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Turn It Up: How the Right Amount of Ambient Noise Increases Creativity

Environments like coffee shops can help boost our thinking ability (as long as they're not too loud). Here are 6 tools to help you amp up your productivity when you can't get out of the office.

Finding the right space to do creative work can be difficult. Inside the office, there are constant interruptions, last-minute meetings, and an often unbearable amount of noise. On the other hand, locking yourself away in quiet isolation can sometimes be just as counterproductive (not to mention boring). For most creatives there is a “Goldilocks” zone of just the right amount of noise, but not too much.

Perhaps this is why so many creatives often retreat to public spaces like coffee shops. They’ve become a virtual second office to so many. Specifically, settings like coffee shops contain the right level of ambient noise that just happens to trigger our minds to think more creatively. A paper published late last year in the Journal of Consumer Research, argues that the ideal work environment for creative projects should contain a little bit of background noise. A team of researchers, led by Ravi Mehta at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign tested the effects of varying levels of noise on participants’ creative thinking skills.

Specifically, they separated the participants into four groups and asked all four groups to complete a Remote Associates Test, a commonly used test of creative thinking that asks test-takers to find the relationship between a series of words that appear unrelated. Each of the groups was subjected to a different level of background noise (50 decibels, 70 decibels, 85 decibels, and total silence). When they scored each person’s test, the researchers found that those in the 70 decibel group, exposed to a moderate level of ambient noise, significantly out-performed those in the other three groups. The background noise boosted their creative thinking.

Researchers found that those exposed to a moderate level of ambient noise significantly out-performed those in the other groups.

Background noise creates a distraction, but balance is key. A moderate level of background noise creates just enough distraction to break people out of their patterns of thinking and nudge them to let their imagination wander, while still keeping them from losing their focus on the project all together. This distracted focus helps enhance your creativity. The study’s authors explain that “getting into a relatively noisy environment may trigger the brain to think abstractly, and thus generate creative ideas.”

But what if you aren’t free to roam to coffee shops and hotel lobbies in search of distracted focus? What if you need to re-create the coffee shop environment inside your cubicle or office? Luckily there are several virtual options available:

Coffitivity — Inspired by the research, Justin Kaulzer created a free online app that plays a continuous loop of coffee shop noise. The program includes noises from conversations, as well as the sounds of brewing and serving coffee. It even includes a function to mimic headphones in a coffee shop by letting you adjust the volume levels of your computer’s music player and the coffee shop sounds separately.

Ambient Mixer — A white noise machine on steroids, Ambient Mixer features a host of traditional loops heard on white noise machines and iPhone apps. However, it takes those a step further and allows you to combine sounds, adjust noise levels, mix your background noise tracks, and share your creations with others.

99U Music Mixes — If you’re too used to your iTunes tracks or Pandora stations to let them be background noise, try these playlists: Each one is curated around a different theme for easy selection based on where you are and what you need to get done.

Focus@Will Based on the idea that background music should be interesting, but not too interesting, Focus@Will plays ambient music in phases sequenced to follow your natural attention span. The app includes a timer so you can set scheduled blocks of time to work.

Brian Eno’s Music for Airports [Spotify] [iTunes] — Released in 1978, this album is still considered one of the best ambient music recordings ever. Originally conceived of during a long layover in a European airport as a way to tolerate that level of boredom, Eno’s recording was actually played inside New York’s LaGuardia Airport for a brief time. Thankfully, it made the jump to mp3 and can now be used everywhere, even inside a coffee shop. — Keep it simple with the original ambient noise: rain. does just what it says on the tin and even allows you to increase the amount of thunder.


Regardless of what method you choose, the trick is to make sure you’re exposed to only a moderate level of background noise. Let your mind wander, but not too far, and take advantage of the creative boost of distracted focus.

How about you?

What are your favorite sites and apps to provide you with just the right amount of background noise?

Comments (49)
  • Bob Tabor

    Great post, I’ll have a listen to these. Even working from home produces an abundance of sounds that can distract your thought process.

