Have you ever wondered why you find the sound of raindrops relaxing, or why some background sounds can help you concentrate?
It’s all about how your brain gets distracted, and how certain sounds can prevent this.
You might well have heard of white noise before. It sounds a bit like static you used to get on old TVs or radios when they weren’t tuned in to a channel (a joy many of my millennial followers will never have experienced).
In the video above, we learn about white noise and it’s more pleasant cousins, pink noise and brown noise.
The reason this sound is called “white” noise is that it is a collection of random frequencies of sounds all mixed together, just like if you mix all colours of light you get “white” light. An example of white noise is provided here:
Many people claim that having a noise like this in the background can help them concentrate (a 1972 study also backs up the idea that background music increases productivity), and there are even apps and dedicated machines which produce sounds like this to help people work or fall asleep. But many people also say they find white noise painful to listen to.
How white noise (and other background sounds) help concentration
Your brain is a finely tuned machine when it comes to concentration. It is perhaps the most advanced object in the universe, able to combine abstract ideas into something more new and creative.
However, behind the advanced parts of the human brain (the neocortex) which control our conscious thought, are the more ancient part of the brain which control basic functions, such as the limbic system (memory, learning, emotions) and the oldest part like the “reptilian brain”, the basal ganglia (motivation, eye movement).
What is important to remember here is that the most ancient parts of the brain evolved to keep us alive and safe, and therefore can override the more advanced areas, such as when you are concentrating on something. Problematically, this part of the brain is very easily distracted when it notices something change, especially visually or a noise, as the brain needs to quickly assess whether it could be a threat.
This is why it is so easy to become distracted while working on a creative project.
Every new alert you get, whether it is an email notification, facebook update or SMS message buzz in your pocket tells the brain:
This is a change in the surroundings and needs my attention NOW!
This is where background noise like white noise can come in.
Your brain is fortunately so advanced that it can recognise patterns to see if it is worth its effort processing this new information. In fact, if it recognises a pattern or notices that its sensory input isn’t changing, it will actually stop processing the information it is receiving and start working off memories.
A white noise the background will quickly become filtered out by the brain (as long as it is not painful), like you quickly forget that an air conditioner is making noise until someone mentions it. This is turn will help mask out other sounds in the background, which otherwise would be instantly heard if there was silence and alert and distract your brain.
Thereby, steady background noises like this can help prevent you getting distracted by making all the other noises less noticeable.
Why white noise isn’t the best solution
In fact, the word noise is a derivative of the latin word for nausea, so it makes sense that noise is described as unpleasant.
The reason for this pain is that white noise takes a random combination of sound frequencies. However, sound frequencies don’t increase incrementally, but rather they double for every octave a pitch increases. This results in twice as many new higher frequency (higher pitched) sounds available for the random list every time you increase by an octave. This results in a much higher likelihood of more high pitched frequency sounds in the random white noise, making the overall pitch seem higher. The video at the top of this page explains it well.
Additionally, human hearing is more sensitive to higher pitched sounds as they are more related to human speech and actually amplifies them. means that this white noise can feel rather uncomfortable.
Combine these two facts together and white noise can feel rather uncomfortable.
If you want something more pleasant to listen to, you could try pink noise, which you can listen to here:
Pink noise takes human hearing into account, and balances out the list of pitches in the noise the spread out the frequencies more evenly. This reduces the number of high pitched sounds and produces a sound which is a slightly deeper tone overall.
If white noise sounds like static, then pink noise sounds a bit more like raindrops falling in a storm.
Many people swear that this tone helps them concentrate by preventing distractions while being much more pleasant to hear for extended periods of time. Go on, press play on the sound above, and see if it helps you work for a while.
Even more tuned for human hearing is a tone called the brown noise, as shown below:
This tone is designed much more for humans by actually removing a larger proportion of high frequencies alltogether.
The end result is a much deeper sound, which to me sounds similar to water gently flowing in a river or waves on a beach.
It’s also my preferred tone out of all three to work with.
How does background noise affect creativity?
So now you know which tones can help you avoid distractions and help you concentrate, you probably have another question:
Can any of these tones help me get better ideas and work on creative projects?
Again, the answer is yes, but in ways you might not expect.
A fascinating 2012 study did some experiments to see how various levels of background noise volume affected creative performance. They wanted to see which of the three noise levels led to the most creative work:
- 50 decibels (dB): Approximately as loud as a quiet office or home
- 70 dB: About as loud as a vacuum cleaner or busy coffee shop
- 85 dB: A busy road (long term hearing damage from this point)
The finding showed that people were most creative when exposed to a background of 70dB, with scores dropping off both above and below that figure. So a degree of background noise actually helps concentration. So background sounds shouldn’t be too quiet, but also not so loud that they make it hard for the brain to focus.
And what if you don’t just want to listen to the same brown or pink noise the whole time?
Can certain types of music help you complete creative work?
Again, the answer is yes, but there are some important criteria:
- Gentle melody: I advise that musical styles that have a gentle melody are best, without too many quick changes in tempo, melody or too fast a beat. Styles which fit into this would be classical music (especially baroque, but not faster songs like the William Tell Overture or Flight of the Bumblebee), electronic chillout music or even music from certain videogames.
- No Lyrics!: While it may seem counterintuitive, this is important. If you listen to a song with lyrics, it activates the language centres of the brain. If you try to do any creative work which requires words or writing (even writing code), then this would be like forcing your brain to have a conversation with several versions of itself simultaneously. It’s just not a good idea, stick to music without words, unless it’s a creative project which is primarily visual like art, carpentry etc.
- Music you know already (if you want to focus on refining) or New Music (if you need new ideas): As I mentioned earlier, when the brain begins to recognise patterns, it begins to stop processing the information as much, whereas when it pays more attention to new experiences (like new songs). Therefore, if you want to focus on completing a task, put on a playlist you are already familiar with. Whereas if you want to give your brain a creative workout, play it music it hasn’t heard before.
- Your favorite songs to be happy: Sometimes, you need to give your brain a break and do something that makes it happy. In these cases, there is no harm in taking some time to put on some music you love, with lyrics, cranking up the volume way too loud and partying for a while. You might find that when you finish, you’ll have received a rush of endorphins and feel energised and happy to continue.
To get you started, here are three videos from Youtube which I would recommend for anyone wanting some creative flow. They’re all quite long, so just hit play and start working:
So whatever your creative project is, try working on it with some noise in the background next time 🙂
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