Brown Noise vs. White Noise vs. Pink Noise: Is One Better Than the Other?
Medically reviewed by John Carew, MD
"Noise colors" refers to different settings within audio sound engineering used to create ambient noise. The "colors" are differentiated by frequency and amplitude. Typically, brown noise vs. white noise vs. pink noise are compared.
This article will discuss what noise colors are, what distinguishes between them, and how they may be beneficial.
First, How Do Colors Have Noise?
"Noise colors" are ambient noises differentiated by their frequency and the amplitude encompassed by the sound waves. The most well-known "hue" is white noise, but several noise colors exist, including:
Brown (also called red)
The practice of naming noises after colors started with white noise. Just as white light is assumed to have a flat power spectrum over the entire visible range, white noise works similarly with sound, having equal power within any interval of frequencies.
What Makes Brown Noise vs. White Noise vs. Pink Noise Different?
While white noise vs. brown noise vs. pink noise can sound similar, there are subtle differences.
White noise is a combination of all the frequencies that can be heard by the human ear, ranging from 20 hertz (Hz) to 20,000 hertz.
The frequencies encompassed by white noise are all at equal volumes, making it sound higher-pitched.
White noise has been associated with:
Masking unwanted sounds
Treating tinnitus (a condition in which a person hears a high-pitched ringing)
Managing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms
Some studies suggest it may also help relieve pain and crying in colicky babies.
In addition to engineered sound, examples of white noise include:
TV and radio static
Steady running water/steady rain
Air conditioner hum
Like white noise, pink noise contains all the frequencies audible to the human ear (20 hertz to 20,000 hertz), but the higher frequencies are less powerful than the lower frequencies.
This gives pink noise a softer, more balanced sound, embodying sounds often found in nature.
Pink noise is commonly considered more pleasing and relaxing than white noise. It is often used for background noise because it is less distracting than other types of noise.
Examples of pink noise include:
Urban noises, such as traffic
Rustling plants or trees
Brown noise has more power in the lower frequencies, giving it a bass-heavy, richer, rumbling sound that is deeper than white and pink noise. It has rich sound-muffling qualities and is thought to narrow focus, making it effective for listening to while working. Some research suggests it may help improve thinking skills.
Examples of brown noise include:
Which Color of Noise Is Best for Me?
There isn't a set "best color", overall or for certain activities. A lot of it comes down to personal preference, and there is overlap, but studies have shown that particular noise colors can be beneficial in certain situations.
Several studies have shown white noise to be helpful for people with ADHD in certain ways. One study found that adding white noise to the environment enhanced the memory performance of children with ADHD symptoms. Conversely, this study found that the added white noise disrupted children who did not have ADHD symptoms.
Another study found that white noise benefited children and adults with ADHD symptoms. A 2016 pilot study suggests that exposure to 80 decibels (dB) of auditory white background noise can be an alternative or complementary treatment to medication for children with inattentive symptoms in school. It should be noted, however, that prolonged exposure to 80 decibel (dB) noise will cause permanent noise-induced hearing loss. More research is needed to confirm this potential.
The discrepancy between white noise enhancing the performance of those with inattentive symptoms and impairing those who are highly attentive is suggested to be due to differing levels of neural noise. People with ADHD may have suboptimal dopamine levels, resulting in reduced neural noise levels that negatively impact cognitive performance. It's proposed that white noise may increase neural noise, thus benefiting those with lower attention but hindering those whose neural noise levels are already optimal.
Research shows promising results for pink noise as beneficial for sleep. Earlier studies found that pink noise helped older adults improve their sleep quality.
While more research is needed, studies suggest pink noise may help decrease the time it takes to fall asleep and reach deep sleep, in addition to improving sleep quality. The optimal way to administer the pink noise is still being explored, including volume levels, syncing to brain waves, playing in short bursts at strategic times, etc.
Research shows white noise can also help with sleep by masking other noises that could disrupt sleep. For example, one study found that white noise helped to mask environmental noises, induce sleep, improve sleep, and maintain sleep for those in a coronary care unit.
While not specifying the noise color, a 2017 study found that natural sounds reduced individuals' anxiety undergoing coronary artery bypass graft surgery (CABG). This procedure can cause anxiety, depression, worry, fear, and other psychological distress.
In addition to potentially improving concentration levels, brown noise may be beneficial as a technique to address anxiety and enhance relaxation.
Anxiety can feel different for each person. It may involve feeling worried, on edge, restless, or irritable. It can make it difficult to concentrate on other thoughts and activities.
Anxiety can also cause physical symptoms, such as heart palpitations, headache, fatigue, sweating, muscle weakness, and chest pain.
Ways to Listen to Brown, White, and Pink Noise
You can find white, pink, and brown noise in nature, but because it is unlikely to thunderstorm every time you want to sleep, and you probably don't have a loud waterfall in your backyard, you may want to find ways to create the sounds in your house.
Simple ways to create white noise include running a fan or turning a tv or radio to static.
For more nuanced and portable white, pink, or brown noise, consider using:
A stand-alone sound machine
A sound/sleep app
White, pink, or brown soundtracks on YouTube or other websites or on a music-listening app
Some things to consider when choosing a method for listening to white, pink, or brown noise include:
Types of sounds
Be careful of the volume. Noise above 70 decibels can cause hearing damage when listened to for an extended period. Keep your white, pink, or brown noise well below 45 decibels. If this needs to be adjusted for different noise conditions, avoid exceeding 70 decibels (dB), particularly for an extended period.
"Noise colors", such as white, pink, and brown, are different settings within audio sound engineering used to create ambient noise. The "colors" are differentiated by frequency and amplitude.
White noise and pink noise contain all of the frequencies the human ear can hear, but with pink noise, there is more power on the lower frequencies than the higher ones. Brown noise is lower than both white and pink noise.
More research is necessary, but studies suggest that white noise may help people with the inattentive symptoms of ADHD. Research has also shown that white and pink noise may help improve certain sleep problems. Brown noise may help with concentration and anxiety.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do different types of noise affect the brain?
More and better research is needed, but some studies suggest that white noise can help people with ADHD with some cognitive abilities; white noise and pink noise may help improve sleep; and brown noise may help with concentration and relaxation.
Is brown noise or white noise better for depression?
No noise has been shown to treat depression. Some research suggests broad-spectrum sounds such as white or brown noise can help with relaxation, sleep, and/or concentration, but this has not been conclusively proven.
Can brown noise stop overthinking?
Some studies suggest brown noise can help with anxiety and relaxation, but more research is needed to verify this.