With 88 million views on TikTok and a flurry of explanations in the news, brown noise is having a moment. In contrast to its hitherto best-known cousin, white noise, brown noise attenuates the higher frequencies in its “shhhh”, making it a sweeter sound for many ears. For some it sounds like a miracle. Individuals with ADHD, tinnitus sufferers and creatives like author Zadie Smith advertise it as an ointment to distract sounds, racing thoughts, and ringing in the ears.
Brown noise can easily be found on YouTube, smartphone apps, and streaming services. On #brownnoise TikTok, users listen as they perform in wide-eyed awe for the camera: “Where have the thoughts gone?” In the digital sound wallpaper market, brown is the new black.
So far, brown noise reports have focused on questions about its effectiveness. But where does this need for noise come from and what does it tell us about how we live today?
While digital brown noise may be trending right now, it’s actually just the latest product of a 60-year-old American noise trade. This little-noticed industry emerged as sleep and focus became increasingly important – and increasingly difficult to find – in the mid-20th century. The personal use of noise in the United States parallels the intensification of psychic and cognitive pressures in the following decades as we have completed our conversion from an agrarian to an information economy.
Noise was first tamed as an aid to sleep, relaxation, and focus in the early 1960s, when an Indiana couple named Gertrude and James Buckwalter began manufacturing the Sleep-Mate. Essentially a small electric fan housed in a plastic dome, the Buckwalters’ device generated a muffled – and dampening – noise perfect for masking acoustic annoyances.
The tale of Sleep-Mate’s creation goes something like this: One night, the Buckwalters on vacation found themselves sleepless in a roadside motel room with a broken air conditioner. Heat wasn’t the problem. The noise of the highway kept them awake. Trudy suggested to Buck, an inventor, that a device that made the sound of an air conditioner without cooling the air would likely prevent many sleepless nights.
History encompasses the contradictory forces that forged our first need for noise. The postwar American economy was roaring as the nation reconfigured itself to maximize the rapid circulation of people, goods, and information. The Dwight D. Eisenhower National Interstate and Defense System, for example, has spurred tourism, like that of the Buckwalters, but it has also generated a lot of noise. The interstate has also encouraged suburbanization, which, combined with technological advances like air conditioning, has retuned our senses to expect more control, calm, and separation from others.
Yet, at the same time, advances in transportation, media technologies and business practices were fragmenting the sensory experience. Jet aircraft, television, open-plan offices and 24/7 commercial operations were just some of the 20th century innovations that amplified profits by disrupting space and time. The time was ripe for a product to pacify one’s personal space.
Soon the humble electromechanical Sleep-Mate was defeated by a series of media distributing noise in new ways.
In 1969, Irv Teibel released “The Psychologically Ultimate Seashore”, a stereo LP that harnessed the calming and masking power of Atlantic surf. Teibel ushered in a second era of acoustic marketing: the naturalization of noise. With titles such as “Gentle Rain in a Pine Forest” and “Caribbean Lagoon”, Teibel’s successful “environments” series rode the confluence of two different waves: the detachment of Americans from nature and the ability of the media to reproduce nature with greater likelihood.
“Environments” appealed to a hippie generation who embraced both the “back to earth” ethic and a love of technology, as evidenced by the “Whole Earth Catalog”, which contained instructions on beekeeping and computers alike. Unlike the square Muzak and coldly clinical white noise, Teibel’s “Ultimate Seashore” was a noise you could trip over or make love into. Used by counseling therapists and in the 1970s meeting group known as “east”, “environments” it inspired a rare time when noise was used not only for individualistic separation but also for interpersonal and community experiences.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the noise took on a brilliant digital sheen, as mail order catalogs like Sharper Image sold cars and CDs that evoked invisible waterfalls and thunderstorms. These catalogs were aimed at a very successful yuppie audience in the Reagan / Clinton era of “work hard, play hard”. It was a new era of deregulation of outsourcing, entrepreneurship and reduction of social safety nets. As blue-collar work has been forcibly detached from the American Dream, the pressures and rewards of white-collar work have increased. Those who successfully handled the challenge had both the need and the money for high-tech gadgets to relieve the stress of success. Digital machines for the noise and sound of nature featured alongside massage chairs and aromatherapy in a thriving category one market research firm called “personal sensory therapy devices.”
Today, smartphone app stores abound with noises and sounds of nature, while every streaming service is teeming with national streams. Even TVs, which no longer generate the static of the dead channels of the analog age, are preloaded with roaring oceans. As #brownnoise TikTok demonstrates, the noise industry continues to grow, as 21st century devotees show greater technical familiarity with the many nuances of noise.
So what is it about? In our world remade for circulation, calm has become the rarest commodity. Despite the traffic jams, you can’t sit still in the middle of the Interstate – that’s what makes it a noisy, uninhabitable highway. Achieving success in the deregulated information economy requires rigorous regulation of one’s attention, even if that same economy takes a heavy toll on attention with a billion digital distractions. (And now let’s take a moment to reflect on the irony people turn to Tic knock for advice on how to control their attention.)
Sleep and concentration are torn apart by the stress of this cyber double bind. Neurological differences, such as ADHD, which have gone unnoticed in agrarian America, are now manifesting as severe disabilities in an age of carelessness. Tinnitus that would be unnoticeable in a factory can lead the spreadsheet clerk to distraction.
The power of brown noise lies not in some magical brain tuning frequencies, but in its power to stop traffic. The noise opposes the door of our ears and intones calmly: “You will not pass”. But this is an individualized solution to a shared social problem. Noise can be an effective means of taking care of yourself. However, it would also be wise to listen carefully and critically to the environment we are creating for ourselves.