Unlike white noise, many atmospheres are recreations of specific, often fictional environments. Ever want to study in the Gryffindor Common Room?
By Joanne Paquin, Emerson College
It’s the night before a Potions exam and you’re feeling a bit stressed.
There is so much reading to do and so many formulas to memorize, but the quiet aura of Hogwarts’s library just isn’t helping you to concentrate. You can’t focus; you can’t sit still. You can only read a sentence or two of “Advanced Potion Making” before your eyes drift to the windows, where heavy snowflakes are drifting to the ground.
Pay attention, you tell yourself over and over again, but your mind is fleeting. You decide it’s futile and pack up all your texts and notes, then walk through the long, cool corridors back to your common room.
After a moment of operatic singing, the Fat Lady lets you in and you’re instantly hit by the warmth of the fireplace. A group of students are sprawled across a couch, debating whether The Three Broomsticks or The Hog’s Head serves better butterbeer, while several others in crimson and gold pajamas read books on quidditch and magical creatures.
You can see that your favorite chair by the window is free, so you curl up in it, close your eyes and listen. There’s the gentle sound of turning pages, light chatter and a cool wind knocking against the window. The fire crackles, a teaspoon taps the side of a teacup and you find yourself at ease. You’re focused. Your mind is quiet. You open your textbook and start to read.
Unfortunately studying at Hogwarts is something only the fictitious can achieve, but the situation can easily be replicated when one turns to sound. Crackling fires, turning pages and light chatter are not difficult to find or record, and when played simultaneously, present a soothing atmosphere that works toward clearing the mind and allowing for easy focus, making it the ideal noise to play when trying to concentrate.
When combined, these background sounds, or ambient noises, are known as audio atmospheres, and a lot of people turn to them when they are undergoing intense cognitive concentration, like writing a short story or studying for a final exam. These atmospheres present collections of sounds that can imitate different situations, and their themes can vary.
The most common atmospheres are those related to nature or natural phenomena. Sound machines are marketed with the promise that the sound of rain splashing against glass panes or ocean waves rumbling as they crash against pebbled sand will help put the user to sleep. Thunderstorms are another common audible situation that put people at ease, as are late nights in the forest with chirping crickets or windy evenings that rustle leaves.
But the themes can also be more amusing, straying away from the natural sounds of a wild landscape to the fictitious realm, where listeners can imagine they are in the settings of their favorite books or movies. Some sound collections have been created in an attempt to replicate scenarios such as studying in the Gryffindor Common Room or having a late dinner aside Eddard Stark at Winterfell.
Video games are also often a source of inspiration, as are fantastical stories like “The Lord of the Rings” and “Doctor Who.” Their immersive characteristics bring listeners into the stories, but don’t take away from that natural, commonplace feel that helps the brain to concentrate.
How Does It Work?
It’s common knowledge that sound can be beneficial when trying to focus. The first thing most students turn to when they have to study or write a final paper is a pair of headphones, and Spotify playlists of their favorite songs are put on loop.
However, studies have shown that listening to music may not always be beneficial. In fact, listening to one’s favorite songs or music genres has actually been linked to high levels of distraction. According to Arielle S. Dolegui of “Inquiries Journal,” “…a preferred type of music can serve as a distracting factor when one is engaged in a cognitively demanding task, due to the fact that less cognitive resources are available when the attention is drawn to the lyrics, emotions and memories that such music can evoke.”
The same study also showed that those who listened to sedative music performed better. This aspect was also proven in another study conducted by Ravi Mehta for the Journal of Consumer Research. This study, “Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition,” showed that moderate levels of ambient noise “is conducive to creative cognition.”
In other words, being only slightly distracted helps people to be more creative.
This is why most of those “a-ha” moments occur when one is doing menial tasks like taking a shower, watering the plants or going for a walk. If a task doesn’t require too much focus, the brain is able to think freely.
Finding Audio Atmospheres
YouTube is one of the more commonly-visited sites for audio atmospheres. There are endless videos created for all types of auditory situations that can be looped for hours upon hours. However, the website is not the only place one can turn to for background noise.
The site ambient-mixer.com is a personal favorite, with hundreds of different auditory scenarios available to users for free. They provide not only fictitious settings for one to transport themselves into, but also environmental noises, holiday ambience and sedative music. Ambient Mixer also give users the capability to make their own audio atmospheres for free, with an endless supply of natural sounds to choose from.
There are also a multitude of apps available that offer auditory situations. A Soft Murmur offers to “wash distraction away”; Thunderspace uses stereoscopic 3D audio and lightning flashes to create atmospheric storms around the user, and has won awards for its quality; and Coffitivity transports users into a coffee shop at different hours of the day. In addition, both Simply Noise and Ambience provide various atmospheric noises to download for free or for a small price, so the user can listen to them anywhere at anytime.