Those of us who enjoy putting on a bit of music to work might reconsider doing so next time, opting instead for the quiet of a library or the silence of an empty room. A new study has shown that all background music, with or without lyrics, substantially inhibits our creativity, running counter to the widely held belief that it boosts imagination.

As detailed in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, researchers from the University of Central Lancashire, Lancaster University and the University of Gävle in Sweden investigated the effects of background music on performance by presenting subjects with a series of Compound Remote Association Tasks. These tasks, thought to measure verbal creativity, saw participants presented with lists of three words, such as ‘dress’, ‘dial’ and ‘flower’, and asked to come up with an associated word, like ‘sun’.

The first experiment asked 15 male and 15 female university students to solve 38 of these tasks, with 20 considered relatively easy and 18 that were significantly more challenging. Half of the group were played a pop song that had been translated into Spanish to find out whether vocal music in a foreign language would be distracting enough to impair performance, while the other half completed the tasks in a quiet environment. The researchers found that those working in the quiet solved substantially more problems than those listening to music.

The second experiment was similarly structured, with half the subjects listening to an instrumental piece of music without lyrics. Again, those participants working in a quiet environment solved significantly more tasks. This result was borne out by the third and final experiment, which saw half the group played a song with “positive lyrics” in English, with a fast tempo averaging about 160 beats per second. Although the upbeat music appeared to boost the mood of those who heard it, this did not translate to increased levels of creativity, and again more problems were solved by those in quiet environments.

“The findings here challenge the popular view that music enhances creativity, 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 as measured by CRATS,” said the study’s co-author, Dr Neil McLatchie.

“Background music appears to disrupt people’s ability to plan and test out solutions using their inner speech.”