They say music tames the savage beast, but what about brown noise? Wellness trends come and go, however some content creators on TikTok who battle with ADHD, overthinking and anxiety swear by its mellowing, stress-melting power.
Brown noise vs white noise: What’s the difference?
Chances are you’ve experienced brown noise without even realising it had a name. It comes as the downpour of heavy rain. It’s the faraway rumble of thunder, the steady whirring of a fan or even the low drone of an airplane cruising mid-flight.
Brownian or brown noise was named after the 18th century botanist, Robert Brown, who discovered the random motion of microscopic particles. Later, Albert Einstein found it could be explained by taking the random collisions of these microscopic particles with countless atoms and adding them together.
“White, pink and brown noise are all forms of random sound that have no specific frequency contents but whose spectrum is spread over a wide range of frequencies,” explains Professor Steve Elliott, professor at the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research, ISVR, University of Southampton. White noise has a “flat spectrum”, whereas pink noise has “less high frequency content and sounds as if you are some distance from rainfall”. Brown noise on the other hand, “has even fewer high frequencies and sounds as if you are far away from surf on a beach. It is the random nature of the noise that masks out other the other sounds which can be distracting.”
“The extra low frequency content of brown noise makes people associate it with calming natural situations, like being on a beach, says Elliott.”
Unlike white noise which is “characterised by a higher frequency hiss”, the roar of brown noise sounds similar to “strong wind or gushing waterfalls”, says research assistant professor, Dr Bhan Lam of Nanyang Technological University’s SMART Nation Lab. “Essentially, brown noise is a derivative of white noise with more pronounced low-frequencies and damped high-frequencies. Hence, brown noise may sound perceptually ‘softer’ than white noise.”
Does listening to brown noise have its benefits?
Beyond calming guided meditations, Solfeggio frequencies and crystal bowl sound healing, some brown noise enthusiasts claim that the frequency helps them to tune out the onslaught of racing thoughts; promoting a sense of focus and calm felt long enough to boost productivity or cope with residual trauma.
“Brown noise is soothing because it is random, so it has no particular meaning and conveys no new information,” explains Elliott
“It can mask out other sounds that you might hear, such as other people speaking or traffic noise, that can be annoying and demand a person’s attention, so that the brown noise can reduce distraction and allow people to focus,” he continues.
Jean Tan is a clinical psychologist who often diagnoses and treats patients with ADHD at Singapore’s Clinical Psychology Associates. Tan states that brown noise’s ability to “remove background environmental noises” may “distract a person with ADHD. Anecdotal evidence points to the benefit of brown noise making one to feel calm. It is also known that feeling calm helps to better resist distraction and have lower impulsivity, leading to better task focus.”
“Interestingly, white and brown noise has also been used as a non-invasive sound therapy to treat or ‘mask’ tinnitus—ringing in the ears, but has also been met with controversies within the medical community,” says Dr Lam. “There is some limited evidence showing that such sound therapies showed medically meaningful reduction in the perception of tinnitus. The placebo effect could be at play here as well. As such, more high quality evidence is required to understand this ‘Tiktok brown noise’ phenomenon.”
Dr Lam also notes the “growing interest in using biophilic or natural soundscapes to help restore attention.”
“A recent review has found some evidence in the health benefits of natural sounds in terms of lowering stress and annoyance, for example,” says Dr Lam. “We have also seen similar positive psychological affects when adding natural sounds to traffic soundscapes at NTU. However, we also found that context is important. For instance, water sounds without presence of water features or visibility of the audio output device was deemed inappropriate and less pleasant.”
The limitations of brown noise
“Some people may find particular frequencies most calming, but in general there are no ‘magic’ frequencies that have this effect,” Professor Elliot cautions—a sentiment that’s shared by Dr Lam.
Moral of the story: Before throwing away your vital medications and ditching other anxiety-reducing therapies to go ‘all-in’ with the sound, note that scientific evidence on brown noise’s ability to induce calm and soothe ADHD is slim. Dr Lam cites a recent meta-analysis of 38 studies on white and other coloured noises, sharing that it found “limited evidence that playing continuous noise aids in sleep.” At most, raising the background noise, whether with noise machines or mechanical fans does “help to reduce instances of sudden sounds that might wake light sleepers.”
But since when has the lack of data stopped anyone from trying anything new—especially when it’s as easy as searching for ‘brown noise’ on YouTube?
“Humans are unique individuals,” notes Tan. “Different things work for different people, and as long as the person is drawn to a particular noise (brown, pink, white) or certain types of music, [it may be worth a] try. There will always be an element of trial and error for strategies proposed.”