Too restless for silence, I have long been on the hunt for the perfect mood music for writing. So when I found myself using the new iOS app Thunderspace more and more to help me focus and stay productive, I started wondering why it worked so well.
It's not that I was skeptical of Thunderspace at first—it's just that I didn’t care how this gloried white-noise app worked under the hood. Lots of people work with some sort of ambient noise, thinking it makes them more productive. Thunderspace made me wonder if the theory was actually proveable.
Researchers Ravi Mehta, Rui (Juliet) Zhu, and Amar Cheem—who don’t make apps, but had the same question—tested the hypothesis, filling in some big holes around sound research along the way.
Publishing "Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition," in the Journal of Consumer Research, they did indeed find that a moderate level of ambient noise actually does boost creativity for most people. So I redoubled my hunt for ambient noise apps. Here’s what I found.
First, quality matters. The Thunderspace app comes courtesy of the same people who do the weather app Haze, as well as the Emmy-award winning nature sound recordist, Gordon Hempton. There are two factors that set it apart from other "rain sounds," of which there are hundreds. First is that the storms were recorded in stereoscopic 3-D, designed for headphones at an impressive 256kpbs AAC. Also, despite the high-quality sound, the app came in under a 50mb download, a sign the developer was deliberate with the design and resources.
Coffitivity, the website and app with sounds of a coffee shop, was actually primarily based off the ambient noise research. Meant to re-create the coffee shop experience and the creativity boost many get from working in that environment, Coffitivity plays different coffee shop scenes such as "morning murmur" or "lunchtime lounge." Filmmaker Carl Willat, who's done visual effects for films like Flubber and Across The Universe, said that one of best places he found to get work done was a cafe in Rome. "It had just the right amount of foot traffic, combined with the unintelligible [to me] Italian being spoken."
Speaking with Willat, he also mentioned that when not in Rome, he typically works at a Starbucks, not because of the coffee, but because "They’re often so bland and uninteresting, it’s easier to focus your thoughts." You can use Coffitivity for free via a desktop or mobile web browser, or you can use it offline with apps in both the Mac App Store and iOS App Store.
Ambiance has been around a long time, making a debut on the iOS App Store almost from the beginning. The biggest advantage it has is the diversity of the sounds it offers through its sound store. In terms of creativity-boosting sounds, the category "Urban Sounds" offers almost any location you could imagine. From a restaurant kitchen, airport lounge, or shopping mall all the way to a community pool or high school setting. If you’re someone who needs a specific type of ambient noise to get your work done and be your most creative, Ambiance may well be worth the $2.99.
Upon reading this article, Professor Walrus, being a gentleman of some years, noted that he has observed the ambient noise phenomenon for decades. There have always been those who work best in crowds and those who demand total, monk-like, isolation. Writers seem especially particular about their work environments. In A Moveable Feast, he reminded me, Hemingway recounts his need for separate watering holes for work and for meeting friends. If an acquaintance happened upon him while writing, the spot was ruined for him, and he’d have to find a new bar to regain his productivity. To overhear "genuine" conversation by habitués was "good," Hemingway said, but conversation with friends made work impossible.
[Image: Flickr user Jason Rogers]