A Soundscape of a Different Sort

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

The coffee shop. A self-contained environment with its distinct soundscape.  The whirr of a blender.  The hiss of a cappuccino machine. Music playing in the background, not too soft, not too loud, just right.  All the muted and not-so-muted conversations. An occasional cough or giggle.  A chair being dragged along the floor.

This mixture of sounds happens within the coffee shop, where people flock for stimulation or to get out of the boredom or loneliness of working at home. Some are looking for anonymity and separation, but not aloneness.

The constant hum is comforting for its familiarity and lack of surprises. Out-of-place noises, like people arguing or a mother scolding a child, can cause discomfort. It’s not a part of the natural way of the healthy coffee shop.

As I described in my blog post on soundscapes, in nature all the inhabitants of a healthy habitat create their own sonic territories – called niches – where they can hear each other unimpeded by their neighbors’ voices.

It appears that those who inhabit coffee shops have created their own version of sonic territories. Ear phones and ear buds, cell phones and computers, these help maintain the separateness amid all the sound. Small tables allow for intimate conversations.

Not only can people hear each other unimpeded in the soundscape of the coffee shop, but as research has shown, the ambient sound of a coffee shop may be at just the right level – around 70 decibels – for maximizing the possibilities for creative thinking.

Maybe that would explain why the chat you are having with a friend may seem more interesting than it would if you were standing on a street corner. Or maybe you feel you are more interesting.  Maybe your friend is more interested in the conversation than she would be sitting at your kitchen table with a cup of tea and a slab of homemade zucchini bread.  Maybe that business idea you are proposing sounds more appealing to the potential investor.

If that’s the case, and if indeed the ambient sound of the coffee shop has the effect of enhancing creativity, it will come as no surprise to learn that some very clever entrepreneurial types have latched on to the research findings.

They have created soundscapes of, not only the typical coffee shop, but have come up with a repertoire of sounds that can be downloaded and mixed and matched for escape into one’s own self-designed soundscape.

For those who love ambient noise, maybe rain would be their choice. Or thunder.  Or leaves blowing. Or any combination of the many choices offered by websites such as Coffitivity or Nosili, a couple of the popular companies that produce recorded sounds.

Think of how creative you can be creating soundscapes.

I wonder if Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and founder of analytical psychology, would support what seems like an unnatural and artificial way of evoking our creativity. He was concerned about the negative effect on our mental health and on our psyche of gadgetry that separates us more and more from the natural world.

Jung taught that the unconscious, the source of creativity, works with our intuition to creatively solve problems outside of our awareness. Can a recording of a cappuccino machine tap into that part of the psyche?  Can a simulation of rain falling or a bird calling do that?

The developers of Café Restaurant, the ultimate coffee shop noise machine, would say yes. They explain that their product boosts creativity by masking distracting noises. “All you have to do is pop your headphones on,” they claim, “and adjust the volume of myNoise high enough to mask the distractions. The noise will recede into the background after a few minutes. If real world sounds intrude, it will be heard as babble noise and no longer pose any distraction to your work.”

Café Restaurant and Coffitility are two companies that have developed their product around the findings in the research study I mentioned above. The article is often cited in the literature about the digital world and was featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Huffington Post.

The study was published in the Journal of Consumer Research, and appears to have been carried out rigorously. The researchers examined ambient noise and how it affects creativity. With five experiments, they were able to demonstrate that their hypothesis that a moderate 70 decibels of ambient sound – as opposed to a low 50 decibels or a high over 80 decibels – enhances performance on creative tasks.

But a second part of their hypothesis is that such a condition would increase buying likelihood of innovative products.

Excuse me if I end right here. In the end it’s all about buy, buy, buy.



5 thoughts on “A Soundscape of a Different Sort”

  1. Good heavens! That’s horrifying! I was already feeling kind of creepy when I read about canned noise you can buy and play through your earbuds and recreate the ambience of Starbucks. But that it turns out that it’s one more trick to part me from my social security check—yikes. I had visions of shlepping my laptop over to some Levantine counterpart of Starbucks and pounding out another chapter of my novel. But there’s really nothing quite right in walking distance, so I continue to sit at my desk in my tiny office/guestroom, with the cats checking in periodically.

    1. I don’t think you have to worry about creativity, Lise. You’d be creative in a hovel, or a cave, or in the middle of the street. Hmmm. Let’s do some research.

    2. I got it! It’s the cats. Of course. I think Jung would agree. Cats are the source of all creativity.

  2. We experience the benefits of ambient rain or ocean sounds to block out the distracting ringing in the ears of tinnitus and allow a good nights sleep!
    It is nteresting that sound scape can both increase creative thought and manipulate purchasing choice.

    1. I think the word manipulate is a good one because that’s what advertising is geared towards. I can’t believe that if I listen to ambient sound of any nature, I’m going to think, gee, I’d like to buy an IPad.

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