    The soundtrack of my life is produced by a simple box fan from Walmart. Everyone once in a while when I want to get “in the zone” I listen to “Inspired by Bach” by Yo Yo Ma. I’ve listened to that solo cello hundreds of times since the mid-90’s that I think I have every note memorized and my brain doesn’t have to think / process anything new that way.

    • davidburkus

      Thanks Bob. I’m with you on working from home. Too quiet for me. For awhile I’d turn on NatGeo and listen to a nature show in the background, but these have been working much better for me.

  • RichieOnix

    Great Post! I find myself being one of these people that loves to make the coffee shop their second office. It makes sense to have ambient sounds at 70 dB. I am an audio engineer so I know that 85 db is the level which music can be played for hours and gives the lease amount of ear fatigue. 70 dB is the perfect level for people to hear something but also not get distracted.

    *Also this is me being a nerd, if people learn how to calibrate their sound system so they can save their ears from being fatigued after so many hours of music.. Follow these 6 simple steps.

    1. Download a SPL (Sound Pressure Level) App on your smartphone.
    (I use SPL Meter on the iPhone (FREE)

    2. Play “Pink Noise” from your sound source

    3. Open the SPL Meter App, Set the Response to “Slow”

    4. Turn up the volume of your sound source until your SPL hits 85dB
    (VERY IMPORTANT STEP Make sure hold your phone from where you sit, pointing at the speakers)

    5. Mark what number or degree you volume control is on

    6. Done!

    Now you can hear music at this level for hours and save your precious ears that you love so much!

    • Sean Blanda

      Ha. This is awesome! Thanks for sharing.

      • RichieOnix

        No problem, its for the love of sound !

      • davidburkus

        This is awesome. I need to do this in my car. Thanks!

  • growthguided

    I always felt that the noise serves as a stimulus to keep me motivated. Just like the idea of having the gym not too busy and not too empty creates a better energy environment for a solid work out!

    You need to learn to feed off the energy around you!

    Thank you for the post. @GrowthGuided

    • davidburkus

      Great analogy. Thanks! That reminds me to hit the gym.

  • Lacy

    I’ve been listening to and

    I’m really excited to check out the others listed in this article. Thanks!

    • davidburkus

      I love for relaxing after a long session of writing (or emailing). Thanks for sharing!

  • David

    Great post and links, many thanks! Certainly struck a chord (no pun intended!)

    I’m finding a combination of two of those websites played in tandem works really nicely for me as I’m writing… I’ve posted my 2c on my site:

    • davidburkus

      Thanks so much. Glad to hear it’s working…and thanks so much for spreading the word on your site.

  • min amisan

    I’d like to second Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports” — it has helped me out many times when I just needed to shut out the world and get something done.

  • @kathysniezek

    Thank you, David, this is great information. I’m a long-time advocate of tapping into the power of music in the workplace, whether it’s to energize a crowd at a company meeting or succinctly compose an email in my cubicle. For the latter, I’ve found classical and ambient music inspired by nature and acoustical instruments to be more effective in inspiring thoughtful prose. Since I began working out of my home, I open the windows (fresh air’s a bonus!) and play similar tracks from my own collection and iTunes Radio. If the environment becomes too calm (i.e., sedate), or I’m in project management vs. writing mode, a faster-paced classical or spanish guitar provides the right tempo get the job done without distraction. That said, I’m eager to check out the resources you recommend. Variety also keeps the creative juices flowing!

  • Brady

    I’ve been using for a bit now. It’s got the ability to mix whatever sounds they have and even save a particularly good mix for future use.

  • Troy

    Been using Coffitivity for months now and love it. The fact that it’s people in the background also gives you a certain sense of presence, which is a bonus if you’re working alone.

  • sobercool

    Brian Eno has been my calmness savior for a while now. Aside from being musically interesting, it’s also relaxing.

