What Is Green Noise & Is It As Soothing As Real Nature Sounds?
Step aside, funny cat clips and music videos: YouTube channels around the world are increasingly filled with the sights and sounds of nature.
The uptick in "green noise" videos demonstrates our collective longing to tune out human distractions and get lost in the soundtracks of the natural world. But what do these green noise videos actually do to the brain—and can listening to them really compare to spending time outside? Let's investigate.
What is "green noise"?
"Green noise" is a manufactured sound that has a frequency that reminds some people of what they'd hear in nature.
As Daniel Bowling, Ph.D., acoustics researcher and neuroscience adviser at Spiritune, previously explained to mindbodygreen, in nature, higher frequencies are less common than lower frequencies. Green noise emulates this natural sound distribution—it falls somewhere between white noise (which has an even distribution of high and low frequencies) and brown noise (which is heavily weighted to low frequencies).
Why is it good for you?
It may help with attention and focus.
In one experiment on 71 college students, those who tuned into a nature-sound phone app daily had better cognitive performance2 (as measured by working memory and alertness tests) than their peers who did not use the app. The app served up sounds of rainfall and waves, which hit the ear in a similar way to green noise recordings. A follow-up study found that listening to these sounds also seemed to increase learning and reduce procrastination3.
It may help us recover from stress faster.
Separate research investigated how nature sounds might impact the stress response. In this study, people were exposed to sounds from nature or the built environment after a stressful mental arithmetic task. Tests of their heart rate and nervous system response showed that those exposed to natural sounds tended to recover from stress faster4 than those who listened to the man-made ones.
It shows promise for sleep.
Distracting noises like traffic or loud appliances can make it hard to fall and stay asleep. Many people turn on noise machines to help drown these out, and there's research to show this is an effective strategy5. Again, no studies have been done on green noise specifically, but listening to pink noise (which is similar but slightly higher pitched) at rest has been shown to ease the brain6 into slow-wave states and improve overall sleep quality7.
How to listen to green noise
Ready to give green noise the green light? Here are a few ways to work nature sound recordings into your life for sleep, focus, and stress reduction:
- Sleep with a green noise machine: Noise pollution8 is an increasingly irritating issue, especially for those living in urban environments. Sleeping with a noise machine can help you drown out the sounds of the city. Here are some of our favorites, many of which come with a nature-inspired "green" noise setting. You might find the deeper tones of green noise more relaxing than white noise settings, which tend to be more stimulating.
- Use green noise videos to tune out distractions while working: Looking to drown out the noises of a buzzing coffee shop or crowded office? Turn on a green noise video on YouTube to potentially enhance focus and support cognition.
- De-stress to the sounds of nature: While monotonous green noise recordings are great for masking other sounds, they're not particularly interesting or stimulating on their own. For moments when you want to unwind with a more dynamic nature soundtrack, tune into one on Earth.fm, which features recordings like "Calm Rain in the Amazon Jungle" and "Fall Crickets on the Niobrara." These scratch the same itch as green noise recordings but will be more transportive to real green environments, potentially making them even more effective for stress relief.
How to listen to green noise outdoors
While virtual soundscapes can evoke some of the feelings we have in nature, they really can't compare to the real deal.
"There is no replacement for nature," says Rachel Buxton, Ph.D., a soundscape researcher and assistant professor at the Institute of Environmental Science and Department of Biology at Carleton University. "We need nature in so many ways—and there are so many things about nature that you're not getting when you're just listening to a recording."
When we visit a waterfall up close, for example, not only will we take in its powerful sounds, but we'll also benefit from the striking sight of the water, the refreshing feeling of the mist on our skin, and the pleasant smell of the damp earth. Even unseen entities—like the organic compounds in the trees9 and microbes in the soil10—can quietly conspire to improve our mood, immune response, and more.
Research supports the fact that in-person nature sounds are preferable to recorded ones. In one experiment out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, healthy undergraduates either sat in an outdoor forest setting or watched a 360-degree VR nature recording of the same environment for six minutes. While the VR headset improved mood11 more than sitting in an empty room, it didn't have as positive of an impact as the outdoor exposure. Daily exposure to virtual nature12 also doesn't seem to inhibit rumination or negative thought loops, while real nature definitely does.
