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Art of White Noise
When measuring sound waves1, “frequency” refers to how fast the waves vibrate per second while “amplitude” (or “power”) refers to the size of the waves. Frequency is measured in hertz and amplitude is usually measured in decibels. The relationship between the frequency and amplitude of a sound wave is used to define different “colors” of noise, which share structural properties with corresponding light waves of the same name.

To produce white noise2, every frequency the human ear can hear is played in a random order at the same amplitude. This results in a “shh” sound many associate with television or radio static. Just as white light is thought to be composed of every visible wavelength on the color spectrum, white noise consists of every audible frequency. Fittingly, “black noise” refers to the literal sound of silence.

Disruptive sounds such as a slamming door do not necessarily wake you up because they are loud. Rather, the change in sound consistency3 from soft to loud can be strong enough to interrupt your sleep. True white noise essentially creates a blanket of sound4 that masks these sudden consistency changes. And since white noise is audible, it can also be useful for people who do not like sleeping in a completely silent environment.

white noise for sleepWhite noise has proven particularly effective for hospital patients5. These settings tend to be quite loud and filled with ambient noise that can disrupt sleep. Studies suggest a white noise machine can reduce sleep onset for patients, or the time it takes to fall asleep, by nearly 40% compared to patients who don’t use these devices. Some studies have also found that white noise can help babies and young children6 fall asleep more quickly. White noise has also proven effective at helping inattentive children7 concentrate better in their classrooms.

1. Neal, M. (2016, February 16). The Many Colors of Sound. The Atlantic. Retrieved October 5, 2020, from
https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/02/white-noise-sound-colors/462972/
2. Geere, D. (2011, April 7). White, pink, blue and violet: The colours of noise. Wired UK. Retrieved October 5, 2020, from
https://www.wired.co.uk/article/colours-of-noise
3. Lecher, C. (2014, February 17). Why Does White Noise Help People Sleep? Popular Science. Retrieved October 5, 2020, from
https://www.popsci.com/article/science/fyi-why-does-white-noise-help-people-sleep/
4. Heid, M. (2019, June 4). Why Not Everyone Should Sleep with a White Noise Machine. Time. Retrieved October 5, 2020, from
https://time.com/5600225/do-white-noise-machines-work/
5. Messineo, L., Taranto-Montemurro, L., Sands, S. A., Oliveira Marques, M. D., Azabarzin, A., & Wellman, D. A. (2017). Broadband Sound Administration Improves Sleep Onset Latency in Healthy Subjects in a Model of Transient Insomnia. Frontiers in Neurology, 8, 1. Retrieved from
https://doi.org/10.3389/fneur.2017.00718
6. Spencer, J. A., Moran, D. J., Lee, A., & Talbert, D. (1990). White noise and sleep induction. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 65(1), 135–137. Retrieved from
https://doi.org/10.1136/adc.65.1.135
7. Helps, S. K., Bamford, S., Sonuga-Barke, E. J. S., & Söderlund, G. B. W. (2014). Different Effects of Adding White Noise on Cognitive Performance of Sub-, Normal and Super-Attentive School Children. PLoS One, 9(11), 1. Retrieved from
https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0112768
8. Zhou, J., Liu, D., Li, X., Ma, J., Zhang, J., & Fang, J. (2012). Pink noise: Effect on complexity synchronization of brain activity and sleep consolidation. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 306(7), 68–72. Retrieved from
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jtbi.2012.04.006
9. National Institute of Neurologic Disorders and Stroke. (2019, August 13). Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep. Retrieved October 5, 2020, from
https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/understanding-Sleep
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