Bringing the “background sound” to the fore

Music and Art

Remember, in the days before digital television, when you could change the channel to something that didn’t exist? Failing that, remember when you tried to play a blank VHS? The TV would light up with black-and-white ants. More than that, there was a sound behind it – a sort of static sound. You can probably still hear it, somewhere deep in your echoic memory.  What you were experiencing was white noise: visually, the black-and-white ants; aurally, a “shh” (or “hiss”) sound, which didn’t really sound like anything, but still had quite a  distinctive timbre.

As a matter of fact, the sonic counterpart of white noise – this great jumble of sound – is actually rather interesting. For many people, white noise is becoming a popular soundtrack to certain life events: attempts to concentrate, trying to fall sleep, searching for comfort from a deafening silence. We seem to find it reassuring; it adds something to our auditory world, something quite difficult to express.

Dr Ruth Herbert, Junior Research Fellow in Music at Jesus College, was kind enough to give me a crash course in how to understand white noise. “White noise is sound with equal power of all frequencies that we’re capable of hearing,” she explained. We can’t quite comprehend all of its constituent parts, in the same way that we cannot see all of the colours of the spectrum in white light (hence, “white” noise). You can get different colours of noise, too.

“White noise is ‘stochastic’ – that is to say, made up of multiple random events that are normally distributed, which we hear as washes of sound. To get a sense of this, think of the sound of a waterfall, rain, birdsong, the wind.” These are soundscapes that we often associate with relaxation, and they can offer “relief from the increasingly intrusive sounds of everyday life”.

However, white noise can be invasive, too: “Employed at high volume levels, white noise has been used as an instrument of torture.” It’s easy to see why: our ears are more conscious of the huge range of frequencies being forced upon them at a greater amplitude.

“The power of white noise lies in its ability to mask other sounds,” Dr Herbert explained. “Our auditory systems evolved primarily to function as alarm systems, able to register signs of danger ahead of visual clues. We are all equipped with an innate ‘startle reflex’, a brainstem reaction that facilitates a quick escape where necessary.

“The problem is that, in modern life, the startle response is frequently triggered in situations where it’s not useful.” This is easy to relate to: motorcycles careering past, a plate smashing, music coming on too loudly.

White noise can lessen these shocks, acting as a sonic barrier: “The stochastic nature of white noise, together with its wide frequency range, means it’s particularly effective at blocking out other auditory stimuli.” This is because it lacks any major aural phenomena, which we hear in most music, and consistently in everyday life: no high violins, no car horns, no dripping taps.

White noise is rather intriguing. It can relax, but it can torture. It can focus, or it can soothe. There is some evidence to suggest that it can improve cognitive performance, and it can even lighten your mood. The effects of white noise often vary greatly between individuals, and studies in the field are still quite young. What I’m really trying to say is: listen for yourself and try out some different colours (I’m personally more of a pink noise person). You can find colours on the Sound Agency (soundcloud.com/thesoundagency).

 

Do you listen to white noise? Experience ASMR from music or sounds? Use Alpha or relaxation music? If you answered “yes” to any of the above, get in touch with Dr Ruth Herbert, and contribute to new research on the power of sound – ruth.herbert@music.ox.ac.uk

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