Music: Does Listening Enhance or Hinder Creative Work?

I’ve read many comments from other user experience folks about listening to music while they work. Most of them express the same as I experience: I can listen to music while I am designing or constructing a site or prototype, but it interferes with my ability to write. For me this is true even for instrumental music, but it is even more true for music that has words.

I have long suspected that it may be a brain hemispheres thing.

For most people (essentially all right-handed people and the majority of left-handers), language is primarily in the left brain. According to an article in the July 2009 Scientific American:

The left hemisphere of the human brain controls language, arguably our greatest mental attribute. It also controls the remarkable dexterity of the human right hand. The right hemisphere is dominant in the control of, among other things, our sense of how objects interrelate in space.

Thus, writing and designing tend to use different parts of the brain.

So how does music fit in?

Well… Until I started doing the research for this post, I had the impression that music is processed primarily in the right brain, and I was thinking that it thus competed with a left-brain activity (writing) and complemented a right-brain activity (designing). This idea is supported by various sources, such as the Encyclopedia of Psychology, which states: “While the left-brain hemisphere performs functions involving logic and language more efficiently, the right-brain hemisphere is more adept in the areas of music, art, and spatial relations.”

But it turns out that things are not that simple, and that piece from the Encyclopedia of Psychology is nine years old. I came across a lot of contradictory research findings, exemplified by the following:

But the kicker is Daniel Levitin’s work, as described in his book “This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of an Obsession”:

Contrary to the old, simplistic notion that art and music are processed in the right hemisphere of our brains, with language and mathematics in the left, recent findings from my laboratory and those of my colleagues are showing us that music is distributed throughout the brain. … Music listening, performance, and composition engage nearly every area of the brain that we have so far identified.”

So why do so many of us designers find it difficult to listen to music while we write but helpful while we design? The answer is apparently not as simple as I had imagined.

Oh well, there goes a nice hypothesis. (At least I know better than to call it a theory. :-) But here comes a potential research project.

And oh, btw — I would never say that “mathematics” is in the left brain. Having a graduate degree in mathematics, I know all too well that it depends on what kind of mathematics. I would place computation primarily in the left brain, but would suggest that geometry, abstract algebra, and possibly number theory are solidly in the right brain. (I remember that after struggling with multivariate calculus — as left-brained an activity as ever there was — I felt a great sense of relief to get into abstract algebra and find it so fascinating I couldn’t wait to get back to the dorm to do the homework. But most of my classmates didn’t see it that way.)

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  1. Posted 9 February 2010 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    "difficult to listen to music while we write but helpful while we design?"

    I find it difficult to do *anything* requiring focussed thought while listening to music whether the task be verbal or visual. When working at home I have BBC Radio 4 on all the time and happily listen to, and absorb, all manner of programmes – who says men cannot multi-task? But switch station to rock radio (classical is as bad) and my brain and typing grind to a halt.

  2. Posted 18 February 2010 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    I have radio OKOM (which is a traditional jazz station) on my compter 24/7. I have never felt it a hindrance to anything I am doing, in fact it enhances most tasks for me.

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