The relationship between noise and creativity
A recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Research manipulated three levels of ambient noise, 50 (low), 70 (moderate) and 85 (high) decibels. The study found that moderate sound level promotes abstract reasoning, which in turn increases creativity.
It works like this: compared to the low noise levels, the moderate levels act like ambient gristle: they make processing just a little bit more difficult, and that little bit of extra chewing required by the brain produces better results. Go overboard with too much noise, though, and this will attenuate focus.
A short history of art and noise
There’s not much written about the role noise and sound play in working environments of artists. This probably goes back to the idea that sounds are not something you consciously notice or organise unless they are irritants.
Writer EB White (Charlotte’s Webb) says this of the impact of noise:
I never listen to music when I’m working. I haven’t that kind of attentiveness, and I wouldn’t like it at all. On the other hand, I’m able to work fairly well among ordinary distractions. My house has a living room that is at the core of everything that goes on: it is a passageway to the cellar, to the kitchen, to the closet where the phone lives. There’s a lot of traffic. But it’s a bright, cheerful room, and I often use it as a room to write in, despite the carnival that is going on all around me. In consequence, the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man — they make all the noise and fuss they want to.”
White had just the right amount of noise gristle to keep the words flowing.
Twyla Tharp agrees with White on the music front. She says in her book The Creative Habit that she never works to background music, because it steals her attentional resources.
Composer Andrew Ford offers his take on the role of music and visual art when he writes:
My impression is that, like dancers, visual artists use music to generate energy, their studios resounding – or so I’ve observed – to heavy rock and Dylan (which suggests that little has changed since the days of Brett Whiteley).”
So for artists not using written language, music can facilitate the rendering of an atmosphere or scene on the canvas.
More attention should be paid by artists and creatives not only to music they choose to play or not play, but also to other aspects of the auditory environment in which they work.
One of the ways you can manipulate sounds in your workspace is through one of the many ambient noise apps available. Here are the results of my experiment with two such apps:
Recreates the ambient sounds of coffee shops. It claims to boost creativity and productivity by simulating the optimal ambient working environments. The recordings are easy to access and you get a few to start you off before you choose the premium upgrade.
A free site that offers an amazing range of recordings: everything from ‘Ambient House’ to ‘The Mystery of Profound Emotional States’. In my experiment, I wrote to a few of the recorded tracks. Some interfered with my focus. One called ‘Industrial Machinery’ is the equivalent of sitting in a dentist’s rooms. The cat purring and snoring tracks are equally as irritating, which proves I am definitely a dog person. Several of the tracks include flowing water. This just made my bladder full. The sound of the crackling fire made me stop and sniff every so often to make sure my household wasn’t in peril. There’s bound to be a broad range of human variability in likes and dislikes to sounds though, isn’t there? I enjoyed ‘Thesis Writing in the Morning’ a track that features sounds of students typing and coming in and out of a writing room. I also liked ‘Tantra Lounge’ for its just-right mix of sounds from instruments.
So, how did these apps affect my creativity?
It was impossible to tell whether or not I produced better work, so any comment on that front would be mere speculation. But when I played a sound that pleased me, I noticed my focus increased.
When I turned the recordings off, my brain did a small collapse, like how your legs go after you’ve done a set of lifts. This was the most fascinating part of my experiment. Though anecdotal, it coincides with the music-as-gristle theory, suggesting that the ambient noise was a small amount of mental tension that increased concentration.
Whatever creative work you do, I suggest you try an ambient noise site.
But stay away from the cats.