The sound of silence: how to use noise for increased work productivity

Increased productivity

It’s all in the environment

We all know having an organised workspace makes you feel calmer, more confident and in control. But whether you work from home or share your study space with others, creating an area which encourages productivity, can be difficult.

Some of us thrive in busy, noisy environments, particularly if we’re creative individuals, but others need specific parameters to be productive. There’s lots we can do to design a practical workspace, but we’re often limited by the environment we have to work in. And noise is one of those things you can’t always control.

Hands-up if you’ve ever worked in an open-plan office or busy call centre where there is no let-up from the phone calls and constant chatter. Hands-up if you’ve ever been distracted in an office which is tuned in to a radio station that is totally not to your taste. Hands-up if you’ve worked with the loudest colleague ever – the one who shares their phone calls with the whole office; and laughs out loud at the latest meme they’ve stumbled across on social media.

Noise at work is a subjective thing so if you’re having to share a workspace then it can be difficult to compromise on audio levels.

Thank goodness for headphones! (although if your workplace or role doesn’t allow then you might have to look for alterative options if noise is restricting your ability to work) However, what we play through them can make a huge difference to productivity.

Here’s what you should consider:

  • What is the task?
  • What sounds work best for that task?
  • What is your personal preference?

Why music?

Studies about how music affects our brains have been ongoing since the 1950s. “Research suggests that music can help relieve negative emotions like stress, anxiety and depression.”¹ Researchers generally agree: “that listening to music can improve your efficiency, creativity and happiness in terms of work-related tasks.” But the type of music is key.

It’s usually recommended that classical or instrumental music without lyrics is the best type of music to listen to “when working on tasks that require intense focus or the learning of new information. In contrast, music with lyrics may actually help people working on repetitive or mundane tasks, perhaps because the distracting nature of lyrical music can provide relief from the monotony of boring work.”¹

At one with nature

Lots of us find natural sounds therapeutic – raindrops falling; water flowing; wind gently blowing – and thankfully there are plenty of apps and playlists that can provide us with this type of ambient sound when we can’t experience the natural environment in person (WFH on a tropical island listening only to the gentle lapping of waves over white sandy beaches anyone?)

When white is right

Another popular solution – white noise – not dissimilar to the static you used to get on old TVs or radios when you weren’t tuned into a station (Gen Zs and Millennials, ask your parents!) – helps prevent your brain from becoming distracted. Just like when you mix all colours of light together to form ‘white’ light, white noise is named due to the collection of random frequencies that are combined. Many people claim white noise helps them concentrate, because it helps their brain to filter out other background noises. However, some people find white noise irritating or even painful.

Are you pink or brown?* (other colours also available!)

The reason some people find white noise uncomfortable is due to the frequency of higher pitched sounds which humans are more sensitive to.

Pink noise on the other hand, takes human hearing into account and balances pitch, spreading out frequencies. This means a reduction in high pitch sounds, and a slightly deeper (more comfortable) tone overall. Think of it like raindrops in a storm.

If pink isn’t cutting it for you, there’s brown. In fact, the tone of brown noise is much more in tune with human hearing as a larger proportion of high frequencies are removed altogether. The result is a deeper sound – think water gently flowing in a river or waves on a beach.


Volume is a thing too. A 2012 study showed “that people were most creative when exposed to a background of 70dB, [equivalent to a loud vacuum or busy coffee shop] with scores dropping off both above and below that figure. So, a degree of background noise actually helps concentration.”²

The sound of silence

Finally, if neither music; (with or without lyrics) natural sounds; nor coloured noise creates an environment in which you feel productive, then there is always complete silence!

You may have to try several noises before you find what works for you, but when you find it, you’ll notice the difference in your concentration levels.

So, pick your sound, take out those Zebra pens and get working.

¹ Chad Grills, The Mission, 2017

² Nick Skillicorn,, 2016