Self Improvement

White Noise vs. Noise Isolation vs. Playlists: The Best Sound for Focus

Mihir Patkar 16-09-2015

When you want to be focused and productive, what is the best thing to listen to? It’s one of those questions where you can’t get an answer that applies to everyone. So MakeUseOf talked to a few people who actively put on their headphones when they want to focus on work, to find out what’s playing, why it’s helpful, and who it’s helpful for.


The Internet has a lot of advice on the best music to boost your productivity Find the Best Music to Boost Your Productivity Online Listening to music helps you focus and get more done, according to music therapists. What kind of music will improve your mood, and make you more productive? And where should you start looking for music? Read More , but if you have tried some of these suggestions, you know that it’s not as simple as the article makes it sound. It may not always work; and if it does, you might still need to tweak it to your requirements.

The best learnings come from people who practice ideas, not preach. So let’s see what they have to say about the different philosophies on what you should listen to at work.


The dulling sound of white noise has been a popular productivity hack for those who want to cut out distractions. MakeUseOf spoke with Pranav Dixit, who oversees technology coverage at The Hindustan Times, and someone who has seen his productivity spike since he started using white noise.


Using For: 3 years

What’s Your Work: Writing

Workplace Setup: I work in a newsroom with lots of people. I have a basic desk and chair, with a laptop.

What’s Playing: I use brown noise, not white noise, to be specific. White noise is a little too “hissy” for my liking and brown noise works better for me as it is more “muffled”. I’m not sure I’m using the right terms to describe this, but I think you get the idea. Head to (also a great app for white noise 3 White Noise Apps To Help You Sleep, Concentrate & Relax If you're trying to sleep or work and an incessant background noise won't let up, these apps will help. Read More ) to hear all three noises—white, brown and pink.


Why It’s Useful: It blocks out all external distractions (like people talking to you or phone calls) and also helps with my ADD and writer’s block. It’s also useful for research, like reading long articles where you need to absorb the information. Plus, when I finally take my headphones off, it’s like waking up from a dream and coming back to the real world. It’s actually really refreshing.

Disadvantages: I cannot hear anyone calling my name and people have to usually tap me on my shoulder to get my attention — not always ideal in an office. Also can’t hear phone calls.

Who It’s For: Writers, editors, researchers, coders — basically anyone who needs to focus on a particular task without being constantly distracted. If you tend to focus on the lyrics and the instruments when you play music, white noise is a better alternative.


Pro Tip: Use it sparingly, only for those hours of focused work. Remember, the idea is isolation and focus, so also switch off Twitter, Facebook and turn off all tech distractions How To Turn Off Distracting Tech Notifications Almost Anywhere These days, we're constantly barraged with email updates, system alerts, and annoying texts from hypothetical neighbors named Brad about how he got his pet chinchilla stuck in the dryer vent again. But for some reason,... Read More .


While a lot of research suggests music or white noise or other such audio to drown out distracting sounds, some people prefer to keep it simple: Just shut out all noise altogether. Silence can be unnerving at first, but if you get used to it, it can hone your focus. MakeUseOf spoke to Harshawardhan Sabale, CEO of Ogle, who swears by this productivity technique.


Using For: 9 years

What’s Your Work: Coding, design

Workplace Setup: I work alone in a room at home. I’ve set up a TV running Windows and I sit on a couch with a wireless keyboard. And of course, my trusty in-ear electronic noise cancellation headphones. (Check out the best noise cancellation headphones on a budget The 6 Best Cheap Noise-Canceling Headphones That Are Affordable Here are the best cheap noise-canceling headphones you can buy at a decent price. Perfect for students! Read More )

What’s Playing: Nothing. I tried soundtracks and other stuff, I found it too distracting.

Why It’s Useful: Total noise isolation lets me shut out everything else. Coding and design requires focused, intense concentration on what your eyes are processing alone, so this is a good way of shutting out distractions processed by the ears.

Disadvantages: You cannot hear anything else at all.

Who It’s For: Coders and designers.

Pro Tip: Use it only for peak focus. Also, I use it primarily at nights which, in any case, is the most productive time for any work requiring concentration, in my opinion.


You can only actively pay attention to 1.6 conversations at a time, says Julian Treasure in his TED talk. If your work is writing or researching, or anything else to do with words or numbers, then you don’t want things you listen to adding to the information overload. The solution, some researchers say, is to just take the words out of songs and listen to instrumental tracks, which you can even download for free Free MP3 Download: 10 Instrumental Soundtrack Albums [Sound Sunday] Energizing soundtrack music from a range of genres, including rock, electronic, and classical. Free downloads as MP3 or FLAC. Read More . MakeUseOf’s own Matthew Hughes swear by this.

