How do you express your creativity? Does music put you in the mood, or do you need complete quiet to let the creative juices flow?
For years, scientific research has found that music played at a low volume can enhance a person’s creativity. A new study, published in Applied Cognitive Psychology and reported in Medical News Today, has debunked this notion however. Researchers from three European universities who conducted the study found that quietness or even mild background library noise is more beneficial to creativity than music. It didn’t matter if the music was instrumental, contained familiar lyrics or unfamiliar lyrics. Music of any form impaired a person’s ability to solve tasks involving verbal creativity, such as writing and conversing.
For the study, researchers asked participants were given three words and were asked to add another word to each one to create a new word or phrase. For example, for the words dial, dress and flower, the correct answer was the word sun which created three new words: sundial, sundress and sunflower.
This exercise is an example of Compound Remote Associate Tasks (CRAT) which scientists often use to assess creativity. CRAT demands creative convergent thinking which connects different ideas to determine one correct solution to a problem. This contrasts with Alternative Uses Tasks, which engage “divergent thinking,” meaning that multiple possible solutions are generated.
Researchers found that listening to music disrupted a person’s verbal working memory that supports creative problem-solving in everyday tasks, such as driving, decision-making, conversing, and of course, writing. Even background library noise was a better option than music, the researchers found.
This conclusion contradicts a study from 2012 that found that ambient background noise was an important factor in creative cognition. Research found that a moderate level of ambient noise – about 70 decibels, equivalent to a passenger car traveling on a highway – enhanced creative performance. However, higher levels of noise above 85 decibels hurt creativity by reducing a person’s ability to process information. As noise volume increases, so does one’s level of distraction.
What does this mean for writers, artists, poets and other creative types? It means quieter environments are likely to enhance your creativity outflow. Noisier environments are more distracting. If you enjoy music, perhaps keep it at a low volume so it simply hums in the background.
Other factors also should be considered, such as the type of creative work being performed. Does the task demand verbal working memory for memorizing lines from a play, practicing a speech or writing a poem? Or is the task related to alternative divergent thinking, which allows the mind to wander off in different directions, especially helpful for brainstorming.
If you want to stir your imagination and brainstorm story ideas, go ahead and play music. It will likely stir your imagination. But if you need to resolve a problem or need a fixed solution, like finding the best words to express yourself in a letter, you might want to turn off the music.
Another factor is the person’s personality. Some people, myself included, cannot tolerate high levels of outside stimuli. Others are not only not bothered by outside stimuli, they thrive on it. I admire any person who can zip off a short story while sitting at a local coffee shop with music blaring from the speakers.
There’s one final factor to consider: a person’s mood. Sometimes listening to your favorite music lifts your spirits. When you feel good, the ideas begin to flow.
As writers, bloggers and business communicators, we need to protect our creative resources. It’s one of the most vital resources we have for our work. Minimizing the noise in your environment not only protects your ears, it protects your creative well-being.
Which type of environment works best for your creativity? Do you like to work in a quiet environment, or do you prefer to work with music that inspires you?