose their own damn playlist. If you really want to see the effect of music on cognitive thinking… give the people MUSIC.

And just as a side note, I wrote this entire piece while listening to Taking Back Sunday’s Self Titled album on full volume. Don’t tell me I can’t get a task done while I got my music on.