Study Upends Common Theory About Music and the Brain's Ability to Focus

No, that Spotify Flow playlist does not actually help you study.

In the world of open-office floor plans, many of us find ourselves unwitting participants in other colleagues’ conversations, deliberations, or at best privy to some very loud keyboard tapping. Taking refuge in a dramatic Spotify playlist is a common tactic for coping with the noise, but a new study might change your mind about trying to work to a soundtrack.

Psychologists from the University of Central Lancashire, University of Gävle in Sweden and Lancaster University recently published their study that they say not only disproves the belief that music helps us focus, but shows that tunes actually “significantly impair” peoples’ creative verbal ability. The findings were published in February in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

In fact, that dull, background hum of your office might not be so distracting as you think it is. After administering three tests designed to assess participants’ creative word recall, researchers found that ambient background noise, like that of a library, had no real effect on their concentration.

music productivity
If bulky headphone help you cope with an open office, you might want to consider some white noise. 

On the other hand, all three kinds of music they tried out — instrumental music, background music with unfamiliar lyrics, and music with recognizable lyrics significantly impeded a person verbal creativity. In other words, when asked to come up with a single, associated word — like sun — that could be added to each word within a group — like flower, dial and dress — subjects struggled more to find common terms. These kinds of creative word recall tasks are often used to assess a person’s creativity.

These findings contradict a number of recent studies, which have lauded the impact of music on humans’ ability to concentrate, create and to retain information. The University of Maryland found that listening to music while studying decreased students’ levels of anxiety — and thus, helped them focus.

That’s not all. Another study, published in the Education Studies journal, found that playing classical music helped elementary school students perform better on math and memory tasks, even better than they did when studying in just silence. And of course, there’s the entire Spotify genre of “instrumental movie soundtracks that lift the gloom of pulling an all-nighter” that has emerged over the last few years.

music productivity
Listening to music might not make you so creative after all. 

So why did this study turn out so differently? The researchers believe their tests illustrate the effect of music on our verbal working memory. It’s our ability to recall, not just to remember, but to be able to perform an activity with that memory. It’s how we process and interact with what we hear. It makes sense, then, that music, whether it’s low-key classical or high-key pop, disrupts that process.

“The findings here challenge the popular view that music enhances creativity,” wrote Dr. Neil McLatchie of Lancaster University in the study. “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.”

It didn’t matter if participants knew, and liked, a certain song. It didn’t even matter if their mood was improved. The impact of music on their cognitive ability, in the moment, was deeper than the emotions it may have evoked. That might not necessarily be such a bad thing, though. After all, this study suggests that the source of our creativity runs deeper than what can be gleaned from a superficial assessment of our surroundings. Our ability to get stuff done is not, then, reliant on our dramatic Spotify playlists, and if we’re just quiet for a moment, our own creative memory shines through.

And if, after a quiet moment, that creative memory still isn’t shining through: There’s always white noise.