What is White Noise?

For those of us born in the 1980s or earlier, the sound of static or white noise is a familiar one. Whether we left the TV on too late or tuned into a radio station without a broadcast, we heard it. Nowadays, when we hear about white noise, it’s in relation to how it can be used to help people sleep better or reduce anxiety. And there are some other uses being found for it too, like alleviating the discomfort associated with tinnitus

Read on for details on the different kinds of white noise and how they can be put to good use.

Understanding White Noise and Its Role In The Mechanism of Hearing

White noise, in the context of hearing, plays a role in our auditory system and has implications for our perception of sound. 

Below are some key points for understanding white noise and its role in the mechanism of hearing:

  • Auditory Masking: White noise is often used in the context of auditory masking. Auditory masking occurs when the perception of one sound is affected by the presence of another sound. White noise, due to its equal energy across all frequencies, can mask or obscure other sounds. This property is utilized in various applications, such as creating a background noise to mask unwanted sounds in environments like offices or bedrooms.
  • Frequency Discrimination: White noise can be employed to study frequency discrimination in the auditory system. The ability to distinguish between different frequencies is crucial for perceiving various sounds. By exposing the auditory system to white noise, researchers can investigate how accurately individuals can discriminate between tones of different frequencies.
  • Habituation and Desensitization: Continuous exposure to white noise may lead to habituation, where the auditory system becomes accustomed to the constant sound, potentially reducing its impact over time. On the other hand, white noise exposure has been explored as a means of desensitization, particularly in cases where individuals are hypersensitive to specific sounds.
  • Cognitive Benefits: Some studies suggest that exposure to white noise may have cognitive benefits. It is believed to enhance concentration and focus in certain situations, possibly by reducing the impact of distracting sounds.
  • Sleep and Relaxation: White noise is commonly used to promote better sleep by creating a consistent background sound that masks other potentially disruptive noises. This can help individuals fall asleep more easily and stay asleep by reducing the impact of sudden or intermittent sounds.

White Noise and its Impact on Hearing Thresholds

The impact of white noise on hearing thresholds is a complex area of study, and its effects can vary depending on factors such as duration of exposure, intensity, and individual differences. 

Below are some considerations regarding white noise and its potential impact on hearing thresholds:

  • Temporary Threshold Shift (TTS): Exposure to intense or prolonged white noise can lead to a temporary increase in hearing thresholds, known as Temporary Threshold Shift (TTS). TTS is a reversible change in hearing sensitivity that typically occurs after exposure to loud sounds. White noise, when at high volumes, can contribute to TTS, especially if the exposure is extended.
  • Intensity and Duration of Exposure: The impact of white noise on hearing thresholds is often related to the intensity (loudness) and duration of exposure. Higher intensity levels and longer exposure times are more likely to cause temporary changes in hearing sensitivity.
  • Individual Variability: Individuals may exhibit different susceptibility to the effects of white noise on hearing thresholds. Factors such as age, genetic predisposition, and overall hearing health can contribute to individual variability in how people respond to noise exposure.
  • Hearing Protection and Occupational Exposure: In occupational settings where individuals are exposed to high levels of continuous noise, including white noise, hearing protection measures are crucial. Prolonged exposure to high-intensity noise without proper protection can lead to permanent hearing damage, including a shift in hearing thresholds.
  • Regulatory Guidelines: Occupational safety regulations often establish permissible noise exposure limits to protect workers from potential hearing damage. These guidelines consider factors such as the intensity and duration of exposure. Compliance with these guidelines is essential to mitigate the risk of hearing impairment due to occupational noise, including exposure to white noise.
  • Habituation and Adaptation: The human auditory system can show signs of habituation and adaptation to continuous or repetitive stimuli, including white noise. Over time, individuals may become less sensitive to the presence of white noise, but this process is generally reversible once the exposure ceases.
  • Use in Hearing Testing: White noise is sometimes used in audiology clinics during hearing tests to assess an individual’s hearing thresholds. This is particularly relevant in evaluating the ability to hear tones at different frequencies against the background of white noise. However, the intensity and duration of exposure in a controlled testing environment are carefully managed to avoid causing harm.

The impact of white noise on hearing thresholds depends on various factors, and careful consideration of intensity, duration, and individual differences is necessary. 

