An experiment in writing: the ambient noise of cafes

I enjoy working in cafés. Favorites include (in Cambridge), West Café and Grads

Which means that I was interested when research on the effect of ambient noise on  productivity and creativity, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, was discussed and publicised online (e.g., ‘Coffee shop buzz is good for your creativity‘ by Melanie Pinolla, 12 June).

But I live in the sticks, so can’t always get to a café. Which sent me wondering: would it work if I replicated the sounds at home.

It seems there are several sources of ambient café noise online. Most of them I found unpromising because there was too much of a hubbub. Coffitivity, for example.

But then I found Soundrown, which seemed about right.

So I’ve been experimented, writing with Soundrown playing in the background.

The result? Pretty disastrous. Sitting in the office trying to write whilst playing the noise of a café in the background just makes you feel a prat.

This suggests the research is flawed – it is not sound on its own, but sound in relation to context, that matters most.

Since then I’ve been experimenting with other backgrounds, the most successful of which has been Classical Music for the Reader. No doubt it’s pretty philistine to yank movements from great works by such contrasting talents as Bach, Schubert, Liszt, etc., stick them together and use them as wallpaper music (please don’t tell anyone I’ve done so).

But it seems to work.


5 Responses to “An experiment in writing: the ambient noise of cafes”

  1. A great experiment! Prerecorded cafe noise does seem a bit pretentious although I give them points for trying.

    I find that working while listening to instrumental classical music works well. Occasionally I can listen to vocal music but typically lyrics are distracting. While working in a cafe, vocals seem less distracting, perhaps because of the other ambient noise. I think cafes have a certain energy that can’t be replicated just via sounds. And different cafes have different energy. I’m not sure I could work at Barnes & Noble, but the local bagel shop is just right.

  2. I think one reason I’ve built up quite an extensive collection of Swedish jazz and female vocalists is that, because I don’t speak Swedish, the words don’t distract me (though at the same time one gets the drift!).

    Agree that energy of cafes varies. It would be intriguing and useful to pin down what the factors are. An indie ambience helps (though I think the chains are better than the blogosphere admits). If there’s at least one other person working, that counts as a positive.

  3. Language does make a difference, this is true — I was able to successfully work while listening to Portuguese samba! And please let me stress that I was not saying I hate B&N’s cafes… they just have a different feel somehow. That could be something as simple as the style of chair, or the loudness of the espresso machine (which at my favorite local cafe is somewhat out of hearing range of the seating). A point in its favor would also be the 10-minute street drive to the cafe vs. the 45-minute highway drive to the nearest B&N.

    • Thanks, Christine. By the way, my point about chains wasn’t intended as a response to yours on, rather a comment on anti-Starbucks sentiment. People in the UK have rather forgotten how bad cafes were more Starbucks etc. came along. There are some cities where I work almost entirely out of chains like Cafe Nero and they could be a lot worse. They tend to have good locations and acceptable coffee.Though if anyone knows a good indie with w-fi in central Newcastle-upon-Tyne, would like to hear!

  4. Oh– I should add that I am commenting here while at the public library, on the children’s floor. It is very un-quiet and yet for the most part I can easily work. Quite the hubbub, although perhaps the low-level noise underneath the louder stuff makes it work somehow.

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