What Is White Noise & What’s All The Fuss About?

White noise is the fuzzy, static sound heard when there’s no signal on your television or radio. A sound you’d probably try to get rid of as quickly as possible.

So why is there a whole industry built around white noise  production? And can it really help you relax, fall sleep or study better?

To understand why people would want to listen to it, let’s first take a look at exactly what white noise is.

What is white noise exactly?

human and animal hearing range graph

It’s helpful to look at the name itself to start with. White noise gets its name from ‘white light’. In simple terms, white light is all colors, or frequencies of color, combined together.

In a similar way, white noise is a combination of all the different frequencies of sound the human ear can hear.

The white noise we talk about usually isn’t every possible sound put together though. White noise is the signal, or frequency, created when all the different frequencies of audible sound that the human ear and brain can perceive are put together at a similar level.

20,000 tones

The sound of white noise we hear as humans therefore is the sound of all the frequencies between 20 and 20,000 Hz. So you’re literally hearing around 20,000 different tones of sound all at the same time.

If you think about it this way – imagine you’re sitting in a quiet restaurant. You’ll be able to pick out the individual voices of your companions, and perhaps those on nearby tables.

But now imagine you’re in a sports stadium waiting for the game to start. There could be thousands of people all talking at the same time, and it will sound like a blurred roar.

White noise has a similar effect. You hear so many different tones all at the same time, it blurs into that ‘hissing’ or ‘shushing’ sound.

It’s also why nature sounds, such as rain, wind, waterfalls or oceans, are often included on white noise players. There are so many different tones created by those forces of nature, that it turns into natural white noise.

What is pink noise?

pink noise graph

The simple explanation is that pink noise is a variation of white noise which sounds deeper, and with less of a high pitched hissing.

The more complex explanation revolves around why white noise sounds high pitched in the first place.

The reason is because each octave contains twice as many frequencies as the one below it. So, for example, between 100 Hz and 200 Hz there are 100 distinct frequencies.

But between 200 and 400 Hz there are 200 frequencies. So by the time you get to 20,000 Hz, there are many more frequencies than there were at the lower end of the range.

When pink noise is created in a sound lab, the sound engineers will usually reduce the volume of each successive octave to compensate for the extra frequencies.

This balances the sound out by giving more energy to the lower octaves, and gives it a deeper sound overall than white noise.

What is brown noise?

Brown noise, sometimes called Brownian noise, sounds even deeper than pink noise, and considerably deeper than white noise. It often sounds like rushing water – like a waterfall.

It’s not named after the color brown, but after Robert Brown, who discovered Brownian motion. This is because the signal is produced by the random pattern of particle movements.

Brown noise can be produced, but not the same way as white noise or pink noise, and is much harder to create. Sound engineers have to use each sample to create the next one with an element of randomness introduced to the previous sample.

Can brown noise make you lose bowel control?

The legendary ‘brown note’ is supposedly an infra-sound frequency that makes people lose control. Despite being an amusing urban legend, brown noise shouldn’t make you lose control of your bowels though.

However, experiments have been done by scientists, the military and in documentaries showing that there is no ‘one frequency’ that works on all people.

Yes, some people may react badly to the resonance of certain frequencies, but there is no one sound you can create to make masses of people all run for the toilet.

What is white noise useful for?

Because white noise contains all audible frequencies, its most common use is to mask unwanted sounds.

Most people find that they easily get used to the noise and don’t find it disturbing. It literally fades into the background, and takes other external sounds with it.

So who might find it useful, and in which situations?

1. Helps you sleep by blocking out disturbing sounds

tired man cartoon

For light sleepers who are easily kept awake by external sounds, listening to white noise at night can help block out disturbing noise.

So if you have trouble falling asleep because of the sound of traffic or music, white noise can mask that annoying sound.

You need to have the white noise loud enough for this to work properly though. Otherwise it will help mask other sounds, but not hide them altogether.

The other theory behind why white noise helps you sleep is that your brain is incredibly active and loves stimulation. So any noise in the night will engage your brain.

Having a constant white noise will therefore satisfy your brain’s need for stimulation and prevent it from getting overexcited when it hears sudden noise in the night.

You can also experiment with different kinds of white noise. If the sound keeping you awake is a deep traffic noise, then maybe try pink or brown noise instead as they have more strength at the lower frequencies.

2. It helps babies to relax and sleep better

Babies are easily kept awake or woken up by sudden sounds. White noise can help to drown out these sounds and keep them sleeping for longer.

Babies are already accustomed to listening to constant noise – the womb isn’t a quiet place, and white noise is sometimes thought to imitate the sound of blood rushing in the womb.

 3. Can help you concentrate – for a while

While writing this article, I’ve been listening to pink noise constantly. I can hear the sound of traffic quite loudly from where I work, but the pink noise completely drowns it out.

This stops me from being distracted by changes in the volume of traffic, loud motorbikes, trucks and beeping horns.

I find it’s very effective and I’m so used to the sound now that as soon as I put it on I feel focused, and it fades nicely into the background.

It’s also sometimes used by people who work in other kinds of noisy environments, such as manufacturing or where there’s a drone of technological devices.

However, despite my own positive experience with white noise, some studies have shown that listening to white noise constantly to aid concentration can have a negative impact on your performance, stress levels and memory.

Other studies have been done to see if white noise can improve the concentration of children with attention difficulties. It appears that it does in some situations, but also decreases the performance of children who don’t have attention problems.

