Colour noise for focus and calm
Every December, millennials like me look forward to seeing their yearly music listening preferences “wrapped” on a popular music streaming app. We share our top five most-listened-to songs on social media, with the idea that our favourite music says something about the kind of person we are.
Imagine my surprise when one year, my most-played song wasn’t a song at all, but a three-hour track of … white noise. And then imagine having to explain to friends why I wouldn’t be sharing my track list this year.
Even if you’ve never purposefully listened to white noise, or other colour noises (much of what we consider to be white noise is actually pink noise, but we’ll get into that later), you’re likely familiar with its sound. Whirring fans, humming refrigerators, staticky radios, pitter-pattering rain, roaring waterfalls—these are all forms of colour noise, or what we call sound that is distributed with a continuous signal.
Listening to colour noises can improve sleep, increase focus, and enhance learning capacity—hence the reason I had been playing it on a loop while crunching at the computer.
Noise “colours” are distinguished from each other based on their spectral density—in essence, the way that the power contained by the noise signal is distributed over different frequencies. More simply, this refers to the variation in the location on the sound spectrum the noise’s energy concentrates, which subtly changes how the human ear perceives the signal.
Pink noise has more energy concentrated at the lower end of the spectrum—so it sounds like white noise with a lower, deeper rumble. It’s for this reason that much of what we think of as white noise (including the sound made by white noise machines and white noise soundtracks) is actually pink noise—it’s less grating to our ears and minds.
Brown noise, short for Brownian noise and sometimes also called red noise, is a deeper sound more reminiscent of ocean waves.
Green noise has a similar frequency to white noise but with sounds that are more like nature and less like TV static.
Violet noise and grey noise also have variations of these traits. However, experts say that categorizing sound isn’t an exact science, so the differences between colour noises aren’t firmly established and their sounds may overlap.
White noise is a uniform mixture of all frequencies detectable by the human ear. Calling noise “white,” therefore, is a nod to the colour spectrum, as white light emits all pigments of light at equal intensity.
So, what happens when we listen to colour noise? More research is needed to fully understand its impacts on our brains, but one scientific theory, called stochastic resonance, posits that white noise can help us tune out external stimuli and unhelpful internal chatter to focus on other stimuli more clearly.
And in our nonwaking hours, the theory is relatively simple: by maintaining a level of background noise, we will be less sensitive to sudden sounds that could disturb us during the night.
One need only look at TikTok, Spotify, or YouTube to see that colour noise has a dedicated and growing body of fans. People comment that colour noise has helped them to focus, lessen stress and anxiety, and improve sleep.
For neurodivergent people, including those with reading disabilities and/or ADHD, colour noise can offer additional benefits, helping them to better concentrate and complete academic tasks. Studies have also shown improved cognitive performance for neurotypical patients listening to white noise during word-learning exercises.
The science behind the benefits of colour noise on sleep has thus far been mixed: while one study found that playing pink noise overnight led to deeper sleep and fewer sleep disruptions, another review of multiple studies found limited evidence that white noise can improve sleep.
Personally, I’ve found that turning on a white noise machine before getting some shut-eye has vastly improved my sleep quality, mainly by drowning out my dog’s (and occasionally, my husband’s) snoring sounds. And colour noise may be helpful for helping babies to sleep, says Laurence Bonnemort, a child psychiatrist based in France.
The potential benefits of listening to colour noise are not restricted to one type of noise or the other—preferences may be highly personal.
Experts agree that listening to colour noise is completely safe as long as—like with all music—you don’t listen to it too loudly. Listening to anything above 70 decibels for a prolonged period can damage your hearing.
If you’re intrigued by the concept of colour noise, it’s easy to start bringing it into your life and identifying which shades you like best. Try plugging in a pink noise machine while you’re sleeping or putting on a brown noise track during your morning meditation or afternoon report-writing session (particularly if colleagues are talking loudly around your desk!).
Colour noise also works while on the move: if you feel overwhelmed by the sounds of the city during your commute, listening to colour noise in your headphones can be a great way to tune out and relax.
There are many ways to bring colour noise into your everyday life through apps and streaming services.
In conjunction with listening to colour noise, certain supplements can help to improve your sleep, reduce anxiety, and increase brain power. Talk your health care practitioner about what options are best for you.
Amino acids, melatonin, and vitamin D may help improve sleep quality.
Probiotics, vitamin B6, and vitamin D may improve symptoms of anxiety and/or depression. Further research is needed to determine their full therapeutic potential, as well as the role of other micronutrients such as zinc.
Gingko biloba, ginseng, lion’s mane mushroom, omega-3s, lutein, and zeaxanthin (a carotenoid found in foods such as dark green vegetables, orange and yellow fruits, and egg yolks) may help improve memory function and reduce brain inflammation.