Does White Noise / Ambient Sound Actually Help Your Writing?

Quiet Please signSilence can be a distraction.

Bear with me whilst I qualify that statement. When I’m writing, silence can be a distraction.

It might be a cliche, but writers and coffee shops go together like James T kirk and Doctor Spock, Harry Potter and Quiditch, Psycho and shower curtains. Ever wondered why that may be the case?

Well, for some, writing in silence may be necessary – I sometimes read my work out loud, which I find helps me to pick up any obvious errors, double words, missed words, poor dialogue. I personally find that difficult when I’ve got Sam Cooke singing in my headphones.

But anyway, is silence really ever silence? Depending where you write, there may be a background hubbub, traffic outside, children in another room, shoppers buying their coffee, or perhaps you struggle with tinnitus and there is always something going on in your ears when you stop and pay attention.

All that being said, should we even ever strive for silence? Well, there are several schools of thought on that very subject.

The arguments for:

  • Music can enhance mood – do you have a soundtrack for particular tasks / characters / scenes? How does the music make you feel?
  • Music can inspire us – have you ever heard a piece of music that makes you think of a scene / setting / character? For me, when I heard Nautilus by Anna Meredith, it instantly took me to 20,000 fathoms beneath the sea, with some prehistoric leviathan, disturbed from its sleep, rising slowly  from the deep, teeth and claws glistening in the diffused sunlight, as it makes for an off-shore drilling platform. Or is that just me?
  • Ambient noise can increase creativitystudies have shown that at low levels (70db and below), ambient noise can increase creativity (explored below).
  • White noise can mask intrusive sounds – Children, anyone? Live by a busy main road?

The arguments against:

  • Music can impact your ability to focus – If you need to read your work out loud, music may make this task more difficult.
  • Ambient noise can negatively increase creativity – The same studies mentioned above show that above a certain level (80-85db) creativity is impaired.
  • Noise can become a distraction – above the 80db (approx) mark, the same helpful effects that can boost creativity can  impair the cognitive process.

So where is the sweet spot?

Difficult to say, as what works for one person may not work for another, and what works for someone one day may not work for them the next day. There are, however, some scientific facts that may be able to sway you in one direction or the other:

Scientific researchThe Science

Artificially generated white noise and ambient sound can be effective to a point. Professor of physiology, Mark A. W. Andrews, suggests that noise in the home, work or school can affect your concentration.

That’s bad, right?

Well, yes and no. Noise-induced stress can induce the release of cortisol, which is a hormone our bodies use to help use recover after a bad experience, which is good. However, an excess of cortisol can negatively affect the function of your prefrontal cortex (PC), which helps to regulate planning, reasoning and impulse control, which is bad. Recent evidence also suggests that the PC also stores your short term memories, therefore changes to this region of the brain could alter a person’s ability to think clearly and retain information, which again, is bad. And whilst we are on the subject, there is also a suggestion that noise-induced stress could decrease dopamine available in the PC, which may decrease higher brain function. Again, bad, right?

Well, there’s yet more bad:

As reported in Education Week, emerging research suggests that low level noise in a classroom setting can have a negative effect on pupil learning, and it doesn’t take much sound to adversely affect your cognitive functions.

The noise could even be reasonably quiet, for example, a 2013 study in the Journal of Urban Health tested 8 and 9 year olds on standardised tests, and found that a rise in background noise of 10 decibels resulted in a 5.5 point lower score on average. A similar test also concluded that children struggled to concentrate (and not know why), when there was a barely audible television playing in the next room.

Is there actually any good?

Good news!

I said there was, and there is (coffee lovers, don’t panic)!

A study into background noise and creativity, concluded that:

Ambient noise is an important antecedent for creative cognition

That’s good! If you’re reading this in a coffee shop, feel happy about that!

Professor Ravi Mehta added:

A moderate level of noise not only enhances creative problem-solving but also leads to a greater adoption of innovative products in certain settings.

