Noise masking

We encounter sound all day, every day, in fact, whether you live in the middle of the countryside in nature or in a big city you will be encountering noise in some capacity. However, it is not as simple as it seems and the problem is when you get harmful noise or sound that starts to hinder our ability to function, sleep, work or even our mental state and this is why you may need to incorporate noise masking techniques or machines into your life to deal with this.

Firstly, back to basics. So, what is noise? This is the sound that you hear whether it is voluntary or not and can vary in tone, volume and intensity from comfortable to uncomfortable. When you feel irritation or discomfort from noise or sound, this is classified as noise pollution and needs to be dealt with. Not all noise pollution comes from a large aircraft overhead and many can be plagued with noise pollution on a daily basis. Studies have shown that long term exposure to noise pollution can increase blood pressure, cause hypertension, anxiety and stress, which means the need for masking in many cases is apparent for the benefit of your health.

Different types of noise

Before you are able to mask noise effectively you need to understand that not all noise is created equal and they are dealt with in different ways. There are four different types of noise:

  • Continuous– This is the type of noise that is generally created by machines or technology, for example, heating or air conditioning systems, computers or factory equipment. It can occur at many different frequencies and volumes depending on the setting, but commercial equipment usually requires ear protection to avoid long term damage, whereas domestic equipment can be easily masked (see below). White noise usually falls within this category as it creates a continuous sound to help mask others.
  • Intermittent – This type of noise can be the most disruptive and is very commonly masked because it rapidly changes the level of sound volume or speed, for example with passing trains, aircraft or machinery that operates in a cycle.
  • Impulsive – This less common form of noise is usually found within the demolition or construction industry and involves explosive, sudden sounds such as gunfire, explosives or specific construction equipment. This type of noise can damage hearing very quickly if in close proximity without protection.
  • Low Frequency – Another commonly masked type of noise, low frequency noise are the sounds that we are exposed to daily and can involve low humming from technology, power plants or even nature sounds outside the window. For some, low frequency noise commonly keeps them awake at night.

Each of these types of noise must be dealt with differently, for example, impulsive noises are usually too loud in close proximity to be easily masked by a humming sound and therefore you would need specialized machines to deal with it. The sounds that you are struggling with in your day to day life is classified within one of these categories and understanding the type can help you decide the best way to mask it.

Harmful Noise

Although many noises can be annoying or irritating there are some that can actually be harmful to us, specifically:

Loud Noises – The volume of sound is measured in decibels (dB) and although the body can hear roughly between 40dB and 130dB anything over 85dB is considered harmful and requires protection against them, especially for long term exposure. To put that into perspective, a conversation is usually around 50-60dB whereas the sound of an industrial lawn mower can be up to 100dB.

Impulsive Noise – As mentioned above, impulsive noise can be very harmful for those close by because of the sudden change in air pressure that your ears are receiving can have enough force to perforate your ear drums. This can cause long term hearing problems, risk of infection and also anxiety or stress.

Helpful noise

On the other hand, some types of noise can actually help our brains to function, relax us and help us to unwind. Predominantly:

  • White Noise – This is a type of noise that creates a mixed sound and can create a “background noise” that helps to calm the brain. There are many different types such as fixed, static, stable or sleep sound and these all help the brain to “tune out” unwanted noises that re irritating or causing disruption
  • Pink Noise –Pink noise helps to suppress lower tones instead of the higher ones (the opposite of white noise) which can cause those with sensitive hearing to feel comfortable. This can also help to reduce the lower level noise.

Now you are an expert on noise you’ll realize that there are sounds that need to be masked but what exactly is noise masking?

What is noise masking?

Noise masking is simple! It is the process of adding a background layer of sound to reduce overpowering sounds as well as the distractions in the brain that these cause.

Who can benefit from noise masking?

Noise masking is a very beneficial and efficient process that many find useful in their day to day lives. A few examples of those that use noise masking techniques are:

