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The Science of Background Noise and the Best Sound Apps for Work, Sleep, and Relaxation

By Stephen Altrogge · December 27, 2016
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In our increasingly buzzing, dinging, horn-honking world, it can be really difficult to find a quiet space. Whether you’re working in an office with chatty coworkers or from home surrounded by noisy children, finding a place to think, concentrate, and get things done can be extraordinarily challenging.

When the entire world conspires to distract and overwhelm us with sound, there's a simple solution: Peaceful background noise.

In certain situations, ambient background noise has been scientifically proven to improve concentration and creativity. It can help even if you don't work in a particularly loud environment—and may even help you sleep more deeply.

Here's what researchers have discovered about background noise, and the most popular apps to generate all types of ambient noise to help you be more productive.

The Science of Background Noise

Background noise

Most of us don’t work in silence at monasteries or on desert islands. We are almost always surrounded by distracting buzzes, beeps, and conversations—and we need background noise to drown it out.

A study in the Journal of Consumer Research concluded that, while high levels of noise impair thinking, a consistent, low level of ambient noise can increase creativity. In other words, working at the end of an airport runway won’t improve your creativity, but some light ambient noise will.

You've probably heard of "white noise"—ambient, low-level noise which can sound similar to the whooshing of a fan, the constant fall of rain, or cascading waves in the ocean. Technically speaking, white noise is the combination of all the frequencies of sound humans can hear and perceived, put together at a similar level.

White noise has been shown to improve both memory and concentration. In a study of children with ADHD, researchers found that white noise boosted the cognition of the subjects. Another study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience discovered that white noise slightly improved recall. And Harvard Business Review suggests white noise in the office environment can help mask that most distracting sound of all: conversations you're not supposed to be hearing. It even works while sleeping, as white noise blocks out sudden noises with its steady background of consistent noise.

White noise isn't the only color of noise--as signals along the noise spectrum are called. Pink noise, which is focused on lower frequencies and is less high-pitched than white noise, has been shown to prolong deep sleep. Brown noise, also known as Brownian noise or red noise, sounds deeper than both pink and white noise and is often compared to the low roar of a waterfall. With more of a deep buzz, brown noise may be perfect for relaxation and concentration.

Both science and anecdotal evidence suggest that background noise can be beneficial to concentration and creativity, but in some cases it comes down to personality. Some people prefer working in total silence or to background music, while others work better in a slightly noisy coffee shop or with a fan running in the background.

If you haven't found the noise that works for you, it's worth giving ambient background noise a try. For that, there are a handful of well-designed apps you should try.

10 Great Apps For Background Noise

You likely already own a great device for generating background noise, such as a fan. Or, you could buy a dedicated white noise device like the Buddha Machine.

If you don’t want to lug a box fan around, an ambient noise app is your next best bet. These are some of the most popular background noise apps, including tools recommended by members of the Zapier team.

Binaural (Mac, iOS)

Best for: Experimenting with binaural beats


Before you can understand what the Binaural app does, you first need to understand binaural beats. Binaural beats are when two different tones less than a 40 Hz difference difference between them are played, one in each ear, at the same time. An auditory illusion is created and the individual hears a third tone in their mind, with that third tone being the "binaural beat".

Why does this matter? Because, according to some theories and research, listening to binaural beats can cause your brain waves to sync with the frequency of the binaural beats. This theory, known as "brainwave entrainment," posits that you can influence your mental performance by changing the length of your brainwaves.

When you’re falling asleep, your brain begins to produce Theta waves. Therefore, if you want to sleep, you listen to Theta waves and, your own brainwaves will eventually sync to match them, and you’ll fall asleep. Delta waves are for deep sleep, alpha waves for relaxation, and so on.

It's disputed whether brainwave entrainment really works. But, if you want to experiment with binaural beats to see if Gamma waves improve your problem solving skills, you can use the Binaural app. It’s a beautifully designed app that allows you to quickly switch between the different types of binaural beats depending on your activity.

