The Joys of Background Noise

By David Konow

Some people like to work in complete silence, while others can only be productive with ambient noise. Research has backed both sides, and there are now web services and apps to cater to those who like a little bit of white noise to feed their subconscious.

A long time ago, I remembered seeing an illustration in Mad Magazine that showed a teenager with the phone in one ear, a transistor radio in the other, and a TV blaring in the background. He was supposed to be studying for school, and I’m sure many of us studied the same way. Except if that cartoon were drawn today, the guy would be playing video games with one hand, texting with the other--you get the picture.

For a long time, I actually felt guilty about having too much going on in the background while I was working. Then I found out a lot of people like it a bit noisy while they create, and that according to some studies, it actually has practical benefits for some people. The benefits of background and white noise is still a debated topic, and there has also been research to show that low ambient noise disrupts concentration.

Image credit: MGM

In Quincy Jones’s autobiography, he wrote about the period in his career when he was composing movie soundtracks like crazy. Jones said he would have the TV on in the background “to occupy my conscious mind and letting my subconscious mind work, scoring with or without piano, in ink. That’s where the subconscious mind kicks in, when you push the conscious mind aside. You’re getting out of your way and letting God do the work.”

And indeed, you often find that you come up with the best ideas when you’re not wracking your brain over a specific problem. They just pop into your head out of the blue. But until I read Quincy’s book, I didn’t realize there was any formal research on the topic. A lot of creative people tend to stumble across this stuff by accident, and perhaps there’s an instinct we have that leads us to these things so we can be more creative.

Photo credit: Flickr user ericparker via Creative Commons

There’s even a website called Coffitivity, where you can download the background noise of a busy coffee shop. The main app is called “Morning Murmur,” and you can download it for your iPhone, iPad, or Mac. The app's site tells us that according to research, “It’s pretty hard to be creative in a quiet space,” and while a loud workplace can indeed be distracting, “the mix of calm and commotion in an environment like a coffee house is proven to be just what you need to get those creative juices flowing.”

Articles on Coffitivity tell the story of how founder Justin Kauszler came up with the idea. When he worked in a coffee shop, he got a lot of work done, but when he came back to the office, his productivity dried up. Since his boss wouldn’t let him work exclusively out of a coffee shop, he created the app to play at work.

Not all noise is created equal, and some writers can be particular about the background sounds they want to subconsciously hear when they're at work. For example, author Nicholas Sparks writes with white noise, but not a coffee shop. Said Sparks in an interview about his writing process: “I prefer television. I’m not sure I could write to the background of a coffee shop. I like to be able to glance up from the screen and see something I recognize.” Sparks usually binge watches shows while working, “depend[ing] on the length of the book. I watch Hose or Seinfeld or Cheers or Dexter…I never want to watch anything new, because otherwise I want to watch it. I use it as a sort of background noise.”

At home, I also like a movie on in the background, even if I’m only watching bits and pieces of it peripherally, and listening to it with my third ear. Even more effective for me is having YouTube clips playing underneath the Word documents I’m typing up in the foreground of my desktop. I especially like the angry ranting of Howard Stern, which makes me work faster, and it makes me feel like whatever I’m working on is a pissed off alien struggling to burst out of me, just like it exploded out of John Hurt.

There’s something about working in a vacuum of noise that makes you feel vulnerable, like everything’s about to cave in.

As acclaimed author Jonathan Lethem told the Daily Beast, when working he’s actually terrified of silence. There’s something that makes you feel vulnerable about working to nothing, like everything’s about to cave in (A calm before a possible storm?). “I listen to music,” Lethem said. “I also listen to baseball on the radio. If the Mets are playing, I’ll have the game on. I have a dual track, and I need to fill one of the tracks with something busy, some kind of chatter. I have a horror of total silence.”

Although some reports suggest not having your background noise too loud so it doesn’t get too distracting, Stephen King loves to work to metal. As he mentions in his memoir, On Writing, “For me, the music is jut another way of shutting the door [when working]. It surrounds me, keeps the mundane world out. When you write, you want to get rid of the world…When you’re writing, you’re creating your own worlds.”

I first drafted this post in longhand while a YouTube clip played on my computer, and a movie played on my TV in the distance at the same time. I’m now typing it up on my laptop at my standby workplace away from home, TGIFridays. The background noise has indeed been enormously helpful; it's worth letting some white noise reign the next time you’re creating. It’s a great soundtrack that can lead you down some interesting subconscious roads.

What kind of audio environment are you most productive in?