The Art and Science of White Noise - Pacific Standard

The Art and Science of White Noise

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White noise, touted as the key to productivity, calm, and sleep, is widely misunderstood.

By Kelsey McKinney

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(Photo: Bernard Spragg/Flickr)

Once or twice a year, Stéphane Pigeon leaves his home to go abroad searching for nature. He’s hunting, carefully navigating the world around him in search of something very specific. But it’s not game or bugs, Pigeon is looking for — he’s looking for sounds, special sounds, sounds that nobody else has. “I will pay attention to the insects. I will pay attention to the wind,” Pigeon says. “Is there water in the background, maybe a stream? All of that matters.” Every sound is different, more varied than we even realize, and Pigeon is listening for all of them.

Pigeon is an engineer by nature and by training. He’s clear when we speak on the phone that he does not consider himself an artist. To him, this is science. He’s not creating a nature soundscape just because it sounds beautiful and can be relaxing. Pigeon is an engineer of noise. He records the rain. He records the wind. He records the insects. “Even when I am in nature gathering sounds, I will find sounds to cover all frequencies,” he says. “ Most of my soundscapes will have some waterfall or some wind blowing. It’s not random sounds. I try to cover the whole spectrum.”

What Pigeon is creating is what you and I might call “white noise.” An inaccurate term, he says, used to describe a ton of varied sounds that all do the same thing: block out other unwanted noise. People sleep to noises now, work to noises, play noises in their headphones while they walk to work. Done poorly, these noises don’t block out the world around by anything but volume, which is why Pigeon is so precise about the noises he creates, the noises he uploads to his site myNoise. Noises might be easy to find, but they aren’t easy to make correctly.

There are thousands of “white noise” albums. Search Spotify or iTunes and you’ll find white noise for babies, for pets for tranquility, and for relaxation. There are songs titled “Office Air Conditioner” and “Pouring Rain” and “Coastal Ocean.” These tracks range in length and repetition. They are not “songs” as much as they are “sounds” all meant to block out the surrounding world. But every sound engineer I spoke with said the same thing: Most of these are not “white noise.”

Sound waves have two fundamental components. The first is amplitude. The amplitude of a sound wave determines how loud it sounds to us. Many “white noise” tracks, Pigeon explains, are just comforting noises. Turn up the volume, and they’ll block out sound. But that doesn’t make them actually white noise. A true white noise deals in the second fundamental component of the sound wave: the frequency. Frequency is how fast the waveform is vibrating per second. That’s pretty technical. It’s easier to understand if you associate it with a single note. Take the middle C note on a keyboard: that note has a frequency of about 261.1 hertz. To make white noise, a sound engineer combines an equal amount of every frequency a human can hear. Imagine it like hundreds of musicians playing every single note you can hear at once at the same volume. That’s white noise.

“White noise allows you to test your system at all the frequencies with a single signal,” Pigeon says. “That signal is called white noise because it has all the frequencies in the same proportion. When you do that with light, you get white light. That’s the analogy. Every frequency is at the same level, let’s call it white.”

The sound is not actually a color. The “white” simply describes the fact that this particular sound is a combination of every frequency. That’s why, deep in the soundscape playlists of the Internet, there are sounds called “brown” or “pink” or even “blue.” Those sounds are not “white noise” because some of their frequencies are being played at different amplitudes, intended to drown out very specific sounds.

“Because white noise is kind of hissy, but you’d have to turn the white noise level really high because it has the right frequencies but not in the right proportion,” Pigeon explained. “If you take another color like brown, which has a strong bias in the other way, it already has that interesting rumble in it, and might work better.”

On Pigeon’s site myNoise, this becomes even easier to understand because, at the top of every sound page, there are colored sliders. Take any sound, and you can adjust the “colors” representing different frequencies to better drown out the noises around you.

But none of this science means that white noise isn’t a natural sound. “Sometimes people think that white noise is something artificial, when it is actually one of the most natural things in the world: the sound of falling rain, a stream of water, or a waterfall are the most natural and powerful white noises you can enjoy,” says Sabine Staggl, a co-founder of Noisli, a white noise app.

