Noise, distraction, and caffeine?

Yesterday this appeared on Twitter. It was posted by a freelance editor and writer who works from home:

Dying JUST DYING to know why writers go to coffee shops to write! Isn’t it noisy & distracting? I really wanna know what the appeal is!

If you’ve read my earlier post Shhhhhh… you’ll know I’m quite sensitive to noise when I’m trying to work. In fact, I think real, total silence can be a wonderful thing…

… or it would be, if it existed. In fact the search for silence is elusive. The avant-garde composer John Cage discovered this when he visited a completely soundproofed room, and could still hear two sounds. He asked why; he was told that one came from his nervous system, and the other from the blood circulation through his ears.

So I think the issue isn’t so much about silence versus noise, as about distracting versus non-distracting sounds. Maybe being a musician makes me more sensitive to sound. I’m not sure. Anyway Sherrie’s Twitter question set me thinking about what the differences might be.

Demands, reactions and associations

What makes sounds distracting, then? I think several kinds of noise make it particularly difficult to work (or, for that matter, to go to sleep, or whatever else you’re doing which requires you to ignore them):

Sounds which make demands

If your phone or doorbell rings, it demands to be answered (regardless of whether you decide its demand is justified). If you cat miaows at you maybe it’s demanding to be fed. If you’re living with somebody frail whose sense of balance is dodgy and you hear an unexpected heavy thud from upstairs, the sound demands you go and check whether they’re OK.

Sounds you automatically react to

By coincidence, many announcement systems in public places use a sound almost exactly like that of our doorbell to signal an announcement. Even though I’m not at home and it can’t possibly be the doorbell, my reflex reaction is to wonder immediately who’s at the door and why. Typically this almost completely breaks my attention on what I was doing. Occasionally, a mobile phone with a ringtone identical to mine will ring: I find myself checking my phone even though I’m certain that it’s set to vibrate and can’t possibly be ringing. Instinct is immediate; thought takes time.

For me, muffled speech works similarly–for example a television in the next room, with the volume low enough for me not to hear the actual words, but high enough for me to hear the bursts of speech. My brain automatically hears that there’s speech going on and tries to listen, even though there’s no hope of making it out.

Sounds with unhelpful emotions attached

This might be the voice of someone you really can’t stand, or the sound of their footsteps going past as you hope they won’t come and talk to you… or the sound of your neighbours squabbling, heard through the wall.

Sounds with strong associations

I play the violin rather a lot. As a result, I find it next to impossible to concentrate if there’s violin music going on in the background. Inevitably I find myself listening to the playing style, imagining the technique of playing it, noticing whether it’s in tune or not, thinking that if I were the player I’d prefer to do different phrasing, wondering how difficult it is to play and how easy the music is to get hold of, listening to hear what bowings and maybe even fingerings the player is doing, trying to identify the composer, remembering the time when I was in an orchestra accompanying that particular concerto… “Background music” is an impossibility if it’s violin music. Music on an instrument which I’ve never attempted to play–maybe that would work. But violin music is a disaster for doing anything else to.

However, there’s another kind of distraction, which I find quite a fascinating one.

Sound and mental channels

Try this simple-sounding exercise. write d en;goenovneojco ddo… Sorry, that should have said: try to speak and write simultaneously. This is something which most of us probably think we have no trouble doing when, for example, we’re writing notes while speaking to someone on the phone. But if you watch someone doing it, you’ll see that actually, they alternate between speaking and writing. You won’t see the pen writing on the page, or the fingers typing on the keyboard, at the same time as the lips are speaking words. It seems that the brain has one channel for creating words, and that if one activity is using it, another one can’t. The gibberish sentence above was the result of me trying to type “Write some words down” at the same time as saying “Speak a sentence”. “Write” came out OK, after three tries, but only because I told my fingers beforehand what the first few letters were which they had to type. And even then, it didn’t come out as “write” until the third attempt.

I think something similar happens with noise. It’s most obvious with speech, of course: if I’m writing words, then hearing other words is typically very distracting. And sometimes I’ve missed chunks of a speech programme on the radio by texting someone to tell them that it’s on: while the language part of my brain is processing the words to go in the text message, it’s not processing the words from the radio. But generally if I send someone a text about some music I’m hearing, that doesn’t make me miss any of the music. But obviously if I’m looking through a violin part to think how to play it, then background music can be extremely unhelpful. (Playing in an orchestra does eventually give one the ability to shut irrelevant music out in that situation, though–for example you can be mentally trying out your difficult passage while another section of the orchestra is rehearsing something else.)

Music, though, is related to language in some ways, and some researchers now believe we probably evolved music as a species before we evolved words. For example it’s thought that the way music communicates emotion is similar to the way tone of voice does, and a startling experiment some years ago demonstrated that people from different countries actually heard musical pitches differently.

Is there such a thing as “background music”? For some people there is, and some swear that they can’t work without music. For others, music is an impossibly compelling distraction which makes work impossible.

