May 20, 2012

"Pink noise" — a remedy for the annoying noise of a cubicle workplace?

It's "a soft whooshing emitted over loudspeakers that sounds like a ventilation system but is specially formulated to match the frequencies of human voices."
Autodesk ran the system for three months without telling the employees — and then, to gauge its impact, turned it off one day.

“We were surprised at how many complaints we got,” said Charles Rechtsteiner, Autodesk’s facilities manager. “People weren’t sure what was different, but they knew something was wrong. They were being distracted by conversations 60 feet away. When the system’s on, speech becomes unintelligible at a distance of about 20 feet.”

The original rationale for the open-plan office, aside from saving space and money, was to foster communication among workers, the better to coax them to collaborate and innovate. 
Every solution brings its own new problem, but then you can solve that problem, and get a new problem.
“Noise is the most serious problem in the open-plan office, and speech is the most disturbing type of sound because it is directly understood in the brain’s working memory,” said Valtteri Hongisto, an acoustician at the institute. He found that workers were more satisfied and performed better at cognitive tasks when speech sounds were masked by a background noise of a gently burbling brook.
The trite phrase is "babbling brook," and here's an instance where using the the trite phrase would have been greatly preferable to the deviation ("burbling brook"). The point is that speech is distracting because it is understood. A brook sounds like speech, which is why we've got that cliché "babbling brook." This is the perfect notion in this paragraph: The brook is speaking but we can't understand it.

Now, I think playing speech-like sound to people all day long is a dangerous thing to do to the brains in the room. Hearing voices is a symptom of insanity. Perhaps the endless barrage of almost-speech will make people insane or make them feel as if they are going slightly insane. One could become paranoid that the managers are actually inserting messages in the indecipherable babble, and — who knows? — maybe they are!

This new noise is supposed to be the solution for the way all the real-person talking in the cubicle office is making everybody crazy. But, don't worry. If the solution is a new kind of crazy, there will be a solution for that.


Anonymous said...

As on many things, the Germans have fully thought out the cost/benefit of cubicles, and their conclusion is that thought workers, the engineers, attorneys, designers - in short, anyone that constructs things in their brain - are given offices with doors and windows.

My German colleagues used to scoff at the notion that a floor full of engineers in cubicles saved any money at all.

They were absolutely certain that what was saved in cost per employee was more than lost in lower productivity from all the interruption.

And I am certain they were right.

But the point is totally lost on American CFOs, who are perhaps, as a group, the most short sighted people in the world.

Curious George said...

This needs a "sophistry" tag. Jesus.

campy said...

[whisper] ... don't be a racist ... vote for Obama ... don't be a racist ... [/whisper]

Freeman Hunt said...

Pink noise is great for allowing a baby to take a nap in a house with two older brothers. Pink noise, hair dryers, and white noise machines.

MikeR said...

I have long known that I can sleep with almost any kind of moderate noise, with one exception: people speaking. And there's an exception to the exception: if they are speaking in a language I don't understand, I can sleep as well. The problem is always when I'm trying to process their words.

Freeman Hunt said...

If you go to, you can see what pink noise sounds like. Electronic pink noise is less annoying than electronic white noise.

Richard Dolan said...

Further proof that sometimes more really is less.

Hagar said...

Human voices do not bother me. I can close those out.
What I cannot deal with is Muzak or background fan noises. They drive me batters.

ricpic said...

No one has EVER been driven insane by the sound of a babbling brook....with the exception of the already meshuggah.

Beta Rube said...

25 years ago they called it white noise and pumped it over the office paging system. I don't know if this some new deal or a rehash.

Locally, Johnson Wax in Racine used to do this, don't know if they still do.

lemondog said...

If you go to, you can see what pink noise sounds like. Electronic pink noise is less annoying than electronic white noise.

All annoying.

virgil xenophon said...

The real reason cubicles are still in vogue is their lower cost/sq ft viz standard offices and design flexibility as the size/composition of the workforce changes. Increased "efficiency" and "better worker communication" are just used as intellectual justification.

Chip S. said...

This new federal program is supposed to be the solution for ... crazy. But, don't worry. If the solution is a new kind of crazy, there will be a solution for that.

Modern liberalism in a nutshell.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

This makes me thing of the scene in My Cousin Vinnie, where Joe Pesci couldn't sleep because it was so silent in the forest except for a few nature sounds .....BUT....when he was in jail with people yelling, throwing things and making all kinds of noise he slept like a baby.

Go figure.

Actually. When I was a child (mid to late 1950's) my parents would often have cocktail parties at our house or at friends houses. The murmuring voices of the adults, occasional laughter and low music in the background was very comforting to us children falling asleep in piles like puppies in the back rooms. You felt safe surrounded by sleeping friends and happy adults.

Pink noise, I suppose.

Possibly why I have such an affection for the music of that era.

Greg Hlatky said...

If they have some way of making my boss's speech unintelligible at a distance of about 3 feet I'd buy it.

Anonymous said...

If they have some way of making my boss's speech unintelligible at a distance of about 3 feet I'd buy it.

Or perhaps you can clearly hear and understand each and every word your boss says and he or she is still unintelligible.

virgil xenophon said...

