Why The Sound of Silence is the Best Noise for Studying

It is obvious that a noisy environment clearly impacts your concentration and study efforts.

But what noise level is the best for studying? The best noise level to stay focused and concentrated is silence. The definition of silence as “the absence of noise or sounds” is practically non-existent in anyone’s environment. Near total silence, which would be 0 decibels, the smallest audible sound an average person could hear is unrealistic as well. An overall acceptable noise level for most people is around 40 dB (The noise level in a library) or below.

To understand the noise level that is present in our daily life let’s take a look at sound in general and what is acceptable and healthy as well as how to create such an environment.

The sound of silence

In the short answer above I said that 40dB and below are what the average human would describe as silence. But what exactly is a decibel? A decibel is defined by Merriam Webster as “a unit for expressing the relative intensity of sounds on a scale from zero for the average least perceptible sound to about 130 for the average pain level“. Let’s take a look at how noisy certain things are to get an idea what the rating means. Here is a table of common events in daily life and their dB value. You can see that pain level is a good description for the item in the higher dB range:

ExampleSound in dB
Max exposure time in 24h
The smallest audible sound an average person could hear0
Calm breathing10
Whisper, rustling leaves20
Quiet rural area30
Library, humming refrigirator40
Quiet suburb, large electrical transformers humming50
Normal conversation60
Living room music70
City traffic, Food blender808-4 hours
Power mower902-1 hour
Jackhammer, farm tractor10015-4 min
Live rock music, car horn at 1 meter1102 minutes
Chainsaw1207 seconds
Military aircraft takeoff1301 second
Aircraft carrier deck140less than a second
Aircraft take-off at 25m1500 seconds
Shotgun1600 seconds
Airbag1700 seconds
Rocket launch1800 seconds

Looking at the list, 40 dB or less seems acceptable and since it is the noise level of a library that is what average students have to live with. I personally like it even quieter when I need to focus. When you happen to be in a loud environment there are a couple of things you can do to improve the noise level:

  • Remove the source(s)
  • Soundproof your study room
  • Wear earmuffs
  • Wear earphones with noise reduction
  • Go to a quiet place

By the way, anything louder than 85 dB is considered to be damaging to your ears so if you are exposed to these kinds of sound levels you need to do something about it regardless of whether you want to study or not. 

Measuring the noise level in your study room

There is a lot of science and math involved in how to measure sound and noise. Since this more like a practical guide a simple App or computer program will suffice to give you an idea of how the current study environment is suitable for learning. I personally use “Decibel X” which is available for Apple and Android but really if you just type in “Sound meter” in any store you will find plenty of free Apps to choose from. Because of the quality of your phone or computers microphone, the reading will be off a bit. There is a high range of dedicated sound meters available from 25$ (Amazon’s choice) up to stunning 2700$. My office and study room currently measures 33 dB which is the level I am feeling perfectly comfortable with. 

Dealing with noise problems

But not everyone has the advantage to live in a quiet environment as I do. When I lived in China in one of those high-rise apartment buildings our neighbors were either not aware or didn’t care how thin the walls really were so learning was really a pain sometimes. Let’s look at what you can do when things get too noisy.

Remove or silence the source

If this is possible then this is the easiest and cheapest solution. In my case, I talked to the neighbors and asked them politely to keep it down. Though they understood (as most neighbors hopefully do) it went back to “unacceptable” after a while so I ended up wearing earphones and earmuffs.

Sometimes the source is not caused by other people but by machines. Most often this is the computer right in front of you. My MacBook, for example, is usually very quiet but when I am using performance hungry Apps like blender (Which I use by the way to create and sell images on Shutterstock, check my portfolio or book on how to do that) my noise level rises to about 42 dB due to the fans which is quite disturbing. So for this case I just used my gaming PC in another room or automated the image creation so it can run during the night. 

This is of course not always an option. I remember back when I only had 1 computer and 1 PC I used soundproofing foam to reduce the noise level. Basically, you open the PC case and stick adhesive foam panels on the inside of the computer. 

Though these kits are still available modern computers use silent fans (or no fans), water cooling and isolated cases to begin with. If your computer is too noisy you might think of an update. For notebooks, people recommend a cooling pad but I measured the one my mom uses and it basically just replaces the fans inside of the device with fans outside of the laptop without any real noise improvement. So for a computer, the best recommendation is to stop all non-study relevant Apps, just a browser for research will not cause your fans to go crazy.

Soundproof your room

Soundproofing a study room (or any room for that matter can be very expensive. Except you are running a professional sound studio this is probably not the best solution (besides the fact that these black foam pieces usually look very ugly). But there are other ways to dampen outside (and inside) noise which you probably achieve with whatever you have at home. The first step is to seal off tiny spaces where sound can enter or leave the room. A door sweep seals the crevice below the door while acoustic sealant can be used to keep sound in or out of windows. The best way to silence windows is to use heavy, thick drapes or curtains.

Another easy thing is to use a carpet or a couple of rugs on the floor to prevent sound waves from bouncing around and reflecting on wooden or concrete floors. 