Be forewarned though, listening to binaural beats is a very strange experience, like something out of an old Sci-Fi movie. Your brain could start to feel like it’s vibrating. You might like it—and it might work for you—but it's perhaps the most unusual audio experience in this list.

Price: Free

Brain.fm (web, iOS)

Best for: Background sounds that match your mental state

Brain.fm wants to help you get in the right state of mind

Brain.fm offers a unique take on background ambient noise. The developers worked with auditory neuroscientists to create soundscapes that, according to their research, improve mental performance within 15 minutes or less.

Choose whether you want to focus, relax, meditate, nap, or sleep at night, and Brain.fm automatically creates a soundtrack based on a short profile you create when signing up. Or, you can listen to soundtracks based around a particular sound, such as rain, nightsounds, and electronic noises. It's "the most advanced AI music composer on the planet," designed for the mental state you want to achieve.

My results with Brain.fm have been mixed. Sometimes it really does help me focus while other times it doesn’t make much difference. Your experiences may vary: Other users swear by the app. One fun extra is that Brain.fm charts scores for focus, calmness, relaxation, and more, to track what you get out of each session. Ed note: the Focus tracks can be pretty intense!

Price: Free for 7 sessions/month (sessions can last 30 minutes, 1 hour, 2 hours, or for infinity); from $6.95/month for unlimited sessions, access to all categories, and offline sessions

Coffitivity (web, iOS, Android)

Best for: Working in a virtual coffeeshop

Get a creativity boost with Coffitivity.

If you thrive in coffee shops but don’t want to drag yourself to one or can't leave the office, Coffitivity has you covered. It lets you enjoy the sounds you'd normally encounter in a coffee shop, library, or even a Brazilian Bistro--complete with the sounds of cups clinking and scholarly discussions at the cafe.

Research suggests that the moderate chatter of a bustling coffee shop--at around 70 decibels--can distract you just enough to think more creatively.

If you enjoy the muted activity in a coffee shop and the feeling that you're working amidst others while really you're in your pajamas in your home office, Coffitivity is perfect.

Price: Free for three audio tracks; $9/year for additional audio tracks

myNoise (web, iOS)

Best for: Finding or creating a variety of soundscapes


myNoise doesn’t have the prettiest interface, but what it lacks in aesthetic appeal it makes up in features. With natural sounds, atmospheres, voices, tonal drones, industrial sounds, soundscapes, and transports, there really is something for everyone. It even has a noise color mixer, allowing you to create soundscape of your favorite noise colors.

Created by Stéphane Pigeon, a "signal processing engineer with a strong passion for sounds," it’s hard to beat MyNoise in terms of variety and flexibility. Both the app and site are free to use, although a donation is recommended to continue supporting the sound generators.

Price: Free

Naturespace (iOS, Android)

Best for: Enjoying the great outdoors without leaving your desk

Put your headphones on and feel immersed in nature with Naturescape

Naturespace focuses on delivering pristine nature tracks, such as "Soft Forest Rain", "Campfire Hypnosis", and "Liquid Sunshine." They call their tracks "Holographic Audio"--high-res 3D sound that are "a multi-faceted solution for creating a calm and balanced mental state by transporting you to the world's most benevolent natural environments."

That might sound a bit over the top, but you get the point. If you want the sensation of working in a forest meadow, Naturespace can transport you there. It also offers sleep timers if you want to doze off to the sweet sound of ocean waves crashing on the shore.

Price: Free with 6 starter tracks; additional tracks from $0.99 each

Noisli (web, iOS, Android, Google Chrome)

Best for: Versatile background sound generation

Mix sounds to create your perfect environment with Noisli

Noisli allows you to become an ambient noise DJ, mixing and matching sounds to your heart’s delight. You can combine and blend any of 16 different sounds—including rain, thunder, wind, the sound of a train on train tracks, the crackling of a fireplace, a fan, summer night (think crickets), pink noise, and brown noise—to create a personalized soundscape that helps you focus or relax. If your peak concentration environment is on a train during a windstorm, you can simulate that with Noisli.