The study identified that moderate ambient noise (70decibels, equivalent to a passenger car on a busy road) enhances creativity. It did, however, note that high level noise (above 85db, traffic from a busy motorway) begins to hurt creativity.

Professor Mehta had this to say:

What we found is that there’s an inverted-U relationship between noise level and creativity. It turns out that around 70 decibels is the sweet spot. If you go beyond that, it’s too loud, and the noise starts to negatively affect creativity. It’s the Goldilocks principle – the middle is just right.

So, as noise level increases, so does distraction, which is actually a good thing, believe it or not. An increase in distraction puts you into an out-of-the-box thinking mode, known as abstract thinking or processing, which also happens to be be a hallmark of increased creativity, as suggested by Prof. Mehta, but as previously suggested, this only works up to a certain point, when the distraction becomes too great and starts affecting the thought process, negatively affecting creativity.

Believe it or not, a low level ambient sound has been shown to entice consumers to adopt new and innovative products, and some marketers will equip their showrooms with low level ambient noise. Sneaky.

What do I listen to?

Myself, I work better when there is something happening around me. That applies to my day job and my writing. What do I listen to? It depends what I’m working on. Some things require more quiet, things like editing and writing fiction, but other things like writing a blog post or creating images for my posts or my website I find I can do whilst listening to music.

I have different playlists for my moods. I’ve just started posting some of those playlists over on my blog, but if it’s white noise I’m looking for, I go with:

Generally though for me, there has to be something, be that a noisy son (although it might be too much today!), a cafe, a YouTube ambient sound video or one of my Spotify Playlists.

ambient sound of coffee shop

Or I could just listen to Bob Ross.


So what do you do? If you’ve read everything above, you may still not be too clear on the way forward. I believe the science supports the following conclusion:

Sitting in complete silence (if that’s even possible) may not always be the best or most effective course of action. Getting out somewhere that has a moderate level of ambient noise, or even working at home where things are happening (at the moment, my son is arguing with his friends on Xbox, and my wife is listening to the Formula 1 on the radio), or even a visit to that cliched coffee shop, may actually trigger your brain to think abstractly and generate creative ideas.

As I mentioned at the beginning, we are all individual, and what works for one will not work for all. In fact, results are not straightforward and clear-cut. Research has shown that in a classroom setting, the better that students were at paying attention, the more adversely they were affected by white noise at any level, but students with poor attention skills were able to benefit from the additional noise.

Their conclusion in this case, was that the challenge of dealing with the extra noise may have sharpened their focus.

So what do you listen to? Do you listen to anything at all? How does it help you (or not)?








12 thoughts on “Does White Noise / Ambient Sound Actually Help Your Writing?

  1. Interesting data, Steve. I tend to like a quiet environment, with low background classical music. Sometimes white noise (fans) drives me nuts. I couldn’t work in a crowded cafe, it’d be too distracting!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When I am concentrating at work or writing at home, I listen to instrumental music, down low. It seems to really help me relax, not tune into other people’s conversations, and open my mind a little. Not sure how it works, but it is effective. I use a playlist that I put together with music I like — but no words in English (my language). If someone sings words I recognize, I listen to the lyrics. So those songs are banished to leisure hours.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hear you about lyrics! I have an instrumental playlist to avoid ‘singing along’ syndrome! But my favourite sound for drowning out everything else is the sound of rain. Strange. Thanks!


  3. It’s interesting that you use coffee-shop sound rather than writing in an actual coffee shop (I’m assuming). I would find it impossible to write in a place where you’re expected to buy something and leave, but the sounds of such a place might be okay. I often write with radio, either music (classical or jazz), but quite often with programs featuring discussion of issues. I regularly realize I haven’t a clue what those people have been talking about because I’ve been concentrating on writing. I guess true multitasking is impossible.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t do coffee, so no actual shop! Also, on my one day off work, I’m on my own and can’t get out without help, so I pretend!
      Listening to issue-based radio I think would be too distracting for me- I’d want to join in the discussion!
      I think I’ll give the jazz a try though. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

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