IIRC studies have shown that some people DO perform/study better wit background ambient noise. One study I read found the "best" (most helpful) decibel level was the ambient noise one experiences while riding in the cab of an 18-wheeler.

edutcher said...

Hmmm, I thought that was what Muzak was for.

But, yeah, campy may be right.

Anonymous said...

"No one has EVER been driven insane by the sound of a babbling brook..."

If someone believes the brook is babbling, he is there as a driver not being driven.

Sorun said...

I grew up very near train tracks. The noise and vibration from a passing train is very soothing.

Eric the Fruit Bat said...

The constant sound of frying bacon would be worth a try.

rhhardin said...

A criticism of pink.

I don't understand perceived pitch owing to having learned stuff that's got to be wrong.

Hairs in the ear are supposed to respond to certain frequencies, the saying goes.

But voice pitch doesn't correspond to a frequency component but rather a modulation frequency, ie noise of any color being turned on and off at the pitch frequency. There may be no energy at all at the pitch being produced, and so no hair movement at that frequency.
(Even if they did move, what would you do with the information?)

So everything you learned is wrong.

That said, white noise means equal energy on the average at all frequencies.

Pink noise would be a shading of that to a certain region.

That won't mask voice.

What you need is modulated noise of any color, to cover voice pitch rather than voice energy.

Technically, the fourier components do not have independent phases, as they would in colored noise. This isn't a simple relation.

A nice buzz saw sound track would cover voices very nicely. Also probably a babbling brook.

A complication is that pure tones are not modulated and have a pitch perceived as their frequency.

So apparently both kinds of pitch wind up at the same place, after what's very mysterious processing.

pst314 said...

"This new noise"

Not really new: Some companies were installing pink noise systems back in the 70's.

Astro said...

I used to work in a cubefarm and the background noise provided by the AC system helped with concentration. When the fans stopped the silence was a distraction.
Though, I never understood how my coworkers could ignore the warbling of an off-the-hook phone. I'd walk past 20 or 30 people to re-seat a phone that was driving me nuts with that wheedle-wheedle tone.
And don't get me started on whistlers. It's justifiable homicide to kill someone who whistles in a cubefarm. (It's the real reason for the 10th amendment.)

Paddy O said...

Love One of my favorite sites, used all day, at our last apartment, where just out of college students tended to be our neighbors, and thought it still a dorm.

Pink noise never worked for me, though. I settled nicely into a brown noise with medium oscillation -- covered a wider variety of noises.

Fred Drinkwater said...

Paddy: Brown noise with a medium oscillation, eh? I think you need to check back to the earlier suggestion about the noise of frying bacon.

PatCA said...

I think cubicles were invented to save money for employers! It is so non-helpful to listen to everyone else's conversations and eating noises, etc.!

We often put headphones on and listened to white noise or instrumental music just to blot it all out.

Roger J. said...

The babbling brook noise will probably reduce productivity as more cube farm workers will have to pee more often.

gerry said...

I hate radios in the office area. Rush Limbaugh or NPR or sports...all are obnoxious distrctions.

Indigo Red said...

Working in an open floor electronics manufacturing plant, I experienced something similar, but the voices and conversations were the the "babbling brook." Nearly all of the assemblers were Vietnamese, the supervisors were Anglos as was one test tech, and the two QC inspectors. I was one of the QC guys. Management had a problem with people talking during work and I noticed that the assemblers talked non-stop while the three white guys on the floor were constantly reminded of the no talking policy. Even when we explained that our jobs overlapped and we needed to communicate, the three of us were singled out for reprimands. Finally, I got mad and pointed out the Asians were talking but managers didn't hear them because it was just noise to them while their minds focused on the three English speakers because it was the only language they understood. Boy, talk about an ah-ha moment! Hassling the white guys stopped and everyone was so much happier with the freedom of speech after that.

Kirk Parker said...

Typical journalistic babbling, needlessly embedded into an otherwise informative article: if it's "specially formulated to match the frequencies of human voices", then it's not pink noise.

JAL said...

Wee bit crazy there, Prof.

JAL said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paco Wové said...

"And don't get me started on whistlers"

Whistling? That ought to be cause for immediate disciplinary action.

What really drives me up. the. fucking. wall. in my particular cube farm is a co-worker who is the noisiest eater I have ever encountered in my life. And he eats at his desk all the time. I have to don headphones just to drown out the slurp- smack- chomp- sluu-uu-uurr-rrp- smack smack gulp (pause) beeellllccchhhhh. Or he eats something too fast, it goes down the wrong pipe, and then cough cough cough cough cough cough etc.

As soon as I figure out the polite and business-appropriate way to tell him, "YOU EAT LIKE A FUCKING PIG. Do you have something wrong with you that makes you so disgusting? If so, I'm sorry, but otherwise, can you please try to behave like a human being?" I'll take action.

MrsIke said...

Wow! If you can't stand the noise of humanity, go back to your parents basement where you can sit in silence all you want! Sheesh! When did we all become so-o-o-o-o uncomfortable with other people around us??! What happened to teamwork and shared activity? What happened to focused attention such that others around us don't bother us??!! When did we all become such hothouse flowers?