Using For: 3-4 years

What’s Your Work: Coding, design

Workplace Setup: I’m a remote worker with my own, secluded space at home. I use an Ikea Gallant desk with a standard leather office chair. I have a dual-monitor setup, with an Apple keyboard and an Anker three button mouse. And my trusty noise-cancelling A-Audio Legacy headphones (which I reviewed A-Audio Legacy Headphones Review and Giveaway There's a good rule of thumb when it comes to buying headphones. The more money you spend, the more you're going to get in terms of sheer audio quality. Read More ).

What’s Playing: Usually jazz (from Miles Davis to Brad Mehldau) and classical (from Philip Glass to Ryuichi Sakamoto).

Why It’s Useful: The tempo is right for what I do — primarily writing and sometimes coding. I believe that slow and steady, not fast and chaotic, wins the race. I used to use Focus At Will, which Justin wrote about in 2013 Focus@Will: A Streaming Service Designed To Help You Stay On Task Try out a music streaming site specifically designed to help you work. Focus@Will is a new streaming music service, currently in beta, created to help you focus on the task at hand. If your mind... Read More , but I wasn’t that much of a fan.

Disadvantages: Honestly, I haven’t found any. If it didn’t work for me, I wouldn’t use it.

Who It’s For: Writers and creative folks, mainly.

Pro Tip: Quite often, I’ll spend the day listening to Spotify’s “Coffee Table Jazz” playlist.


A new school of thought says that video game soundtracks are great for concentration, such as when you’re studying. There’s no research to back this up, but you’ll find several people online claiming its benefits. Philip Bates, a writer at MakeUseOf and Doctor Who fan site Kasterborous [No Longer Available], thinks TV show soundtracks are even better.

Using For: 8-9 years

What’s Your Work: Writing

Workplace Setup: I’ve a PC in the lounge, with a television off to my far left, and before that, a player that does vinyl, CD, radio, and even tapes. I’ve basically got everything I need in close proximity.

What’s Playing: Usually TV show soundtracks 10 Websites for TV Show & Movie Soundtracks Read More , specifically the fantastic Doctor Who ones that have been released since late 2006. Most of it is instrumental, that creates a sense of mood and a great atmosphere.

Why It’s Useful: They’re a great accompaniment whether you’re working on fiction or non-fiction, journalism, or novel-writing. Probably the most effective use is when screenwriting (along with other tools For Your Next Great Movie Or Play: 16 Free Scriptwriting Tools & Resources Writing is hard. Most of us know the feeling of having to pull an all-nighter to wrap up a thesis paper due in the morning - and those papers rarely broke 40 pages. I can’t... Read More ). The tracks were crafted to television or film and despite being essentially classical music, they’re often more succinct. This music also helps you get into the mood for a fictitious environment quickly, like listening to a Christmassy soundtrack to feel festive in July.

Disadvantages: The mood-creating ability is a double-edged sword, so be careful. If you’re writing a very dramatic scene, you don’t want a quirky oddity playing. And associations can be strong if you know a show inside out; certain music can take you back, and you’ll be thinking about scenes and speeches when you should be concentrating on work instead.

Who It’s For: Writers — fiction or non-fiction. In fact, anyone who’s trying to portray strong emotion in their work should listen to soundtracks.

Pro Tip: Use soundtracks to go from one extreme emotion to another quickly. An exhilarating song can make an article oddly more exciting. If you’re stuck with something – whatever the subject, whatever you’re doing – a fast-paced track can spur you on.


The thing about listening to music while you work? It can distract you with the words or tunes. So let’s try listening to music which you know intimately, so that your brain doesn’t need to process it. At least that’s what MakeUseOf’s Andre Infante thinks. Catchy pop music Hooked On Music: 20 Of The Catchiest Songs Ever On YouTube [Weird & Wonderful Web] These are the earworms that burrow their way into your head and refuse to leave. Be afraid, be very afraid. Read More is his thing because he knows the words, he knows the tunes, and he doesn’t have to deal with surprises.

Using For: 3 years

What’s Your Work: Research and article writing. I track down sources, synthesize information, write and edit articles, and add links and images.