While exposure to white noise in certain contexts, such as relaxation or sleep, is generally considered safe, precautions must be taken in environments where high-intensity noise, including white noise, could lead to hearing damage.

Temporary Effects of White Noise on Hearing

Exposure to white noise can have temporary effects on hearing, particularly if the intensity or duration of the exposure is significant. 

Here are some temporary effects associated with white noise exposure:

  1. Reduced Auditory Sensitivity: Intense or prolonged exposure to white noise can temporarily reduce auditory sensitivity, making it more challenging to detect faint sounds. This effect is often noticed immediately after exposure and may persist for a variable amount of time, depending on factors like the level and duration of the noise.
  2. Temporary Threshold Shift (TTS): TTS is a temporary increase in hearing thresholds that occurs after exposure to loud sounds, including white noise. The auditory system may become less sensitive to quieter sounds for a period following exposure. This is typically reversible, and hearing sensitivity returns to baseline after a certain amount of time. Exposure to white noise at high volumes can lead to a temporary hearing impairment, where the ability to hear sounds across different frequencies is diminished. This impairment is reversible, and the auditory system typically recovers after a period of reduced or no exposure to the noise.
  3. Fatigue and Discomfort: Prolonged exposure to continuous white noise can lead to auditory fatigue and discomfort. This may result in a subjective feeling of tiredness or irritation in the ears. Once the exposure to white noise ceases, these feelings of fatigue and discomfort typically diminish.
  4. Temporary Distortion of Sound Perception: White noise can temporarily distort the perception of other sounds. This may manifest as a dulling or masking of environmental sounds, making it more challenging to discern specific noises in the surrounding environment.
  5. Adaptation and Habituation: Over time, individuals may become less aware of the presence of white noise, and its impact on hearing thresholds may diminish temporarily. Not to worry though, as this process is reversible, and the auditory system can readjust when exposure to white noise stops.

If you experience persistent hearing issues or discomfort, it is advisable to consult with an audiologist for a thorough hearing assessment.

White, Pink, and Brown Noise: What’s the difference?

If you’ve looked into white noise, then you may have learned that there are a few other sounds that fall under the same family of “static sound”, but they are all a little different from each other. There is white, pink, and brown noise.

  • White noise: The most popular of the three, white noise, sounds like a radio tuned to an unused frequency. It contains all frequencies across the range of audible sounds in equal parts.
  • Pink noise: Very similar to white noise, pink noise has reduced higher frequencies so that the sounds are a little gentler and calmer. Many people consider it to be more soothing. Some studies have shown that sleeping with pink noise can help with memory retention.
  • Brown noise: Considered rougher than both white and pink noise, brown noise sounds more like the roar of a river or a strong wind. Brown noise has even fewer higher frequencies and has been associated with relaxation, improved focus, and better sleep.

For some people, using a sound machine that emits either white, pink, or brown noise can not only help with sleep but also reduce the discomfort felt due to tinnitus.

Pink Noise VS White Noise

As we have established, though white and pink noise are similar, they are not the same. White noise contains all of the frequencies across the audible sound spectrum, in equal distribution, ranging from 20–20,000 Hertz (Hz). White noise may sometimes be called broadband or wideband since it encompasses multiple bands of sound.

Some common examples of white noise include:

  • Waterfalls
  • Wind
  • Television or radio static
  • Ventilation systems, whirring fans

Pink noise also contains all the frequencies between 20–20,000 Hertz (Hz), but it also sounds deeper. This is because higher frequencies are reduced while lower frequencies are increased.

Some common examples of pink noise include:

  • Rustling leaves
  • Steady rainfall
  • Ocean waves
  • Heartbeats

Whether white or pink noise helps with sleep or with tinnitus, one way to have access to the sound whenever you need it is with a white noise machine. Like with most items, there are many to choose from out there, so here are some pointers we can provide you with to help you choose the one best for you.

White Noise For Tinnitus

White noise is often used as a therapeutic tool for individuals experiencing tinnitus, a condition characterized by the perception of noise or ringing in the ears in the absence of an external sound source. While white noise doesn’t cure tinnitus, it can be employed as a management strategy to provide relief and make the perceived sound less noticeable. 