For me, the situation tends to be somewhere in between. I remember a particular occasion at university when I was studying (yes, I occasionally did!), and thought it would be helpful and enjoyable to have some music on at the same time. I put on one of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. Could I work with it on? Not at all! And yet, I sometimes studied quite happily with music on in the background.

What I now know is that different kinds of music are different for me in this respect. I think it’s to do with the way the music is structured, and how similar it is to language. Baroque music, Bach in particular, is next to impossible to work to. It virtually breaks down in to sentences and words and letters. Music from the classical period is rather easier to work to. The nineteenth-century Romantic composers are much easier; with twentieth-century composers it depends on the style; probably the least distracting is the kind of atonal piece which has no discernible rhythm and consists of shifting tone-colours, long crescendos and the like. I think that’s because it’s the kind of music which is least like language, so it’s not using the same channels.

Non-distracting noise

What, then, is non-distracting noise? And why do people go to coffee shops?

I think there are three main aspects to it:

Sounds with relaxed or studious associations

These probably vary from person to person. As I type this, I can hear the comfortingly pleasant whirring of my laptop’s hard drive. For those of us who like working in a quiet place, I think that paradoxically the sounds can be part of what makes it feel quiet; being able to hear the birds outside, for example (as long as they’re behaving themselves, singing nicely and not squawking away).

Sound which shuts out other sounds

A good example of this is the tradition of playing quiet organ music before a church service: it helps people not to notice the distracting noises of people coming in, shifting in their seats, and doing all the things people do before a service.

Less obviously, but importantly:

Sound which doesn’t let you listen to it

I think this is where the coffee shop comes in. If enough people are having conversations around you, it’s hard to accidentally start listening to one of the conversations. You only catch the occasional word, and there’s nothing to latch on to. The situation’s over-complex for the ear, so it’s easier to give up trying to follow anyone’s conversation and just enjoy the pleasant atmosphere while getting on with whatever you’re trying to do.

So maybe that’s why people work in coffee shops. The emotional and attention-demanding noises are left at home, and the congenial, non-distracting noise envelops you so you can work.

That’s my theory, anyway.

5 responses to “Noise, distraction, and caffeine?

  1. Interesting take on background noise, Tim. Unlike you, violin music doesn’t distract me, but then I don’t play violin. And unlike you, I listen to Baroque music all the time and don’t find it distracting when I’m editing a client’s manuscript. I fully appreciate that one person’s pleasant background noise is another person’s distracting cacophony.

    But trying to write on my manuscript in a coffeeshop? Nuh-uh. Not for me. While I love the ambiance and the coffee, every coffee shop I’ve been in has been racously noisy and busy, with clanging dishes, hissing espresso machines, and often screeching kids running around.

    And to me, there is something just the teensiest bit pretentious and self-aware about going to a coffee shop to write. A sort of unconscious, “Hey, look at me, the Serious Writer.” That said, I know perfectly normal people who enjoy the atmosphere in a coffee shop. Plus, as one friend said, it’s a means of getting away from distractions at home. To each his own, I guess! I’m a huge audiobook fan and I often put an audiobook on the stereo when I’m putzing around just so that I don’t feel lonely. It’s like there’s someone else in the house. My friend says she couldn’t listen to an audiobook while cleaning house. Oh well!

  2. It’s interesting about the baroque music–for me it grabs my attention so completely that I haven’t a hope of concentrating on anything which needs analytical thinking. (Does that mean I listen in an analytical way to how it fits together? Maybe.)

    The nearest I’ve been to trying to write in a coffee shop has been writing emails on my Psion Series 5, when it was still working, in the coffee shop in M & S (a UK department store), or the one in a Waterstone’s bookshop, so there’s been a pleasant level of friendly background noise rather than anything loud and erratic, which makes a difference. I find a high level of noise tiring simply to be in, whether I’m trying to work or not.

    I know what you mean about the pretentiousness–I’m not sure what the convention would be for a woman, but a man who wanted to do it properly would have to grow slightly-too-long hair, not shave for exactly three days, wear a sensitively pained expression but no ironed clothes, and ideally have a copy of something by Proust or James Joyce casually lying on the table as he wrote.

    I’ve not really listened to audio books–I prefer the sound my own reading makes in my head–but for friendly background speech I listen to BBC Radio 4 a lot, which is the serious speech station. I feel more connected with people having a discussion in a studio than with someone reading from a book–it feels more immediate somehow.

  3. I can type and speak at the same time as long as I’m speaking and typing the same words. And I’m often oblivious to background music or noise; the only exception is angry human voices and shouting.

  4. Bonnie Brown

    My brain seems to only listen effectively to one thing at a time. For instance, at my daughter’s parent teacher conference several years ago, the teacher was playing some background music from a CD. (I don’t remember the style.) About 3 minutes into the conference, I realized I needed to ask her to turn the music off in order to be able to focus on what she was saying! Thankfully, she did and I was able to pay attention from then on.

    I’m so glad I can finally comment! Thanks for changing your blog to make that aspect easier.

    • I must say, it’s a lot less frustrating now that people can comment!

      It’s interesting that everyone’s experience of noise and distraction is so different.

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