Student Well-Being

White, Brown, Pink: What Different Colors of Noise Mean and How They Can Help Learning

By Madeline Will — November 07, 2023 5 min read
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Can brown noise help students focus in class? What about white noise, or pink noise?

The colors of noise have gotten a lot of attention over the past year or so, with many people saying that these background sounds can calm their racing thoughts, relieve their stress, and help them focus. Brown noise, in particular, is having a moment: Last summer, a TikTok trend saw people reacting in awe to hearing brown noise for the first time.

“All of these noises, regardless of what color they are, do something called auditory masking—basically a fancy way of saying they block out other sounds,” said Dan Berlau, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at Regis University who has studied the effects of white noise.

There’s some research—and plenty of anecdotal accounts—showing that white noise can help people focus, especially those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Some teachers on social media have said they play these types of sounds in their classrooms to filter out distractions.

But some experts urge caution when playing background noise in class, as some students will find it distracting, irritating, or too loud.

“From an audiologist perspective, noise is bad,” said Gail Whitelaw, the director of the Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic at The Ohio State University. “Introducing any kind of noise into the school environment is a poor idea.”

Here’s what you need to know about the different colors of noise, what the research says, and how experts say this should all be applied in the classroom.

What is white noise? How does it compare to pink noise or brown noise?

The human ear can detect sounds in the frequency range from 20 Hertz (Hz.) to 20,000 Hz. If you play all those frequencies with equal distribution at the same time, it’s white noise. Think: television static.

Pink noise is a softer version of white noise. The higher frequencies are not as powerful, so there’s less of a high-pitched hissing sound. Think: a steady rainfall.

Brown noise also contains all frequencies, but the low frequencies are played at a louder level and the high frequencies are softened. It has a deeper, rumbling sound. Think: waves crashing on the beach.

“People find it to be a whole lot more pleasant,” Berlau said.

What about other colors of noise?

White, brown, and pink noise are the colors of noise that are most commonly known and studied. But people have created other colors of noise, although there is less consensus on what many of those colors mean and how they should be used, Berlau said.

For instance, violet noise is when the high-frequency sounds are made louder. “It sounds very unpleasant,” he said.

Green noise has also become popular, with some saying it replicates the sound of nature. But there’s no scientific consensus on what exactly green noise is, Berlau said.

“I have yet to see a definition that is the same across two groups of people,” he said. “There’s no established green noise.”

He warned against companies trying to sell different recordings of colors of noise that might not actually be backed up by research: “There’s a huge pseudoscience industry that’s really profiting on what these noises can do,” Berlau said.

What does the research say about white noise and learning?

A small but growing body of research has found that white noise has some benefits for people with ADHD. In studies, children with ADHD have performed better on memory and language tests when they listened to white noise during the test and have demonstrated fewer off-task or impulsive behaviors.

In another study, children who have reading disabilities or who struggle with phonological decoding were tested on their ability to read words, decode (matching letters and their combinations to the sounds they make), and recall words. The poor readers who listened to white noise during the 30-minute assessment generally performed better than those who did not. (For skilled readers, the white noise exposure had either no effect or gradually decreased their performance as the noise level went up.)

The research is predominately focused on white noise, Berlau said, although he and other experts expect that the findings would apply to brown noise, too.

Should teachers play brown noise in class?

While some teachers have said they play brown noise for the whole class at certain points of the day, like during independent work time, experts urge caution.

From a developmental perspective, children are much more sensitive to background noise than adults, said Whitelaw, the audiologist at Ohio State.

In particular, students with hearing loss or who speak English as a second language tend to need a quieter environment—but many kids in school have never had a full hearing evaluation, so teachers might not be aware of who is more sensitive to noise. Whitelaw said she worries about making uniform decisions about background noise for everyone in the classroom.

Also, most of the research is based on students listening to white noise via headphones at the 65 to 75 decibel level—around the same level of noise as a hair dryer near your head, Berlau said. There’s no evidence that playing white or brown noise to the whole classroom, without headphones, would have the same focusing effect.

And some studies have found that for neurotypical children, white noise via headphones might even impair their ability to work. Some children find the noise distracting or unpleasant.

“This isn’t something where you can play it, and everyone is going to benefit,” Berlau said. “It’s not like a panacea.”

How can teachers use brown noise with students?

Berlau suggested that if a student is easily distracted and is having a hard time concentrating on work, a teacher could offer them headphones to listen to brown noise.

“As far as interventions go, it’s pretty easy and cheap,” he said. “Even if the evidence is not crystal clear that it’s going to work, the risks are pretty low.”

But in that scenario, teachers should consider also administering a before-and-after questionnaire or analyzing outcome data to make sure it’s helping students, Whitelaw said.

“I think it’s important to say, how do we get the data that we need to show that a child might benefit from this, and not to make assumptions about ADHD,” she said.

Berlau said he expects more research to be done in the near future about how the different colors of noise affect the brain.

“I think we are in the very early stages of understanding exactly how this works,” he said.

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