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White Noise, Pink Noise, and Brown Noise: What's the Difference?

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on July 12, 2022

You may have heard of white noise. The steady, static-like sounds from it can drown out disturbing noises and help you sleep better. But have you heard of pink noise and brown noise? Growing research shows that these lesser-known color noises can also help calm you or improve your sleep quality.

Here’s a look at different color noises and what they can do for you.

White Noise

It’s the most popular type of color noise. It contains all frequencies found in the spectrum of sounds you can hear in equal parts. It’s often called “broadband noise.”

White noise uses a mix of sound frequencies to create a static-like sound. It can be intense and high-pitched, like a fan, air conditioner, or a vacuum.

Studies have also shown that it can help:

  • Improve sleep
  • Reduce crying in babies
  • Improve your wok performance
  • Lower ADHD symptoms

Other studies have found that many people find that white noise has a positive effect on them. But experts say they need more proof.

Pink Noise

Pink noise is a constant sound in the background. It filters out things that distract you, like people talking or cars going by, so they don’t interrupt your sleep. You may hear it called ambient noise.

Like white noise, it’s a steady background hum that may give you a better night’s sleep. But it uses deeper sounds and lower sound waves, so it may be gentler and more soothing. Basically, pink has a lower pitch than white noise.

Pink noise uses a consistent frequency, or pitch, to create a more even, flat sound, like a steady rain, wind rustling through trees, or waves on a beach. Its added depth and lower waves filter out higher sounds. As a result, you hear more relaxing, lower-frequency sounds.

Brown Noise

Brown noise, also called red noise, produces a rumbling sound that’s deeper with a bass-like tone than pink or white noise. The sound level (decibels) decreases as the frequency goes up more than it does in pink noise. It’s similar to a steady heavy rainfall or a shower with good pressure. Some sleep apps use this sound instead of pink noise to give it a deeper, grainier effect.

Studies show that brown noise might help lower symptoms if you have ringing in your ears. It’s also shown to improve your thinking skills. More research is needed to see if and how brown noise affects sleep.

Other Colors of Noise

Besides white, pink, and brown noise, there are other color noises that aren’t related to sleep. These include:

Blue noise. Its power increases as the frequency goes up. Blue noise sounds slightly shriller than pink and white noise. Imagine the hissing noise you hear when a water spray is turned on.

Violet noise. Also called purple noise, it’s the opposite of brown noise. The volume goes up when the frequency does and it gains power faster than blue noise. It’s one of the higher-pitched color noises. It’s often used to treat tinnitus, a condition that causes loud ringing in one or both ears.

Grey noise. This produces noise at higher and lower frequencies but not so much in the middle frequencies. It’s similar to white noise, but more balanced.

Can White, Pink, and Brown Noise Help You Sleep?

For some people, the grainy static sound you hear in white noise can improve sleep. It helps by masking the background noise and tuning it out. One recent study found that 38% of people fell asleep faster listening to white noise.

Pink noise reduces the difference between the background hum and loud, jarring noises that jolt you out of sleep, like a door slamming, a car horn honking, or someone snoring. So it may help you fall asleep faster and keep you in a deep sleep longer. You may also feel more rested when you wake up.

There isn’t much research yet on exactly how pink noise works and how well it helps you sleep. One study found that it lowered brain activity and led to more stable sleep. Another study found people who used it slept more deeply.

Studies are limited, but pink noise may also boost your memory. A recent study found that older adults who used it at night did better on memory tests the next day.

We need more research to find out how pink noise affects your sleep, focus, and memory. But it’s safe and has no downside, so you may want to try it to see if it helps you.

As for brown noise, there aren’t a lot of studies to support its effect on sleep.

But does listening to sound all night for good sleep really work? When you’re asleep, your brain is hard at work repairing and restoring your body. Would the constant hum in the background let your brain do its job? Experts don’t know the full answer.

But if it helps you, carry on. Just make sure you don’t keep the volume too loud. According to the CDC, listening to sounds over 70 decibels over a long period of time can damage your hearing.

Where to Get White, Pink, and Brown Noise

You have many options for adding a color noise to your sleep routine. For example, you can:

  • Get a noise app from your smartphone’s app store or on YouTube, then play it as you go to sleep at night.
  • Find a clip of your choice of color noise online. Download a looping track from organizations like the American Tinnitus Association or the Misophonia Institute.
  • Get a sound machine or noise generator that specifically gives you a choice between white, pink, or brown noise.

Tips for Using Noise Safely

Try different sounds, tracks, and volumes to see what works best for you.

If the sound of the wind doesn’t soothe you, try a babbling brook. If a sound machine with pink noise doesn’t help you sleep better, try a few different smartphone apps until you find one that works. Raise the volume or lower it until you find your sweet spot.

If you want to use headphones but they don’t feel good, try earbuds. You can also find special headphones for sleeping. They use a soft headband to keep them in place.

How to Get the Most Out of Color Noise

Pink noise may help you nod off faster and enjoy a longer, deeper sleep. But it won’t work well if you have poor sleep habits.

To get the most out of pink noise, make these habits part of your nightly routine:

  • Get on a schedule. Go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time in the morning, even on weekends.
  • Work out during the day. Daytime exercise helps you fall asleep faster at night.
  • Go dark. Create a sleep-friendly bedroom that’s quiet, dark, and at a comfortable temperature.
  • Avoid sleep interrupters. Limit caffeine, alcohol, and big meals before you go to bed.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

National Sleep Foundation: “Sleep and Sound,” “Sleep Trends: Pink Is the New White (Noise),” “Can Pink Noise Help You Sleep?” “White Noise.”

University of Washington Medicine: “What Is Pink Noise?"

Cleveland Clinic: “Why ‘Pink Noise’ Might Just Help You Get a Better Night’s Sleep.”

Northwestern Medicine: “The Promise of Pink Noise.”

Journal of Theoretical Biology: “Pink noise: effect on complexity synchronization of brain activity and sleep consolidation.”

Frontiers in Human Neuroscience: “Acoustic Enhancement of Sleep Slow Oscillations and Concomitant Memory Improvement in Older Adults.”

American Tinnitus Association: “ATA’s Masking Sound Library.”

Misophonia Institute: “Downloads.”

CDC: “Tips for Better Sleep,” “What Noises Cause Hearing Loss?”

Engineering Libretexts: “Noise Modeling - White, Pink, and Brown Noise, Pops and Crackles.”

CNN: “White noise (and pink and brown): The science behind the sounds.”

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