But what about the walls? If you don’t want to ruin the optics (and wallet) by using professional (usually black) foam or the often cheap replacement egg cartons you can simply hang thick blankets or tapestries on the wall. This might sound ugly at first but there are quite some nice looking editions available on Amazon like for example this one

Wear earmuffs or earplugs

Earmuffs are designed to block noise from reaching your ear (and to keep you warm in winter). They cover your complete ear and usually have a headband that fits over the top or back of your head. The degree to which they can reduce the noise is rated in NRR (Noise reduction rate). Unfortunately according to the ANSI (American National Standards Institute) this rating of often computed with data that is out of date and therefore overrated by 6-26 dB! For studying this is clearly not a problem (except that you might pay money for something doesn’t work as expected) but for a shooting range for example that could become quite dangerous. ANSI has now finally approved a standard that replaces the old version of 1984 on which those false NRR ratings are based. So if you decide to buy such a product and it has not been re-evaluated according to ANSI S12.6-1997  the following calculation is recommended to evaluate the real NRR of a product. The following percentages are the NRR field values in contrast to  the manufacturers labeling:

  • Earplugs (except foam): 25%
  • Earplugs (foam): 40%
  • Earmuffs: 60%

Common values on the market are currently up to an NRR of 34 dB. If you decide to go for earmuffs, earplugs or even a combination of both (which is said to block up to 36 dB) make sure to ask the vendor if they are re-evaluated with the new ANSI standard. Foam earplugs are usually very cheap so you might just buy some and see if they can deal with the noise level you have in your study environment.

Wear earphones that cancel out noise

I already mentioned this in my post about music and studying so I lead with a recommendation right away: Bose QC 35 headphones, many have tried to copy them but they always win every test. I can even study on an airplane now… just incredible – I put the link on my resource page for you to check it. But what is noise cancellation and how does it work?

Noise cancellation headphones have a small microphone that records the incoming noise and then produces a directly proportional “Counternise” that basically erases the incoming sound wave. This is called destructive interference. Just take a look at the picture. 

Why The Sound of Silence is the Best Noise for Studying

Before I really knew what this is I always thought this kind of headphone is some marketing nonsense until a friend put one on my head while I was flying. Once back home I immediately ordered my own Bose Quiet Comfort 35 II and this is an incredible focus boost. Go to a store and try one out (or just order one, really worth every penny for all the time you would loose bouncing in and out of concentration as I did). If I am faced with a spending decision like this I use to take my net hourly rate (this is what I think I am worth per hour if someone would hire me as a freelancer or in case you have a job you can just calculate it) and then I estimate the time I save with whatever I want to buy. This often makes a purchase decision very easy.

Change the location

If noise levels get out of hand or a special event at your home prevents you from using your study room going somewhere else is always an option. Nowadays internet access is available everywhere and even mobile data services in acceptable data volumes become affordable. One word of caution, NEVER use a public Wifi. I have taken the Ethical Hacking exam and from my studies and personal experience I can tell you that nothing is as insecure as public Internet (and unfortunately home networks as well in many cases but that is a topic for another post). I use (even at home) and highly recommend a VPN connection which encrypts your entire communication. Just as an example it is known that at Starbucks hackers just sit and have a coffee while providing a Wifi network (e.g. named “Starbucks Wifi”) and wait for people to connect, they still forward you to the real internet but intercept everything you send or receive. The VPN I use is NordVPN which is very popular, cheap, reliable and does not log anything of your communication and data (your usual provider does). This is why I am using it all the time (besides it allows me to switch my Netflix country to wherever I want to watch). That was a bit off-topic but I needed to get that out of the way.

So where else could you go?

  1. A library – Probably the best of all these choices because it is supposed to be a quiet place and you have additional learning material right where you are.
  2. A bookstore – Some bookstores that allow you to sit somewhere probably offering a coffee might be a good alternative to a library. This scary amount of knowledge usually does not attract large crowds of people.
  3. A park – Though a park can be a very relaxing and quiet place it is uncomfortable except you bring a small table and chair or just read a book on the grass. But reading a book without taking proper notes (read my article about it to learn more) is just a waste of time. A park is of course only a friendly day option. Another problem is that you don’t have internet or need to use up valuable data volume.
  4. A friend’s home – This can be a quiet option though many people probably (like I would) feel a bit uncomfortable. Besides first you need to find a friend that is not too far away and willing to use his home. This is only an emergency solution. 
  5. A coffee shop – When I go to a coffee shop I am always surprised how many people bring their equipment to study. Apart from the previously mentioned security issues, I find these places very distracting, especially during peak hours. And it is not only people walking in and out but also the smell of food and coffee and the music in the background. Coffee by itself though is a good thing (read my post about coffee as a study booster) and you probably won’t get a better one elsewhere. 

In conclusion, there are actually quite some actions you can take to improve your study by just improving your noise environment. I would still go with an active noise cancellation headphone because of the simplicity and effectiveness of this measure.

Related Questions

What color noise is best for concentration? The best noise for concentration is no noise so in colors, I would go with transparent. Other noise colors are white noise which is similar to static, pink noise like a waterfall contains an equal distribution of energy in each octave and is calming for many people. Then there is also blue noise which is basically high-frequency white noise and brown noise which is a rumbling deep sound at the lowest frequencies.

Can wearing earplugs damage your ears? Long-term studies show that wearing foam based earplugs for a long time can cause earwax to build up. This impacts the natural self-cleaning mechanism of the ears. Especially when earplugs are pushed in too far the earwax is packed deep inside the ear canal which might decrease your hearing and damage your ears. 

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