A Little Bit of Background Noise

Relaxation through audio is more than a mere matter of white noise. Read on for a little history of background noise, and why it’s so effective.

Hey all, Ernie here with a piece from David Buck, who has been looking for ways to keep a chill vibe going lately. He’s doing so with background noise. Here’s how:

Today in Tedium: A few months ago, I bought a baritone guitar. Inspired by ambient guitar music, I figured I would contribute a few compositions of my own to the wonderful world of relaxing background music. My own songs are still very much a work-in-progress, but my musical journey got me thinking about the various aural methods we use to help with concentration, studying, and—for some folks—getting to sleep. The white noise machine is but one method of accomplishing this. There’s ambient starship sounds, lo-fi hip hop, the pre-packaged sounds of nature, among other things—but it is the best known and perhaps, the most interesting. Join us as we take a relaxing deep dive into an interesting subject guaranteed to help you sleep … or at least calm down a bit. Everyone can relax and (hopefully) get a great night’s sleep this evening because today’s Tedium is all about white noise, musical relaxation, and ambient sound. — David @ Tedium

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five

The percentage of Americans who use a white noise machine as a sleeping aid, according to The Sleep Foundation. Even with that small percentage, the original white noise machines gained widespread popularity and have sold over six million units to date. If you’re not one of those five percent, rest comfortably knowing that—if nothing else—you can at least use your own white noise machine to get some office privacy or as background noise for some other activity.

Background Noise: White Noise Patent

The original white noise machine has a surprisingly sleepy history

The white noise machine as we know it began life because of a terrible night’s sleep on the part of its creator, James.K. Buckwalter. Buckwalter was a vice president of sales at Rubbermaid who was not only a likable and well known salesman, but an inventor as well. During his time at the company, he was also tasked with inventing new products. Buckwalter’s wife Trudy had difficulty sleeping, but discovered the sound of an air conditioner helped her sleep better. So, Buckwalter—who was a notorious “tinkerer”—came up with a device that possessed the sound of an air conditioner without the cold, blowing air.

In 1963, Buckwalter and his investor William F. Lahey, filed a patent for the first electromechanical sound conditioner—the white noise machine. Per the patent, Buckwalter intended to make a device that could help induce sleep, was inexpensive to construct/operate, and was portable. Other parts of the patent outlined that the machine would produce “acoustical privacy by excluding or rendering ambient sound less noticeable” and to “produce a restful sound tending to shut out disturbing ambient noises and thus producing a condition conducive to starting of sleep and continuance of sleep during a normal sleep period.” Buckwalter outlined how the machine contributed to restful sleep and the SleepMate was born. His friends heard about the machine and wanted their own and eventually word-of-mouth helped propel the machine into success.

Background Noise: White Noise Machine

The Dohm, the modern descendant of the original SleepMate white noise machine.

Buckwalter formed his own company in North Carolina, Marpac, and began manufacturing the machine and the rest is white noise machine history. The machine went through a few tech updates as time marched on, but remained mostly the same in design and function over the years. Though its name was changed to “the Dohm” in 2010, it’s remained a hand-assembled “sleep-inducing sound-proofing device” to this day.

Of course, there are various knock-offs, competing products, and different approaches, but the original Sleep Mate is a great example of white noise sleep aid machine that captured the minds of an entire country.

“Acoustically, white noise is the equivalent of mashing all the keys at once on a thousand untuned pianos—random activation of every frequency at once with absolutely no relationship among the different notes.”

— Dr. Mouna Attarha, Ph.D. a sleep scientist explaining the concept of white noise to Bustle in a 2019 article about the effects of white noise on the brain, which offers insight into the long-term use of white noise and why it may be better to put on some ambient or nature sounds instead.

Background Noise: Headphones

Yes, Tedium is that newsletter that juxtaposes a black and white photo against a subhed that literally uses the word “rainbow.” Deal with it. (Sean Benesh/Unsplash)

There’s a veritable rainbow of relaxing background noise if you know where to look

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, white noise is just a range of sound that covers the entire range of audible frequencies, all of which are equally intense. The use of this sound can potentially block out extraneous noises and per the Sleep Foundation helps you sleep by covering up some of the noisy world around you:

“White noise works by reducing the difference between background sounds and a ‘peak’ sound, like a door slamming, giving you a better chance to sleep through it undisturbed. If you have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, creating a constant ambient sound could help mask activity from inside and outside the house.”

White noise has a few non-sleep related uses as well. It’s often incorporated into sirens due to its ability to cut through other sounds. It is also—along with ambient music, nature sounds, cognitive therapy, and some newer breakthrough technology—occasionally used to help provide temporary relief for tinnitus (a persistent buzzing/ringing in the ears) that works by masking or obscuring the sensations associated with the condition for a short time.

Listening to white noise while you sleep can be a great help if you live in a noisy environment, but it may not be the best option if you suffer from tinnitus—a conclusion further supported by a recent study of the subject by JAMA Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery. White noise and white noise machines aren’t the only option available for those looking for a good night’s rest or even simple relaxation.

