“It helps me focus!” Who hasn’t used that as an excuse to listen to music while studying for a class or working on a boring project? Yet, according to a study published in 2019 in Applied Cognitive Psychology, listening to music at work is a major hindrance to creativity. So, good idea or bad idea?
The results of this work, cited by Time, challenge the idea that background music enhances creativity. Whether the music is familiar or unfamiliar, vocal or strictly instrumental, it seems to distract us more than anything else. But don’t throw out your headphones or headphones right away. Other research on music and creativity has shown that, depending on the type of creative task a person faces, certain types of music can be useful.
A study published in 2017 in Plos One magazine found that listening to upbeat music, defined as classical tunes that were upbeat and stimulating, helped people better perform tasks that involved unexpected, original and creative thinking. One of the theories advanced in this study is that live music stimulates the brain in a way that promotes a flexible thinking style that leads to unconventional or innovative ideas.
In what situations can music help?
Research has shown that listening to music can reduce anxiety and improve mood, and that these changes may facilitate creativity. Anxiety, on the other hand, tends to increase concentration, which is not helpful. Creative problem solving is a step-by-step process. The first step is to study a problem and evaluate obvious (and unnecessary) solutions. The second is marked by an unconscious incubation phase, where the brain works on unexpected solutions.
It is during this stage that certain activities, such as music, can stimulate the diversion of attention needed by the brain to develop its new ideas. Music is therefore not recommended when solving a problem that requires attention and concentration. Nor is it useful when studying a problem.
But you can play your favourite songs whenever you get stuck on something and need creative inspiration. Taking a break to listen to music engages you in an idle mental wandering that is quite necessary for the brain. Do researchers recommend a particular type of music? The answer varies depending on the individual, but if possible something pleasant and familiar, to avoid distraction.