  • Web Outsourcing Gateway

    Truly we should never take for granted the power of music in
    boosting creativity. Each song’s lyrics and tune came from an artist’s heart
    and experience. Those words and melody can tell you a story which can set your
    mood, inspire you and give you fresh ideas in what you are doing. Plus it can keep you awake and alert. Thank
    you for this list!

  • tom

    This is really good advice. Being a uni student I work in my bedroom on projects in the evenings and often find myself thinking with blinkers on as its so quiet and music can be distracting.

  • Earl

    ChatterBlocker masks unwanted conversations.

  • Don

    Who needs a new app? Radio has done the job quite nicely for decades.

  • Brette

    @Songza app is my absolute favorite. I can choose a specific level of ambience. Also, always discovering new tunes.

  • Saskamodie Jones has a great desktop app that will let you choose from a variety of soundscapes to listen to. I use it in conjunction with spotify playlists to create a sense of creative rhythm

  • moxilla

    Ambiscience brain power app has a FOCUS sound effect which can be combined with music tracks like rain, stream etc. Seems to really work for me, when I NEEEEED to focus, I put the headphones on w this app

  • Scott

    DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing is great background noise.

  • Adam DiTroia

    Great article. Unfortunately, in my line of work, it doesn’t help. I’m a composer and sound designer for media🙂

  • Nicholas Glenn

    How has noone recommended musicForProgramming() yet? Great stuff.

  • Brian Sheehan

    Is it just me or is anyone else annoyed by the growing trend of using adjectives as nouns? “Creatives,” really? You want to empower others to define you? Everyone is okay with having a label slapped on them… categorised and referenced for easy future use? “Yes, well Mary is a creative. Jim, on the other hand, is an analytical.”.

    Or, maybe it’s just me. An old school writer who thinks that people should be referred to as… people. A creative person… a creative thinker… a creative colleague… but maybe using an adjective as an adjective isn’t too creative…?

    • anilg

      good point, i agree, who is not creative at one point or the other

    • jrab

      well, in fact, “creative” is also a noun, so this is hardly a growing trend:

      2creative noun
      Definition of CREATIVE
      : one who is creative; especially : one involved in thecreation of advertisements
      : creative activity or the material produced by it especially in advertising

      • Brian Sheehan

        Yes, I am not disputing that “creative” is also a noun — it has been for the last 51 years (existed as an adjective for the last 335 years). I am stating that (a) it annoys me and (b) I am saddened by the fact that its popularity as a term is used to denigrate rather than empower.

        Isn’t it more meaningful to say, “She is a creative artist.” rather than “She is a creative.”? “Creative” is a powerful word because it is used to describe… using it as a noun-label just compromises the effect of a beautiful word.

        As for whether or not it’s a growing trend, that’s entirely a matter of perspective. Modern English dates back to 1550 and “creative” as a noun gave birth a mere 128 years after that… the adjective “creative” is an old word, perhaps worthy of a certain respect. In this light, its usage as a noun since 1962 does seem, to me, to be a growing trend.

      • marc

        I’m normally annoyed by this sort of thing as well, but somehow being labelled a “Creative” doesn’t bother me. It’s very open-ended. For years, my title has been “Graphic Designer” in one form or another, but – like many in the field – my skills and responsibilities extend far beyond that of a Designer. I still design, but I also shoot and edit video and photos, develop and author apps, teach, consult, and so forth. For all that I do, “Creative” sums it up nicely.

  • Mark Polege

    Great article, but needed a proofreader.

    • Sean Blanda

      See anything in particular?

      • Jennifer Brincho

        I only saw three: “your computers music player,” “mix your of background noise tracks,” and “the trick is to make sure your expose to only a moderate level.” Minor stuff. Still enjoyed the article.

  • Lisa, or its rain version, are great.

  • Ilango

    I’ve used a lot of times and really love it. Thanks for all the extra sources here!

  • Tim Donnelly

    I’ve also been using Coffitivity and I love it when I’m not working in an actual office. Now if I can just get those fake people to all start applauding when I’m done with an article.

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Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco.
Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco.