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...

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