  • Insomnia sufferers – Those that struggle to fall asleep often use sleep masking as a method for calming the brain. That is why people love using noise cancelling machine for sleeping. Sufferers of insomnia find it difficult to “switch off” their brain, calm their thoughts and in response the body does not release the hormones responsible for controlling sleep. Noise masking can help suffers to focus on an underlying noise which can calm the brain and encourage it to release the hormones it needs naturally without the use of medication.
  • Frequent travelers – This includes businessmen and women who are frequently away from home because new sounds in different countries or areas may not be familiar and can keep you awake or distracted. The body tends to acclimatize to certain familiar sounds in our own environment, whereas when we are taken outside of this all sounds seem obtrusive and distracting. Noise masking helps to neutralize these sounds and can reduce the amount of distraction they cause by stopping the brain from focusing on them.
  • Students – For those who are worried about exams or struggling to focus in the library, white noise can help to focus your mind and also allow you to absorb information better. This is particularly beneficial for those who live in a busy house (such as a shared accommodation) and need to be able to concentrate without causing conflict with others.
  • Babies/Parents – Babies can be incredibly sensitive to sound, especially newborns, where many noises seem louder and more sudden to them. This can hinder their sleep and progression as they grow and therefore noise masking techniques are used to soothe them and reduce the explosive nature that babies can hear. In addition to this, parents also use noise masking machines to reduce the sound of their babies or children at night if they are restless and have a monitor which can cause impulsive feedback sound suddenly even if the child has not actually woken up.
  • Shift Workers – For those on shift, noise masking is a useful way to help regulate sleep and relax while the rest of the world is awake. Using a noise masking machine can help to teach the body to know when it is time for rest and relaxation regardless of the actual time of day. In addition, noise masking can help to cover up day to day sounds outside such as children playing or going to school when a shift worker had just gotten home and is ready for bed.
  • Business Professionals– To increase focus and reduce disruptions, business professionals often use noise masking machines to reduce distractive noise and help them to be more productive. Noise masking can help to stimulate areas of the brain responsible for focusing while reducing the amount of outside distractions while trying to meet deadlines, targets or important work. This is also true for those who work from home with children who may need to concentrate with an unusual amount of sound going on around them.

Noise masking is not just limited to these people and you can use it in unique ways to suit you!

Difference between noise masking and noise proofing/absorbing

Many people get confused and believe that noise masking is a way of removing the sound from their day to day lives but in fact that is not the case. Noise proofing or noise absorption is the act of removing certain (or all) sounds all together to reduce distraction or harmful noise that way. While this is sometimes beneficial for outside noise it does not work for essential noise created in your home, for example appliances or technology.  Therefore, noise masking is more beneficial in this case and works to create an underlying sound that helps the brain to focus and remove the distraction. Ultimately, one method is about removing the sound and the other is about adding beneficial sound.

Different Ways to mask noise

Masking noise can be done in fairly inexpensive ways and although there are larger scale options out there, these are the most cost effective and easiest solutions to deal with your problem:

  • Miniature fountains – indoor water features or miniature fountains are popular noise masking options for those who are used to nature and have recently moved or are traveling in the city. They can be used to create a relaxing environment while also mimicking nature for those who are longing for it.
  • Apps/Software – Many phones and laptops come with apps or software that can create static or white noise so that they are more mobile. A good way to use these is if you work in a busy office environment and need to focus or reduce distractions you can use these with a set of headphones to do so. Many apps have been created that are specifically designed for sleep sounds which can be a more affordable option for some, although are not always beneficial to those sharing rooms with others who might prefer different sounds.

Warning: these can seriously drain your battery and sometimes require the screen to remain on.

  • Fans – A fan is a commonly cost effective way to noise mask because it naturally creates a humming sound as the blade cycle, this type of intermittent noise can become a steady lull to focus on particularly if you are meditating or trying to focus. The downside of course is that they circulate the air, making it colder, which is not helpful in the winter or colder months.
  • White noise machines – These encompass all of the other types of masking and different varieties have different settings. Some machines come with a nature option which can include more natural sounds while others can mimic the quiet technological humming if that is what you are accustomed to. Many white noise machines also come with timing settings and a natural alarm system to peacefully wake you up in the mornings and turn off when not in use to save electricity. You can read through the various white noise machine reviews to help you understand the mechanism better.

Benefits of masking noise

As you have seen there are many reasons to noise mask, but if you are still wondering directly why, here are some of the main benefits for you:

  • Improved state of sleep
  • Ease in falling asleep
  • Aiding tinnitus
  • Mental clarity
  • Improved concentration during meditation
  • Soothing babies
  • Mental development in children (when used at safe levels)
  • Increased work focus and productivity
  • Relaxation

Overall, you have now realized that it is not completely simple and there are good and bad types of noise that need to be dealt with. You have seen how certain types of people would use noise cancelling machines and why and also some of the benefits that you can reap from them.

Hopefully this has given you all the insight you need to decide if noise masking is right for you and why, and also why you should consider noise masking to stay healthy and reap the benefits.

Bibliography/Inspiration

http://www.thepollutionfacts.com/2013/02/noise-pollution-facts.html

http://cambridgesound.com/learn/sound-masking-101/

http://www.cirrusresearch.co.uk/blog/2015/01/4-different-types-noise/

https://fabritrak.com/how-some-noise-can-be-helpful/

http://www.webmd.com/brain/tc/harmful-noise-levels-topic-overview

http://www.whitenoisejudge.com/

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