Jonathan defines what white noise actually is and how it's used to mask other annoying sounds.
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Cross over into BrainStuff now children. All are welcome! But… before we go into the light together, there seems to be some confusion among you about what “white noise” is.
No, it isn’t when you have that snowy static on your TV and ghosts fly out of the screen and your daughter says, “They’re here!”
White noise is something we’ve all heard, some of us without even knowing it. So let’s define what it is exactly, how it’s used to mask other sounds and what other “colors” exist on the spectrum of sound.
The simplest definition is that white noise is the noise produced by combining all the different frequencies of sound together at once. Each of these frequencies is projected at an equal amount, from low to high. Because white noise has an equal energy distribution, sound technicians refer to its frequency spectrum as being completely flat.
Some machines -- like fans for instance -- can create an approximation of white noise by hitting all these notes. That’s why they’re so good at creating background noise that masks other sounds.
When there are sudden changes in noise, we’re often distracted by the jarring clash. Especially if we’re sleeping. White noise’s masking effect blocks out those changes, making it easier to sleep through the night. That’s one reason some people leave a fan, air purifier or a television on in the middle of the night.
This sound masking is also used to block noise in places like offices, hotels and libraries, often broadcast over a PA system. If you’re trying to concentrate in a disturbing environment and there aren’t filters like these in place, you can always listen to white noise on your headphones to mediate the conflicting sounds around you.
How do you think we write these BrainStuff episodes when we all live together in this tiny studio prison and are never allowed to leave? There is peace and serenity in the white noise.
We call it “white” noise because it’s analogous to how white light works, being made up of all the different frequencies of light. But white noise isn’t the only “color” on the sound spectrum. Depending on the way signals are distributed over different frequencies they can be red, blue, violet or gray.
Pink noise for example is very similar to white noise, but its higher frequencies have less intensity, making it louder and more powerful on the low end. This makes it useful for testing speakers and amplifiers. Like white noise, it’s also used to mask background sounds. And pink noise even occurs naturally in heartbeat rhythms, meteorological data and the radiation output of astronomical bodies.
Spinney, L. (2008). The noise within. New Scientist, 198(2661), 42-45
Carroll, J. (2012). Can white noise ease tinnitus effects?. Plant Engineering, 66(8), 19.
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