For those thinking, that's great, but I don't live near any forests or waterfalls, smaller pockets of nature—like a public park or line of street trees—can be a solid stand-in. So, the next time you're hoping to tune into nature sounds to increase focus or relieve stress, consider seeking them out beyond your laptop. Here are a few ways to get started:
Head to the water (or bring it to your home)
In a recent meta-analysis, Buxton and other researchers reviewed literature on the health benefits of different natural sounds in national parks. Of the sounds surveyed, water sounds had the largest positive impact on health and mood outcomes.
When I asked a study co-author Amber L. Pearson, Ph.D., a health geographer at Michigan State University, why that might be, she said it could have to do with the evolutionary appeal of the water. "There are some theories that we associate water sounds with key resources that we've always needed for human survival. And so it's sort of hardwired into our brain: "[Water sounds] are a positive thing," she says.
Put this research into practice by heading to an ocean, stream, pond, or just a water fountain, the next time you're looking to calm down. If you don't live near any natural water sources, consider adding a small water feature to your home instead to engage with these sounds.
Go on a "soundwalk"
Soundwalking is exactly what it sounds like: walking with the intention of paying attention to the sounds around you. The practice can help you tune in to how soundscapes change from one place to another. What you hear at the start of your walk will likely be totally different from what you hear at the end.
Soundwalking is a way to improve what composer R. Murray Schafer once called your "sonological competence," or ability to pick up on pleasing sounds. So the next time you take a walk in a more natural area, use it as an opportunity to remove those headphones and flex your auditory muscles in a new way.
Get attuned to the birds
Again, there could be an evolutionary component to this: Birdsongs send a subconscious signal that you're in an area that has the resources necessary to support life. "When you don't hear birds, that's because they are feeling threatened, and so they go quiet," says Pearson. "When everything was perfectly silent, it can actually can be considered threatening."
The next time you feel overwhelmed, head outside and see if you can tune into any of the birds around you. Let their song be a reminder that you're safe and all is well.
Do a sonic visualization
Another way to tune into the green noise that exists all around you is to close your eyes and visualize that you are standing in a snow globe. Preferably, you can do this in an area that isn't super loud with construction noise or honking. A forest environment is ideal for this practice (that's where I was when I first fell in love with it), but a public park or your backyard will work, too.
With your eyes closed and ears open, listen for the nature sound that you can hear the most clearly and is the closest to you. Then, listen for the one that is the farthest away. Latch on to this sound, this "green noise," and imagine that it is hitting the glass of the contained snow globe. Sit with this sound for as long as it takes you to wind down and feel more at peace.
Over time, as you use these practices to pick up on the real green noises around you, they will become easier to recognize and benefit from. Becoming more attuned to your local soundscape can also remind you what an essential role nature sounds play in our lives—and how important they are to protect.
What does green noise do?
Green noise is a frequency of noise that is thought to mimic some of the sounds you'd hear in nature. People often listen to green noise recordings to help them relieve stress, fall asleep, and tune out distractions. While there has not been any scientific research on green noise specifically, studies on other noise colors show that they can synchronize with our brain waves in a way that helps us feel more mentally relaxed. It's worth noting, though, that exposure to real nature sounds will likely be more beneficial than listening to a sound recording.
What noise color is best for sleep?
Research suggests that pink noise—a lower frequency noise—is most effective at improving our overall sleep quality. However, green noise has not been specifically studied for its effects on sleep.
Green noise is a specific frequency of noise thought to emulate the sounds of nature. It hasn't been scientifically studied, but there's some reason to believe that it can help promote sleep, enhance attention, and relieve stress. That said, it can't stand in for the sounds of nature or replace our inherent human need to engage with the natural world.
Think of green noise videos like a good-quality CD of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5: It can certainly give you a sense of the music, but it pales in comparison to a live performance. Like a symphony orchestra, the sounds of the outdoors are a treat for the senses that can't be captured or replicated.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.