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Why listening to music while trying to do something creative is a terrible idea

Everyone has their own way of getting those finicky creative juices flowing. Sometimes, it’s a walk around the block. Or maybe it’s the surprisingly effective mental tonic that is forest bathing.

Or maybe you like to watch cute puppy videos on YouTube or read important articles on the internet about how to overcome creative blocks.

But the one thing a lot of people do that they really shouldn’t is pump up the volume.

Music will not save you.

Believe me. I’ve been trying to write the opening for this story for the last 20 minutes while a car parked in front of the neighbor’s house rattled out some Meat Loaf power ballads.

It was only when the car screeched away like a bat out of hell that I could finally find the words.

If you don’t believe me, listen to these British and Swedish scientists who recently published a study on the effects of listening to music while trying to do something creative.

After subjecting participants to background music, the psychologists presented them with problems that are believed to require creativity to solve. Their conclusion? Subjects who listened to the background music were “significantly impaired” in their efforts to solve those problems.

Quiet environments, or the background drone found in a library, didn’t impair subjects at all. But play a little music and creative levels nosedived.

How exactly do you measure creativity?

Researchers offered each subject three words and asked each person to find a word that can be used with all of them.

So, for example, the participant was offered “dress” and “dial” and “flower.” Presumably, it took a little creativty to find a common connecting word here: sun (sundress, sundial, sunflower).

“We found strong evidence of impaired performance when playing background music in comparison to quiet background conditions,” noted study co-author Neil McLatchie of Lancaster University in a news release.

Man playing guitar while listening to music at his desk. When your boss needs those reports by the end of the day, DO NOT fire up the air guitar. (Photo: VGstockstudio/Shutterstock)

It was a simple, but telling test: If you’re working on an interesting scientific problem — or maybe just trying to write a story that could use a little creative flourish — you’ll get no help from Meat Loaf.

But let’s take this a little further. Can anyone honestly say they do any creative work better while listening to music?

OK, so maybe you’re baking a cake or painting something wildly abstract. You might be able to make a case there. But if you think about it, you already have a plan. The music is just helping you execute it with some energy — the icing on the cake, if you will.

But something like writing, whether it’s fact or fiction, isn’t planned down to the last word. There are plenty of moments when you’re staring at a half-finished sentence wondering where it all went — and if you’ll ever make it to the period.

(HINT: Long dashes help.)

Adding another voice

Music is not the answer. It’s just another voice in your easily addled head.

Think about it. When you’re writing, do you hear the words in your head as your keyboard clatters them into creation? Of course, you do. It’s a song — spoken word, sure, but still a song.

You’re literally singing sentences into creation. But someone else is singing at the same confounded time. (Is that Meat Loaf neighbor back??)

You can’t have two people singing at the same time. Just like you can’t have two people counting their change out loud at the same time. You can stand there at the Starbucks counter tallying your nickels for all eternity. But as long as the guy beside you is doing the same, neither of you will ever know for certain whether you can afford the venti.

And this writer can sit here trying to string words together all day… but… as… long as Meat Loaf is going on about how cold and lonely it is in the deep dark night — SHUT THAT MUSIC OFF ALREADY! — I will never see the paradise of a simple period by the dashboard light.


Why listening to music while trying to do something creative is a terrible idea

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