Workplace Setup: I write on a very beat up Chromebook in my living room under my AC unit. I use my Google Chromecast Google Chromecast Review and Giveaway We're giving away a Google Chromecast, so read through our review, then join the competition to win! Read More and the Spotify web client for music 7 Reasons to Start Using the Spotify Web Player Today Spotify is about to shake things up by making the desktop and web app experiences more similar. So, it's about time many of us asked ourselves, Why not just use the web app instead? Read More .

What’s Playing: Any pop music which I know well. I find silence distracting, and new music also tends to pop into my conscious awareness too often to be productive, so I try to stick with songs I’ve already heard a million times.

Why It’s Useful: Pop has the benefit that it’s engineered to be pleasant, and you’ve heard it so many times that it doesn’t even engage the language center of your brain any longer. Looping the same song over and over helps to emphasize this effect.

Disadvantages: I blast my speakers at the loudest volume. One of these days, my downstairs neighbor is going to poison me. Aside from that, it’s all smooth sailing.

Who It’s For: People who find that they keep thinking about the music they’re listening to, instead of the work they’re trying to do.

Pro Tip: Use it for writing, but not for programming or other focus-heavy difficult tasks. For example, programming is difficult enough that I find that it doesn’t really matter what I listen to.

What Music Works For You?

So, let’s hear your views on music and productivity. Here’s a quick template, fill it up and share it in the comments! Let’s learn from each other…

  • What you listen to:
  • How many years you have tried it:
  • Why it’s useful:
  • Disadvantages, if any:
  • Pro tip:

Image Credits:Woman with Headphones by Volt Collection via Shutterstock

Related topics: Focus, Music Album, Playlist, Stress Management.

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  1. Anonymous
    September 22, 2015 at 11:37 am

    Hard Rock For Routine Tasks.

    Absolute Silence When Maximum Focus Is Necessary.


    • Anonymous
      September 22, 2015 at 12:18 pm

      Sorry, Out Of Topic...

      ...If I Need To Login To Comment, Then Why Some Of My Comments Are Immediately Accepted, And Others Need Moderation ?

      Either Way, Why Not Stick To A Single Approach And Stick To It ?


      • Mihir Patkar
        September 24, 2015 at 8:32 pm

        Sorry man. You're totally right here. We're trying to fix these issues, but we have a small engineering team and the new website and apps take up a lot of our resources. I hope you'll be patient here, but I really don't see a solution coming soon.

    • Mihir Patkar
      September 24, 2015 at 8:31 pm

      Absolute silence as in with noise isolation, or you just switch off everything else?

      • Anonymous
        September 25, 2015 at 12:35 pm

        It Happened Just Once, But My Focus Was So Disturbed That Even The Constant Click Of An Analog Clock Was Driving Me Crazy.

        I Was In The Office And I Took The Clock To My Room And Put It In My Bed With A Pillow Over It - Problem Solved.


  2. Anonymous
    September 20, 2015 at 8:31 pm

    So actually the article provide zero evidence for which music works best, none of the people even mentioned if they had tried different types of music for different tasks, or even for their main task. Which is not what the title and first few paragraphs might lead you to believe.

    • Mihir Patkar
      September 21, 2015 at 4:34 pm

      I think you need to re-read the article, keith.

      1) The article starts by stating that there is no "best" one-size-fits-all solution. "Best" depends on what you want to do, and learning from other people who work similar to your style is the ideal first step to take.

      2) All of them have tried different types of music, but I didn't see the point in including that everywhere. There are a couple where I've kept it as is, but rest assured, all of them have tried different things and finally settled on this now.

      • Anonymous
        September 21, 2015 at 6:00 pm

        1) OK, you probably didn't write the headline, that clearly asks what is the best sound, with the implication that the article answers that.
        2) If you had said that they had all tried different types of music, I would have had no issue. As it is written, you may as well have asked people which cat picture they have on their desktop when working.

  3. Anonymous
    September 17, 2015 at 7:49 pm

    I'm suprised noone mentioned Coffitivity

    • Mihir Patkar
      September 18, 2015 at 2:08 pm

      It's not a comprehensive list of apps, just what works for different people :) Coffitivity is great btw!

  4. Anonymous
    September 16, 2015 at 1:13 pm

    White noise matters

    • Anonymous
      September 17, 2015 at 11:58 am

      I like medieval chant, specifically Hildegard von Bingen. It is all in Latin, so I'm not focused on the words, and the tempo is rather relaxed or slow. Something about the women's voices (as opposed to men) stimulates my brain in just the right way while I'm working/writing.

    • Mihir Patkar
      September 18, 2015 at 2:08 pm

      I see what you did there :D