Register for an account to save and share your sound creations with others, use a timer for Pomodoro-like productivity, or write in Noisli's distraction-free text editor with Markdown support.

Price: Free

Noizio (Mac, iOS)

Best for: Simple ambient noise generation from the Mac menubar

Get quick access to your sound mixes with Noizio

Noizio starts immerssing you in a pleasant noise background as soon as your Mac starts up. Choose from 15 ambient sounds that you can mix and match--including Winter Wind, Deep Space, Sailing Yacht, Inside Train, and Blue Whales--to set the mood for any occasion, for work or relaxation.

It's similar to Noisli, but lives in your Mac menubar for quick access. Plus, you can control the app with keyboard shortcuts and sync your custom mixes between iOS and Mac.

Price: $4.99 for Mac; $1.99 for iOS

OmmWriter (Mac, PC, iPad)

Best for: Combining writing and soothing background music

Type and Zen out at the same time in OmmWriter

OmmWriter combines writing and background noise in one beautiful app. Open the app, and you're presented with a simple, distraction-free writing environment with a Zen-like soundtrack to accompany your writing. Both the sounds and background colors are chosen to help you relax and focus. It’s the closest you can come to writing in a monastery without actually being in one.

OmmWriter focuses almost exclusively on the process of writing. The developers describe the audio and visual experiences in the app:

The careful selection of the audio and visual backgrounds is critical to the overall OmmWriter experience. The new visual backgrounds include a carefully selected set of images and photographs. In addition, we have worked closely together with a Color therapy expert to help us include ... backgrounds [that] employ dynamically changing color techniques to subconsciously promote tranquility as well as to stimulate creativity.

You can choose your writing background, soundtrack, and key sounds—or just go with OmmWriter's defaults to keep you focused on writing.

Price: Pay-what-you-want, with a suggested minimum price of $5.11

Rainy Mood (web, iOS, Android)

Best for: Thunderstorm-driven productivity

Rainy Mood
Make it rain: Bad weather can sometimes mean good productivity

Rainy Mood does one thing very well: Playing a high-quality recording of a thunderstorm on 30-minute loop. If you love thunderstorms (and who doesn’t), this is the ideal app. It's simple and free to use, and you can add accompanying music to the rain if you'd like. The mobile apps includes additional options, such as adjusting the volume of rain, or adding bird noises or coffeeshop chatter.

The only downside is that the thunder crashes can be startling, especially if you’re trying to fall asleep. The upside is that you'll really feel like it's raining outside, something that could put you more in the mood to study or work.

Price: Free

SimplyNoise (web, iOS, Android)

Best for: The most straightforward color noise generator

Pick white, pink, or brown noise

SimplyNoise offers only white noise, pink noise, and brown noise. No coffeeshop chatter, no bumbling brooks, no virtual torrential downpours.

Because the noise is a single sound without any additional background noises, it can be useful when you really need to focus or drown out other loud noises. SimplyNoise might be especially handy if you need to nap or sleep (or have an infant who needs to). And with all three color noises, you can find the one that might work best for you.

Trying to fall asleep? There's a sleep timer option, along with a setting to oscillate the sound if you'd rather not fall asleep.

Price: Free; $0.99 for mobile apps

In 2014, the London newspaper The Times began piping the sounds of typewriters into their newsrooms in an effort to recreate the old school clatter of the newsrooms of old. Apparently, they thought it would motivate the employees and cause them to begin typing in concert with the rhythm of the typewriters.

A typewriter's click-clack sounds might work for you—or not. The best background noise for you depends on your surroundings, personality, and mental state. If you love being around people, you might prefer the the simulated coffee shop; nature lovers, on the other hand, may gravitate toward the sounds of a lonely meadow.

Experiment and try each of theses apps—or real-world background noises—and see which fits you the best.

Title photo by Breakingpic via Pexels.com. White noise photo by get directly down

Keep Reading:

  • Productivity and Ergonomics: The Best Way to Organize Your Desk

  • Do Your Best Work with the Perfect Screen Setup

  • How to Manage Your Productivity on Someone Else's Schedule

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