Previously, the idea behind music and work has been that music can energize, calm and focus you. You simply have to find the "right" music and pair it with certain types of tasks (e.g., instrumental music if you're doing something with words, songs with upbeat tempos if you want an pick-me-up in the afternoon). But if you're tempted to hit play today when your mood slumps or Chatty Betty/George lingers nearby, you might want to rethink.
Researchers from University of Central Lancashire, University of Gävle in Sweden and Lancaster University conducted a series of three studies that contradict the idea that listening to music is beneficial for creativity. The studies had students listen to different types of music while trying to complete a creative association task. In this case, the task was to look at three words (e.g., dress, dial, flower) and come up with a fourth word that could pair with the first three (e.g, sun). Students listened to '90s pop music translated to Spanish (foreign or unfamiliar music) for the first study, instrumental music for the second, and fast-tempo (160 beats per minute) music with positive lyrics for the third.
In the third study, the researchers confirmed that the upbeat, positive music did improve the mood of the listeners. But in all studies, listeners did better on the creative tests if they worked in a quiet environment. There wasn't a significant difference in test performance if the students worked with ambient library noise. And the music negatively influenced how creative the participants were on the association tests. That contradicts the concept that simply getting in a good mood will help you innovate better, as well as the idea that instrumental music is a simple workaround for jobs where you have to use language.
The researchers concluded that "a changing sequence of sound disrupts serial recall to a far greater extent than a non-changing sequence of steady-state sound". In other words, the very thing that makes music so beautiful--the constant kaleidoscope of rhythm, harmony, volume and other elements--is so intriguing to the brain that it actually can interfere with memory. And since you depend on memory to pull pieces that work together, mixing music and creative tasks might not be the best idea. Ambient noise isn't as disruptive because it is steady-state environment.
In the work context, the research doesn't mean you can't use music on the job at all. It simply suggests that if you've got something creative to do for a project, the best thing you can do is slip away to a quiet space, whether that's an empty conference room or a cozy no-distraction pod. Ambient noise isn't going to hurt you, so heading out to a coffee shop--or a library, as in the study--where social pressures are different than in the office might be the next best choice. Leave the music off unless you're doing something repetitive or mundane that doesn't require you to be creative, or just grab your headphones during your breaks. And if you want music to motivate others, just make sure you play it before or after the creative part of your meeting, seminar or conference, rather than using it as background noise during the creative activity.