White noise can be used for tinnitus through the following:

  • masking
  • Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT)
  • sleep aid
  • customizable sound therapy
  • relaxation and stress reduction

It’s important to note that while many individuals find relief through white noise, the effectiveness of this approach can vary from person to person. If you are experiencing tinnitus, it is advisable to consult with a healthcare professional or audiologist for a thorough evaluation. They can provide guidance on the most suitable management strategies, which may include the use of white noise devices as part of a comprehensive tinnitus management plan.

Choosing a White Noise Machine

There are two main types of sound machines, some are fan-based, and others are multi-sound. Both of them have the capacity to create soothing sounds to help with sleep and also sounds that help masks other noises that could keep you awake in the night, like snoring or tinnitus.

Generally speaking, white noise multi-sound machines are best used for blocking noise as they can cover more frequencies, can be set at louder volumes, and have more customization when it comes to fine-tuning a sound that works best for your needs. Fans, on the other hand, are fairly limited in the frequencies they put out and they can’t be changed nearly as much. Aside from adjusting the sound to your liking, there are a few other features we think are important to consider when choosing the right white noise machine for your needs.

  • Pricing: Like most items, there is a wide range out there when it comes to white noise machines. In general, you can find excellent models for around $100, though there are some for a little less.
  • Size: Fan-based sound machines tend to be larger and harder to travel with. Multi-sound machines are easier to move around, so even if you’re sleeping away in a hotel you can have the comfort of your white noise machine with you.
  • Sleep timer: If you’re using your white noise machine to help with sleep, then having a sleep timer is a must! Though a sleep timer is usually standard in sound machines, make sure to check before investing in one.
  • Clean loop: With multi-sound, or electric, sound machines, you want to make sure the sound loop is a smooth one. The point of the machine is to drown out sounds, but if you can hear when the recording ends and starts again, that small interruption alone could wake you up, or make you notice your tinnitus again.

While they are most commonly used for sleep, white noise machines, or maskers, can also be used throughout the day. They can be placed around the house on tables and shelves so that masking is happening at all times throughout the house. These tabletop sound generators usually emit sounds more in tune with nature, like rainfall, wind, or birds.

White Noise in Hearing Aids

While there is no cure for tinnitus, there are ongoing studies looking into the many ways to relieve the discomfort with the condition, and white noise has been shown to help. Clinical trials have also demonstrated that using hearing aids in tinnitus patients can help in two ways. First, it makes the patient less aware of their tinnitus. Second, it helps improve communication by masking the annoying sounds caused by tinnitus. While hearing aids can help alleviate tinnitus symptoms, it’s not a cure.

Tinnitus Masking Devices

Hearing aids with relief sounds are electronic hearing aid devices that create and broadcast broad-band or narrow-band noise at low levels. They are designed to mask the presence of tinnitus so patients can have less discomfort and distraction throughout their day. These broadband sounds are, you guessed it, white noise! This noise can be amplified to cover the tinnitus, while frequencies associated with speech can also be amplified to help with comprehension.

Who knew that static sound from an unused radio frequency could prove so useful? Whether you need a white sound machine to help with sleep, to cover your tinnitus or both, there are plenty of options out there for you. Be sure to experiment with all three white, pink, and brown noises to find the one best suited to your needs. And know that one day, white noise may work better, but brown noise may be more effective on another. Keep trying and don’t give up. Most importantly, if you have tinnitus that lasts longer than two weeks, make an appointment with an audiologist.


Dr. D’Anne Rudden

Dr. D’Anne Rudden has been helping Longmont and the surrounding communities hear better and find tinnitus relief for over 20 years. She is an expert in the fitting, dispensing, programming, and verification of advanced hearing technology and implantable devices, as well as in the diagnosis of hearing problems. She uses best practices to assure that your hearing solutions are personalized and customized for your specific needs.
Table of Contents

Dr. D’Anne Rudden

Dr. D’Anne Rudden has been helping Longmont and the surrounding communities hear better and find tinnitus relief for over 20 years. She is an expert in the fitting, dispensing, programming, and verification of advanced hearing technology and implantable devices, as well as in the diagnosis of hearing problems. She uses best practices to assure that your hearing solutions are personalized and customized for your specific needs.
Table of Contents