White noise is incredibly popular. According to Google trends, white noise has maintained a fairly steady, upward mobility for the last five years in search. The song “Office Air Conditioners” on Spotify has over four million plays. The first YouTube video to pop up on Google search has over 10 million plays.

Todd Moore, the founder and creator of TMSoft, launched his white noise app in 2008, only a few days after the launch of the Apple app store started letting independent users publish apps. Moore had always used a fan noise to help him fall asleep, and thought others might also want that sound on their phone. “It took me a few days to find a way to properly play audio so you couldn’t detect the looping point. I didn’t think anyone would want the app so I made it free,” Moore says. “It turns out I was wrong about that as millions of people downloaded it.”

Almost everyone is a potential consumer of white noise, and the possibilities are endless. Stéphane Pigeon was still running audiocheck.net in 2013, a site that allowed sound engineers to test their systems at home, when he realized something strange. Google search was sending thousands of users to his white noise page, but no one was staying long.

“I could not understand why would these people not stay even though I provided the test signal,” he says. “Then I realized that most of the people are not engineers. People are looking for white noise because they attached some healing properties or, more seriously, people have been advised by their doctors.”

Primarily, white noise is used to help people fall asleep faster and stay asleep. “If I had to pick only one primary benefit it would be that it helps people achieve deeper sleep, which means you’re going to be functioning at your best the next day,” Moore says. “There are many other benefits, too, such as relaxation, stress reduction, increase in focus, soothing headaches, and masking tinnitus [a ringing in the inner ear].”

On top of all that white noise has been proven in controlled studies to help improve learning. In a behavioral experiment published in the Journal of Neuroscience in 2014, scientists proved that simply putting white noise on in the background could help memory, and facilitate learning in distracting environments.

Once Pigeon realized this, he created myNoise, a site that now sees (on average) about 15,000 visitors a day looking to make and listen to their own sounds. He used SEO to get it to the top of Google search so that people could find the noises they were looking for, even if they weren’t exactly “white” noise. The industry of white noise, though strange and broad, is highly competitive. The doorway to enter the industry is too wide, and there’s not enough regulation or consumer awareness to moderate it.

“There is plenty of competition and copycats of my app,” Moore says. To keep his users, he has to make sure to keep innovating his product. “I’ve spent the last eight years building features that no other apps have and my entire team is dedicated to helping people relax and sleep better.” Noise creation might not be an art, but it is a moldable and observable science.

What the popularity of white noise, and its cousins pink and brown and violet noise, could do is make listeners more aware of what it is exactly they’re listening to. Play with the scroll bars on any noise on Pigeon’s myNoise site and it becomes clear pretty quickly how many different ways the same rain can sound. Even Pigeon has noticed his ears becoming more attuned to the subtle differences sounds make in the world.

“Before, it was just the sound of running water, while now I realize that every river has a different sound,” he says. “I feel that my ear is developing and that I can hear things I didn’t hear before. Listening to everyday sound but with a different ear.”

That’s what Pigeon says he wants his noises to teach people: that there is distinction between even sounds that we perceive as almost the same. When we are babies, our parents teach us the basic colors (blue, red, green, yellow, etc,), and then quickly afterward we learn how varied those colors can be (aquamarine, teal, navy blue, cobalt, indigo), all different names for only slight differences. If we didn’t know these names, would we be able to perceive the difference at all?

But sounds in Western culture haven’t been named the same way. “There are so many sounds of the wind, but no one will ever notice because we never named them,” Pigeon explains. “Wind in the desert. Wind through the leaves. Wind that is very rumbly. People will just say, ‘Oh, I heard the sound of wind.’ But imagine what it would be like if we could say, ‘This morning I woke up with a wind that is red.’”

Those distinctions, the subtle and the unnoticed, are what drive the work of the sound engineers creating white, and pink, and brown, and blue noise. “If I make a sound perfectly,” Pigeon says, “it will be forgotten as soon as it comes on.” The perfect soundscape will be relaxing, and beautiful, and it will block out everything around you. Not drowning you in a world of the engineer’s creation, but allowing you to focus as fully as possible on your own.

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