Photo of sign that restricts noiseEmily VanBuren is a PhD student in History at Northwestern University. You can find her on Twitter at @emilydvb or at her blog, dighistorienne 

I’ll just get it out there: I’m a complete grump when it comes to noise in the library. I mean, I’m a really unreasonable, hypercritical, expects-too-much-of-others curmudgeon. My university has a great system where graduate students can sign up for their own study carrels, dispersed throughout the towers that house the stacks. It’s really convenient for when I don’t feel like working from home or toting an armful of books home from campus on the train.


Until you achieve candidacy, you can only get an open study carrel, which means you’ll most likely be sharing a little alcove with one other graduate student (in my case, one of my dear friends). After candidacy, you can sign up for a private carrel. And anyone who has ever had a roommate, tried to read in a café next to a screaming child, or attempted to hammer out a draft in a public space beside someone chatting on the phone knows that the smallest noise can be distracting. For me, it’s a real disturbance, and I’ve had to find ways to handle it. Because obviously, talking/breathing/tapping a pencil for an hour/chewing a pen cap/leaving one’s text message alert on so that one’s phone emits a tweet every few seconds/et cetera is completely normal and legal and I will always inadvertently set up shop next to this person, no matter where I choose to work. Including my home office, which I share with my work-from-home partner. So, for the other easily-distracted researchers and writers out there, here’s a handful of free and inexpensive apps that help me to stay focused (and polite to strangers):

1. Simply Noise:  This is my go-to app for drowning out background sounds. It’s a white noise generator, and I use both the web browser version and the iOS app. You can adjust the settings and tone, depending on which sound you find the most soothing. And even better: it’s 100% free.

2. Pandora:  Nothing ground-breaking here. Everyone has heard of and/or used Pandora, a radio service available via web browser or as an app. I have two stations for working, and both are instrumental. One is more more upbeat, and one is gentler. This is great for masking low-level background noise. It is also free (though you can sign up for their paid subscription service to reduce advertisements).

3. OmmWriter Dana:  This one feels a little strange at first, but I really like it. It’s a word processor with built-in soothing color schemes, background audio tracks, and keystroke sounds meant to make writing more relaxing. It’s available for Mac, PC, or iPad, and it’s free. You can also spend a few bucks (there is no minimum price, but they suggest you contribute a minimum of $4.11) to upgrade to the next level to get more backgrounds, audio tracks, and typing sounds.

4. Rainy Cafe:  I open this up in my web browser for ambient noise sometimes. It has two options: Cafe and Rain. You can use one or the other, or both at the same time.

5. Coffitivity:  This ambient noise generator is a lot like Rainy Cafe, sans rain. But you can also set it up to use your own music, so that it mingles with the hum of dishes being stacked and low-level chatter.

6. Ambient Soundscapes:  This iOS app features nine free ambient sounds, ranging from thunderstorms to white noise, with the option to unlock premium soundscapes for $0.99 each. I like how simple it is, since its interface features only three buttons. (This one is also great for nights when you have a tough time falling asleep.)

7. Ambiance:  This app, available for desktop, iOS, and Android, isn’t quite free. It costs $2.99 to download. But it features an extensive library of 3500 free sounds, with more added on regular basis, which makes the $2.99 seem like a pretty fair investment.

8. SoundCurtain:  This app will set you back $4.99, but it’s a popular productivity app because it has plenty of options for mixing your ideal background sound. Beyond transmitting the usual sounds of rain, wind, and piano noise, this responsive app adapts to your current environment by measuring existing noise volume via a microphone and tailoring its output accordingly.

Give ‘em a shot if you find yourself grinding your teeth the next time the guy beside you in the library is chomping on tortilla chips . . . or if you just need a little soothing background noise.

What sort of soundscape do you prefer when you’re working? Which apps do you use for a little background noise? Share your tips in the comments below.

[Image by Flickr user Bart Everson used under creative commons licensing.]


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