Background noise is pretty essential for anyone who gets distracted easily. Whether you listen to one of those relaxing rainstorm playlists on YouTube or turn a fan on full blast, the constant hum — usually referred to as white noise — can effectively drown out annoying or unexpected sounds like car horns, loud roommates, or a snoring partner — thus making working, studying, and sleeping 100 times easier. But... how do you decide between white, pink, and brown noise?
There are actually different “colors” of noise to choose from. The most common are white, pink, and brown noise, and each one sounds slightly unique due to its makeup. “Noise, whatever the color, refers to the sound of various random frequencies,” Alex Dimitriu, MD, a double board-certified doctor of psychiatry and sleep medicine, tells Bustle.
When upper, mid-range, and low frequencies are played at the same time it creates the sound of static, just like the kind you’d hear coming from a radio, rain, or waves in the ocean. “The idea is that these sounds of varying intensity, frequency, and energy wavelengths — hence the different colors — and create a constant sound around you blocking out other sounds from your environment and keep them from reaching your brain,” Samina Ahmed, PsyD, a psychotherapist with Eight Sleep, tells Bustle.
When it comes to figuring out which one to listen to at any given moment, Dimitriu says it’s all personal preference. White noise might be more effective at blocking loud noises, or it might seem too static-y or high-pitched, while brown noise may seem too low or rumbly. “There is no one sound that fits all,” Ahmed adds. “Everyone responds to each sound differently and may not benefit from them equally or at all.” For intel on the differences between white, pink, and brown noise, keep scrolling for what experts have to say.
What Is White Noise?
To dive deeper into the differences, it’s important to know that “white noise is all frequencies, high and low, mixed together,” Dimitriu says. Besides the hiss of TV static, another example of the sound IRL is a rushing waterfall. You would hear various water droplets hitting different surfaces, which all combine to create a random array of high and low sounds. As a result, it’s slightly more ear-piercing and unpredictable than pink noise.
White noise is a popular go-to at night (hence the many white noise machines that exist), and that’s for good reason: “There is very good research around white noise's benefits for sleep demonstrating that [it] can be calming and reduce a person’s ability to be aroused by loud noises while they rest,” Dr. Jeff Rodgers, DMD, D-ABDSM, D-ASBA, a sleep practitioner, tells Bustle.
What Is Pink Noise?
Many folks think pink noise is the most chill because it sounds a lot like heavy rain or a waterfall, as evidenced in the video above from SciShow. “Pink noise is also all audible frequencies that a human can hear, but the strength of some of the bass frequencies is stronger, essentially boosting the bass sound,” Rodgers says. “Think of a deep wind blowing or the rustle of leaves in the fall.” SciShow described pink noise as “flat” because it doesn’t have as many upper and lower frequencies.
Just like white noise, pink noise may help you fall — and stay — asleep. A 2017 study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience discovered a link between pink noise and deep sleep. It may also be beneficial to memory consolidation, Dimitriu says, possibly because it enhances this deep, or slow-wave, sleep.
What Is Brown Noise?
Crave a deeper bass to your bedtime playlist? “Brown noise is also all audible frequencies that a human can hear, but the bass is boosted even further than pink noise,” Rodgers says. “A great example of this is a large waterfall. Think of the deep bass rumble heard at Niagara Falls versus the lighter sound of the small waterfall on the creek you may be hiking by.” Thunder is another example, with its low, far-away roar. Some people find the deeper frequency of brown noise to be more soothing, especially when it comes to sleep.
Something they have in common? All of these noises — brown, pink, and white — can help you focus during the day by blocking and blending away jarring or distracting sounds, says Rodger. To try them out, all you need to do is a quick search on YouTube for the color of your choice, or download an app.
Papalambros, N. A., Santostasi, G., Malkani, R. G., Braun, R., Weintraub, S., Paller, K. A., & Zee, P. C. (2017). Acoustic enhancement of sleep slow oscillations and concomitant memory improvement in older adults. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2017.00109
Alex Dimitriu, MD, double board-certified doctor of psychiatry and sleep medicine
Samina Ahmed, PsyD, psychotherapist