Brown noise can easily be found on YouTube, smartphone apps and streaming services. On #brownnoise TikTok, users listen while performing wide-eyed awe for the camera: “Where did the thoughts go?” In the digital market of sonic wallpaper, brown is the new black.
So far, reporting on brown noise has focused on questions around its efficacy. But where does this need for noise come from — and what does it tell us about how we live today?
While digital brown noise may be on trend, it’s actually just the latest product of a 60-year-old American noise trade. This little-noticed industry emerged as sleep and focus grew ever more important — and ever harder to come by — in the mid-20th century. The personal use of noise in the United States parallels the intensification of psychic and cognitive pressures, as we completed our conversion from an agrarian to an information economy.
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Noise was first domesticated as an aid to sleep, relaxation and concentration in the early 1960s, when a couple in Indiana named Gertrude and James Buckwalter began manufacturing the Sleep-Mate. Essentially a small electric fan housed in a plastic dome, the Buckwalters’ device generated a muffled — and muffling — noise that was perfect for masking acoustic annoyances.
The Sleep-Mate’s creation tale goes something like this: One night, the vacationing Buckwalters found themselves sleepless in a roadside motel room with a broken air conditioner. Heat wasn’t the problem. Noise from the highway was keeping them awake. Trudy suggested to Buck, an inventor, that a device that made the sound of an air conditioner without cooling the air would probably prevent a lot of sleepless nights.
The story encapsulates the contradictory forces that forged our early need for noise. The postwar U.S. economy was roaring, as the nation reconfigured itself to maximize the fast circulation of people, commodities and information. The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, for example, stimulated tourism but also generated a lot of noise. The interstate also encouraged suburbanization, which, combined with technological advances like air conditioning, retuned our senses to expect more control, calm and separation from others.
Yet at the same time, advances in transportation, media technologies and business practices were fragmenting sensory experience. Jet airplanes, television, open-plan offices and 24/7 business operations were just some of the 20th-century innovations that amplified profits by unsettling space and time. The time was ripe for a product to pacify one’s personal space.
Soon the humble electromechanical Sleep-Mate was outgunned by an array of media that deployed noise in new ways.
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In 1969, Irv Teibel produced “The Psychologically Ultimate Seashore,” a stereo LP recording that harnessed the calming and masking power of the Atlantic surf. Teibel ushered in a second era of noise marketing: the naturalization of noise. With titles like “Gentle Rain in a Pine Forest” and “Caribbean Lagoon,” Teibel’s successful “Environments” series surfed the confluence of two different waves: Americans’ detachment from nature and media’s ability to reproduce nature with increased verisimilitude.
“Environments” appealed to a hippie generation that embraced both a “back to the land” ethos and a love of technology, as evidenced by the Whole Earth Catalog, which contained instructions on beekeeping and computers alike. Unlike square Muzak and coldly clinical white noise, Teibel’s “Ultimate Seashore” was noise to which you could trip out or make love. Used by counseling therapists, and by the 1970s encounter group known as “est,” “Environments” inspired a rare moment when noise was used not only for individualistic separation, but also for interpersonal and communal experiences.
In the 1980s and ’90s, noise took on a glossy digital sheen, as mail-order catalogues like the Sharper Image hawked machines and CDs that conjured invisible waterfalls and thunderstorms. Such catalogues were aimed at a yuppie audience of high achievers in the “work hard, play hard” Reagan/Clinton era. It was a new deregulatory era of outsourcing, entrepreneurialism and shrinking social safety nets. As blue-collar work was forcibly detached from the American Dream, the pressures and rewards of white-collar work increased. Those who successfully ran the gantlet had both the need and the money for high-tech gadgetry to soothe the stress of success. Digital noise and nature sound machines featured prominently alongside massaging chairs and aromatherapy in a flourishing category one market-research firm called “personal sensory therapy devices.”
Today, smartphone app stores abound with noise and nature sounds, while every streaming service teems with country streams. Even TVs, which no longer generate the dead-channel static of the analog age, come preloaded with roaring oceans. As #brownnoise TikTok demonstrates, the noise industry continues to grow, while 21st-century devotees display increased technical familiarity with the many hues of noise.
So, what’s all the noise about? In our world remade for circulation, calm has become the rarest commodity. Traffic jams notwithstanding, one can’t sit still in the middle of the Interstate — that’s what makes it a highway, noisy and uninhabitable. Achieving success in the deregulated-information economy requires an exacting regulation of one’s own attention, even as that same economy exacts a heavy toll on attention with a billion digital distractions. (And let’s now pause for a moment to reflect on the irony that people are turning to TikTok for advice on how to control their attention.)
Sleep and focus are tattered by the stress of this informatic double bind. Neurological differences, like ADHD, that went unnoticed in agrarian America, now manifest as serious disabilities in an era of attentional scarcity. Tinnitus that would be inaudible in a factory may drive the spreadsheet wrangler to distraction.
The power of brown noise resides not in some magical brain-tuning frequencies but in its power to disrupt traffic. Noise stands athwart the gateway of our ears and calmly intones, “You shall not pass.” But this is an individualized solution to a shared social problem. Noise can be an effective means of self-care. However, we would be wise to also listen carefully and critically to the environment we are creating for ourselves.