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Louise Bessette

Sounds like hard work

How the right noise can help you focus and be more creative

The science shows that matching your audio environment to your task can boost productivity

SAIRA PEESKER

Published October 9, 2019

Research conducted at the University of British Columbia found people in moderately noisy environments performed better at creative tasks.

MONICA BIALOBRZESKI / THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The noise in your workspace can help you focus, think more creatively, or work longer— but only if you match the audio to the task, according to research of sound’s effect on productivity.

“There’s a perception that noise is bad, because you can’t concentrate,” says Ravi Mehta, whose research conducted at the University of British Columbia found people in moderately noisy environments performed better at creative tasks. “We found that the more it distracts you from the problem you’re working on, the more you begin thinking at a broader level.”

Other researchers have found that listening to upbeat music before a task can improve performance, and that a quiet hum of white noise – dulling the sound of voices – makes workers in open-concept offices feel more productive. It helps to explain why some tasks, such as brainstorming or concept creation, feel well suited to a coffee shop environment, while many people prefer quiet for jobs such as writing, editing or coding.

We found that the more [noise] distracts you from the problem you’re working on, the more you begin thinking at a broader level. — Ravi Mehta, University of British Columbia

In their 2012 paper titled, “Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition,” Mehta’s team found background noise distracts the brain, causing it to start making lateral connections that lead to more creativity. Study participants completed tasks while subject to controlled amounts of noise.

Researchers concluded that about 70 decibels – slightly louder than a typical home TV volume, or about the same as a moving car 10 metres away – was the “sweet spot,” says Mehta, who now teaches business administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “If the distraction goes beyond the threshold, the brain shuts down.”

His results can be used to help people be more productive at creative tasks. Even if they can’t be at a coffee shop, white-noise websites can be used to stimulate the same response.

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“Our results spoke to me very much,” he adds. “I’m the person who can’t sit in my office and work. Most of the work I do is sorting out these problems… I need to sit in the atrium where people are around.”

Mehta’s research also shows that people found to be less creative aren’t as stimulated by noisier environments. Other studies demonstrate how background noise affects introverts and extroverts differently, with introverts much more easily distracted by sounds.

A 2010 study in the Behavioral and Brain Functions journal found background white noise improved memory performance of inattentive children, but made it worse for attentive children. Its authors concluded their findings could have “great practical applications” helping children with attention problems perform better at school, without the use of drugs.

There’s a bit more intensity in the mid-frequency, where the speech in perceived in the human ear. You can hear somebody is talking around you and you don’t understand what they are saying. — Jeff Cauchon, Vice-president and co-owner, Soft dB

In the workplace, where introverts and extroverts are increasingly placed together in open-concept offices, the sonic environment (the types of sounds a worker can hear and their volumes) can be a key factor in productivity. A National Research Council (NRC) paper found “speech privacy” has a significant effect on office workers’ self-reported comfort and productivity. For example, people find it harder to focus when they can hear everyone else’s conversations and feel less relaxed if everyone else can hear them too clearly.

The same NRC study, titled “Criteria for acoustic comfort in open-plan offices,” suggests an ideal range for workplace ambient noise between 45 and 48 dBA. (dBA is a different way of measuring sound than decibels, or dB. The dBA scale has been adjusted so sounds humans can hear are weighted more heavily than those outside the ear’s range.)

A number of businesses make sound-masking products to help offices improve their sonic environments, such as Soft dB. By placing hidden speakers in the ceilings of open-plan offices, the Quebec City-based company uses nearly imperceptible background noise to increase speech privacy for workers.

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“There’s a bit more intensity in the mid-frequency, where the speech in perceived in the human ear,” says Soft dB co-owner and vice-president Jeff Cauchon, noting research has shown employees are willing to work longer in a comfortable sonic environment. “You can hear somebody is talking around you and you don’t understand what they are saying.”

He says some offices and researchers have tried playing music or nature sounds – but because of the variation in what people find relaxing, it’s hard to please everyone. “A type of music that may be soothing to you might be extremely annoying to others. The sound of water may make you want to pee. It’s very subjective.”

Even if people can’t be at a coffee shop, white-noise websites can be used to stimulate the same response.

MONICA BIALOBRZESKI / THE GLOBE AND MAIL

When it comes to music, there’s “no clear answer” on whether it’s good or bad for productivity, says Jessica Grahn, who runs the music and neuroscience lab at Western University in London, Ont. “It seems to be more helpful when we’re doing a boring, not-very-taxing type of task because it helps you maintain vigilance, it keeps your arousal levels up.”

Her team looked at music’s effect on memory and found that for people between the ages of 60 and 75, music had a noticeably negative effect. Other studies, which didn't test older adults, found some slight benefits for upbeat music, Grahn says. They found no solid link between musical genre and memory performance – not even Mozart. Still, there exists a pervasive myth that the classical composer’s music makes you smarter, she says.

“The body of literature indicates there is nothing special about classical music, let alone music by Mozart, in terms of making you smarter, or making children smarter,” Grahn says, noting people tend to show improved mood and energy levels after listening to music they like. “Faster music of a genre that you prefer will often have strong effects.”

CREDITS: Writing by SAIRA PEESKER; Creative direction and videography by MONICA BIALOBRZESKI; Design and development by JEANINE BRITO

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