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Therapeutic sounds: A guide to white, pink, and brown noise

Learn the differences between “color noises” and how you can use them.
Last update on Dec, 19, 2023

When you lie down to sleep at night, what types of sounds do you hear? A rush of city traffic? Chattering cicadas? Nothing? If you’re among those who rely on sounds to help you sleep, you’re not alone. A recent survey by the Sleep Doctor found 52% of us use some type of background noise to fall asleep. While this number includes those who fall asleep to music or nature sounds, the majority of respondents (77.8%) employ white noise, brown noise or pink noise to help them nod off.

In addition to helping with sleep, these kinds of therapeutic sounds — called color noise — have been shown to lower stress and enhance relaxation and focus.

Let’s look at what color noise is, how it can benefit you and the effect it can have on your auditory system.

Why are noises assigned colors?

Audio engineers use colors to represent different sound frequencies based on how they appear on a spectral density chart. Just as different frequencies of light can be categorized as colors, sounds have their “colors” based on their energy distribution across the frequency spectrum. The naming convention helps characterize and differentiate these sounds based on their unique properties. Each type of color noise has a unique frequency distribution, which means they sound different and can have different effects on our ears, brains and bodies.

The most common types of color noise used as therapeutic sounds are white, pink and brown noise.  

A guide to white noise pink noise brown noise with sound and graph

What is white noise?

White noise is produced by combining all the different noise frequencies that are within the human hearing range and projecting them equally at the same time, making it effective at masking other, more disruptive sounds when you’re trying to sleep or concentrate.

Examples of white noise include television static, the hum of a fan, or a vacuum cleaner. 

What is white noise used for?

People use white noise as therapeutic sound for several different purposes, including: 

Drowning out jarring sounds that could interrupt your sleep, making it a favorite for light sleepers or those who live in spaces with more ambient noise.

Creating a consistent auditory background that can enhance concentration and productivity. Some researchers have found white noise beneficial for children with reading disabilities and ADHD. 

Acting as a sonic blanket, it provides a constant, soothing background that many find calming.
HCP talking with clients

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Pink noise vs. white noise: What’s the difference?

Pink and white noise are similar, but they differ in how the low and high frequencies are distributed. In pink noise, there is less power or volume in the higher frequencies, giving more emphasis to the lower ones.

Examples of pink noise include wind rustling through leaves, steady rain and ocean waves. 

What is pink noise used for?

Sometimes, the sound you choose comes down to preference, but you might also consider what research shows pink noise is most helpful for, including:

With its emphasis on lower frequencies, it can promote deeper stages of sleep. A small study published in 2012 found that participants who listened to pink noise experienced better sleep than a control group. 

Research also suggests that listening to pink noise can notably improve deep sleep in older adults and enhance their word recall ability.

The soft, natural-sounding hum can evoke feelings of peace and tranquility.

What is brown noise?

Brown noise reduces the volume of higher frequencies even more than pink noise, offering an even deeper soundscape. Unlike pink and white noise, brown noise gets its name from a person: botanist Robert Brown. He discovered Brownian motion—the random movement of particles suspended in a medium (think of watching dust motes move when you see them highlighted in a sunbeam)—and it’s said that the sound signals of brown noise mimic that kind of random motion.

Examples of brown noise include a waterfall, strong wind, heavy rainfall or the sound of a shower. 

What is brown noise used for?

Brown noise can be used in a similar way to white or pink noise, but there are specific qualities to its lower frequency that make it ideal for: 

The rich, enveloping nature of brown noise can help drown out distractions, making it perfect for tasks requiring deep concentration. In one study, workers who listened to brown noise in earphones reported improved attitudes towards concentration and task performance.

Its grounding, earthy tones can serve as a backdrop for meditation or mindfulness practices.

The deep resonance can offer comfort and reduce anxiety for some listeners.

Color noise and sound therapy

Sound therapy is a form of sensory therapy that uses all types of sound to improve health and well-being. The science behind sound therapy suggests sound waves affect brain activity and can influence our mental states, emotions and even physiological health.

Color noises are a natural fit in the world of therapeutic sounds for all the reasons we’ve mentioned above. 

Sound therapy and tinnitus

Tinnitus is the sensation of perceiving sounds that have no external source. This common problem can have consequences for everyday life; tinnitus sufferers report sleep disruption, the inability to concentrate and even emotional distress because of the constant ringing, buzzing or hissing. 

Sound therapy for tinnitus attempts to tap into the brain's ability to adapt to or “ignore” sounds. Tinnitus sufferers can make use of white or pink static noise designed to distract from tinnitus, or pink and brown “ocean wave” sounds that can create a soothing environment to alleviate some of the stress brought on by tinnitus.

A 2017 study found that those with tinnitus can use white noise to achieve significant improvements in discomfort levels, with two-thirds of patients preferring white noise over other sound colors for its effectiveness in overshadowing the tinnitus pitch. However, other studies have shown that some uses of white noise in patients with tinnitus have adverse effects long-term.

It’s important to consult with your hearing care professional before using color noise therapy to treat tinnitus. 

Hearing damage prevention when using white, pink or brown noise

Sound therapy and color noise can offer several benefits, but it’s important to exercise caution when implementing any new therapy — especially when it comes to the health of your ears. Keep this advice in mind:

It doesn’t matter if you’re listening to rock music or soothing nature sounds; research shows that listening to sounds above 85 decibels for more than 8 hours can lead to hearing loss. Sounds at or below 70 decibels are generally considered safe. 

If you’re listening to soothing sounds through your headphones, set the volume at a safe level. The louder the volume, the less time you should spend listening. Experts recommend sticking to the 60/60 rule: listening at 60 percent of the maximum volume for no more than 60 minutes a day.

Get advice from an expert

If you’re curious how you can use therapeutic sounds or color noise to help with tinnitus or other ways to safely use sound therapy, a Miracle-Ear hearing care professional can help you explore your options. Make an appointment at your neighborhood location today. 

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