If you don’t feel like buying a white noise machine of your own, there are several apps, YouTube channels, and websites that exist solely for that purpose. You may also want to consider pink noise (noise that’s louder at the low end and soft at higher frequencies) which can help you stay in a deeper state longer and improve your memory. Brown noise (noise with even louder on the low end of the frequency spectrum) may or may not be helpful and more research is needed. If that all seems confusing, keep in mind there’s a whole world of relaxing audio out there beyond white, pink, and brown noise—in music, nature, and a few surprising places.

In the 1990s, a series of ambient nature sounds CDs were released under the Lifescapes label which included everything from the sounds of tropical rainforest to humpback whale song and even a chorus of croaking frogs. Ostensibly marketed as New Age music (Lifescapes’ slogan was ““Relax, Renew, Escape” which is printed on the back of a few of the CDs I own), where the Lifescapes brand truly excelled was in their collections of natural sounds. In addition to their fine CDs of Celtic and Irish music, Lifescapes produced some classical music collections and music intended for yoga or meditation. Though there was a time when one could easily find these releases at Wal-Mart, Target, or Best Buy, they are sadly relegated to the discount bins at thrift shops these days. On the bright side, most of them are worth picking up and can potentially provide hours of relaxation and mediation at a very low price.

If CDs aren’t your thing, YouTube offers a flourishing community of various natural sounds and for those times when you really need to focus, you can always check out ChlledCow’s phenomenal, long-running stream of “lofi hip hop beat to relax/study to” which are simultaneously immensely popular, long-running, and quite good.

Then there’s the excellent musician and teacher, Bill Vencil, who composes and performs ambient guitar music under the moniker The Chords of Orion. His beautiful, ambient guitar performances (with imagery to match) are available on Bandcamp and via his YouTube channel. Bill’s contributions to the world of ambient music are fantastic, but perhaps his greatest contribution to the genre are his in-depth lessons on how to create your own ambient music, including step-by-step instructions and DIY His approach and demeanor are soothing on their own, but when you add the ambient music to the equation, you get is a recipe for relaxation that will make you want to go out and buy your own baritone guitar (it worked on me, anyway).

You won’t find ambient music presented in such a unique manner—with matching dedication and enthusiasm—in many other places. When it comes to learning how to make or simply enjoying ambient guitar music, Chords of Orion is truly out of this world.

1.5M

The number of views (as of this writing) an ambient sound video called “Star Trek TNG HD Ambient Engine Noise (idling for 12 hrs in 1080p)” The video consists of a static image of the starship Enterprise D set to the comforting background sounds of a starship idling for long periods that would likely correspond to a sleep schedule.

Why idle engine noise from Star Trek: The Next Generation has proven such great background noise

Of course, the view numbers from the 12-hour version of Enterprise D’s engine are nothing compared to the 24-hour version, which has over twice as many views. Created by the channel’s owner Crysknife007, the track is a cleaned-up sample of the actual engine idling sound from Star Trek: the Next Generation that’s been looped and structured into a longform piece of ambient sound. As the creator writes on the Bandcamp page for the downloadable version of the track:

One of my favourite things about the Star Trek franchise are all the great ambient sounds that represent the engine noise on the various ships. My favourite ambient noise from the whole series is the engine idling noise in TNG. I have cleaned up a sample from the show and then looped it for 24 hours. Great for ambiance and imagining that you’re in deep space. Just set your favorite tricorder to play this track on repeat as you go to sleep and you should have no trouble getting to bed in your quarters.

Though ThinkGeek once advertised a Star Trek white noise machine, it turned out to be an April Fool’s joke (just one more reason to dislike that practice). So, why not make your own? Starship sounds seem to be a popular choice of background noise and you can even make your own with the handy online sci fi background noise generator. Full speed ahead, right?

Six mostly instrumental albums that will help you unwind

Do you ever find yourself thinking that most of Spyro Gyra’s remarkable Morning Dance LP sounds like the majority of it could have been used as openings to sitcoms from the 1980s? No, just me? I find their music relaxing and enjoyable either way. Most days, I’ll go a step further and put on some of my favorite instrumental music to listen to while napping, unwinding at the end of the day, or helping with concentration while working on a writing project. These are all my personal selections, so your mileage may vary. However, I do find that each one of these albums helps me to relax and concentrate. Maybe you’ll find a new favorite here:

Background Noise: Ralph Towner, Solstice

Ralph Towner, Solstice

Ralph Towner’s fourth album showcases his unique guitar playing technique in a major way. Towner—who uses only acoustic instruments and does not like amplification—expertly weaves a variety of textures and sounds to create a feeling of peace and serenity on this album. Solstice kicks off with the ten minute opus “Oceanus,” a sweeping acoustic tapestry that blends the best of ambient sound architecture with melodic story-telling and a sparse horn part to create a relaxing and wild ride for the listener’s imagination. Horns make several appearances through the album, creating the sense of tension that works to the album’s favor when it is resolved later in a given piece. The album is possessed of a timeless quality and although it may be at times strange, it is consistently wonderful. Solstice is a great record for meditation or contemplation.