Overall, it seems this is still a developing area. My personal experience is that listening to white noise is better than listening to the drone of traffic. But perhaps after a few more days or weeks, it will start to irritate me.

4. Helps mask tinnitus

I can also personally attest to the theory that white noise helps ease tinnitus. Having had chemotherapy for cancer treatment 2 years ago, I have tinnitus as a permanent side effect of the Cisplatin drug.

Especially bad at night time, or if I’m tired, ill or stressed, I find that white noise in any form – pure or sounds of nature – helps to block out the ringing I hear from tinnitus.

5. Promotes relaxation

Although pure white noise, like that heard on your television, isn’t usually thought of as relaxing, nature sounds often are.

Many people find the sound of oceans, rivers, forests, waterfalls and rain calming, relaxing and peaceful. It may not be for everyone, but most people will state that one of the joys of being in nature is listening to the sounds.

So the next time you’re feeling stressed, why not have a listen to the sound of an ocean or waterfall and see if it helps you unwind?

Where can you find the best white noise?

There are many different options for listening to white noise. Mobile phone Apps, online players that let you mix nature sounds, audio downloads, and household appliances even.

To find out more about these options, take a look at my suggestions for sources of free white noise.

9 CommentsLeave a comment

  • We have white noise in the office. It plays all day long and it doesn’t cut out the sounds or people talking since it travels down the hallways. What’s more annoying is that it’s programmed at intervals and I can even tell the time. It’s on very soft at 8, then up one level at 8:15 and then up another level at 8:30 and stays constant for the rest of the day. Everyone in the office is okay with it (or people are afraid to say something) so makes me think I’m the crazy one? I feel I’m working in a Coke bottling plant with the constant roar of the conveyor belt. I think it might be the pitch since the desk fan I have doesn’t bother at all. My dentist installed white noise in their waiting room and I stopped going to their office a few years ago. I really, really and truly hate white noise!

    • Hi Xiao
      Thanks for your comment. I can understand why you’d hate it if you have to listen to it all day! It would drive me crazy if I had to listen to it all day every day. Why did they install it as a permanent feature?
      Regards
      Ethan

      • Many of the hospitals installed it in our area and the boss thought it was a great idea to install it in our office as well. Funny thing is that none of the speakers are installed near their office doors so they don’t have to listen to it. They claim that it cuts down on the noise coming from other people when they are on the phone but I think it makes them talk a little louder.

        • Hi there
          Yes, that might be the reality of using white noise in the office if it’s not properly thought out! Personally, I wouldn’t be too keen on having it constantly on in the office all day, every day!
          Regards
          Ethan

  • I agree with Lyn. How is possible to someone to get a better sleep listening to white noises? And, poor babies! It is a mere combination of unpleasant sounds. There are better and soothing choices to provide nighttime relaxation. Yes, the world
    of science definitely went mad – as Lyn said. She is totally correct.

  • I hope you provide more sources to find white noise besides the free apps. Dr. Harvey Karp (“The Happiest Baby on the Block”) highly recommends “harsh, rumbly” white noise for all babies’ naps and nights at least one year and under. It has helped us greatly in getting our babies to sleep many times. So two things I want to say here:

    1) I recommend the “Sound + Sleep” machine you can find on Amazon. It is about $100 but very well worth it. You may want to publish info on the Dohm sleep machines as well.
    2) My husband really struggles with the white noise. He says it gives him dreams when he used to never have them, as well as headaches and ringing in the ears. (He and I have never had any trouble sleeping). We still have two very small children, but I have recently turned it off at night with the sleep timer (on the Sound + Sleep machine–it has 4 sleep timer settings to avoid disruption of a sudden “off). Now, he and I both feel very refreshed again. It was almost a complete noticeable difference for us in how we felt. With the white noise on every night, we were feeling groggy and exhausted almost all hours of the day. I always felt as though I couldn’t get enough sleep. Can you research whether white noise can make some people MORE tired? I wonder if it’s because our brains were engaging with the sound from the machine and keeping us from deeper sleep. Our house and area is very quiet, so we weren’t struggling with outside or street noises. It IS helpful to block out household noise or crying from the other children especially during the daytime or evening when others are awake.

    If it made US feel more tired, I still worry a little about the babies not being refreshed after naps. I’m not sure!

    • Hi Kendra
      Thanks for your comment. That’s the reason most machines have an auto-off timer! The idea is that they help mask noise when you’re falling asleep, but don’t then become the reason you wake up later. I’ve seen some good advice – especially for using it with children – saying play it at the softest volume for the shortest possible time.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I don’t know how anyone could listen to white noise for long periods as I believe my neighbour is using some kind of white noise sound and it’s driving me nuts, my ears ache, I can’t sleep properly and when I do I wake up with headaches. I know it’s not in my head because I have recorded the noise to prove I’m not loosing my marbles or that I have tinnitus. Why would anyone find it relaxing and those poor babies, has the world of science gone mad or am I just losing the plot.

    • Hi Lyn
      Thanks for your comment. There must be something unusual happening if you can hear white noise that loudly through a wall. Perhaps they are playing it loudly on a stereo, because no small device or phone would be loud enough to both go through a wall and cause someone else trouble. I would speak to them and ask them if they wouldnt mind playing it softer. You could also politely suggest that there is advice from specialists who say it should be played to young children as quietly as possible and still has the desired effect.
      Regards
      Ethan

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