Background Noise: Michael Hedges, Aerial Boundaries

Michael Hedges, Aerial Boundaries

I first came across the music of Michael Hedges when I heard his solo acoustic arrangement of Frank Zappa’s “Sofa No. 1.” On Aerial Boundaries, Hedges takes a melodic approach to solo acoustic guitar playing that sounds both sparse and full at the same time. His mastery of the instrument and the emotional undercurrent running through the entire album make this record instantly memorable. The end result is a lush, harmonious journey into a peaceful and meditative state of mind that every music lover should experience at least once in their lifetime.

Background Noise: Al DiMeola, Casino

Al DiMeola, Casino

Kicking off with the exquisite “Egyptian Danza,” and crescendoing into the realm of musical nirvana from there, Casino is one of jazz guitarist Al DiMeola’s finest records. It’s filled with the kind intricate melodies and musical craftsmanship. Engaging rhythms, frenetic percussion, and thoughtful guitar phrasing weave an atmosphere of beautiful music that has a story to tell. Each song flows seamlessly into the next, taking the non-verbal “story” from sweeping highs, to the peaks of poignancy, all while sounding amazing. It’s not difficult to close your eyes while listening to this album and being instantly transported to another part of the world. It’s great for meditation or kicking back and enjoying super jazz guitar playing at its finest.

Background Music: Masayoshi Takanaka, Alone

Masayoshi Takanaka, Alone

Sometimes, extremely upbeat Japanese guitar music can really help you focus and forget your troubles. Japanese guitarist Masayoshi Takanaka’s expert guitar playing sounds like Carlos Santana and Frank Zappa got together for a beach party. On Alone, you get a mix of chill soundscapes, bossanova masterpieces, frenetic guitar melodies, and anthemic pieces—all culminating in a final upbeat instrumental tune that will put a smile on your face. If it doesn’t help you relax, it’ll at least improve your mood. Other albums like An Insatiable High and T-Wave are excellent candidates for undwining, while the incredibly mellow Brasilian Skies takes the island relaxation factor to the next level.

Background Music: John Du Prez, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Soundtrack

John Du Prez, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Soundtrack (1990)

Whether you are a fan of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film or not, I find this soundtrack incredibly relaxing—occasionally listening to it while I take an afternoon nap.

No, this isn’t the one with that Partners in Kryme song from the movie (or any other vocal tracks for that matter)—it’s the film’s full musical score. Du Prez’s compositions fuse rock and jazz into a moody, musical ambiance featuring exquisite guitar and unique percussive qualities. There is a sequence where Splinter explains the Turtles’ origins, but it’s synced up to the rhythm of the music and the cadence of the character’s speech seamlessly becomes part of the composition. Sparse, ambient soundscapes combined with the perfect mix of jocular and tense moments give John Du Prez’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Soundtrack a quality relaxation vibe that doubles as a candidate for a more careful listening experience.

Background Music: Tangerine Dream, Tangam

Tangerine Dream, Tangram

Tangram is a gorgeous aural experience loaded with mediative synthesizer and expert composition. Comprised of a single piece of music over the course of several movements, the album is more contemplative than relaxing. This music will not only make you think, but conjures images of loss and detachment that can help put any harrowing or unhappy experience into perspective. Lonely whistling provides the primary melody on one track while synths create a sturdy framework for the album’s surprising emotional journey. Give it a listen and while you’re at it, check out some of Tangerine Dream’s other works.

8:08

The length of the most relaxing song in the world, a song called “Weightless,” at least according to research conducted by Mindlab International’s Dr. David Lewis-Hodgson. In a study seeking the ten most relaxing songs, Lewis-Hodgson discovered Marconi Union’s song “Weightless” to be the single most relaxing tune around. Apparently, this song “produced a greater state of relaxation than any other music tested to date” and per the report, the band worked with sound therapists to carefully arrange and compose every aspect of the song to create maximum relaxation for its listeners. Feel free to listen to the song and make your own judgement. As for us? We must admit that it is quite relaxing. Don’t you think so, too?

J.K. Buckwalter’s white noise machine was an interesting concept that captured the public’s imagination and spawned countless, loving imitators. The ideas are reflected in the modern DIY aesthetic of musicians creating and posting a wonderful array of music intended to serve essentially the same purpose and in the variety of apps seeking to provide for all our background noise needs.

It’s been my own experience (especially lately) that relaxing and ambient music—regardless of its shape or form—helps provide emotional meaning and reduce stress in everyday life. The beautiful thing about music is that it comes in a variety of flavors and no matter what aspects of it you choose, you can cultivate your own unique experience through the music you find for yourself.

So why not put on your favorite ambient music, nature sounds, instrumental album, or even a white noise machine and sit back, relax, and forget about your troubles for a little while? You’ve earned it.

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David Buck

Your time was just wasted by David Buck

David Buck is a former radio guy/musician who researches and writes about all manner of strange and interesting music, legacy technology, Nintendo and data analysis.

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