Is It Too Loud to Study?: How Volume of Sound Effects Distraction

All of the noise heard in a person’s environment defines their soundscape. The soundscape is always active and is rarely consistent. Anything that is consistently present in life will have a huge effect on a person and therefore needs to be closely observed. All of life happens in a soundscape and for a typical college student that includes studying. A great deal of research has gone into the study of how people are affected by a soundscape and the majority of that research focuses on young children in schools (Meinhardt-Injac et al. 2015) and adults in the work place (Banbury and Berry 2005) but little of that research focuses on young adults in a college setting. Adults and children will perceive sounds very differently (Muenssinger et al. 2013)  and a person that is not entirely defined as either will receive sound in other ways.

The importance of studying the young adult demographic relates back to the fact that they live in an in-between stage of life where the brain continues to develop but they have reached a level of maturity beyond that of most school children. College campuses have particularly active soundscapes largely created by the energy and independence that the students have. Activities do not have time constraints and take place at all hours. This presents an environment where constant noise is unavoidable. Although, there are many different soundscapes on a college campus, the focus of this study will center around the soundscapes that people study in. The typical college student will study in a variety of places ranging from the library to the coffee shop, their dorm room, common rooms, and anywhere in between. Each of these soundscapes have different aspects of sound that are frequently heard and can impact study habits by becoming distracting or even annoying to the student.

The often distracting soundscapes of college campuses need attention because the volume of noise that students are hearing can greatly affect their ability to focus and affect their mental health in general (Szalma and Hancock 2011). Many people prefer to have a certain level of background noise while doing work but at a certain point that often becomes a hindrance and can become distracting. Previous studies have shown that the volume of noise can have an effect on the average person (Ellermeier and Hellbrück 1998). The question becomes at what point does noise change from being a background noise to one that is distracting during studying? The goal in this experiment is to find a threshold as to where that changes for a college student and if that is dependent on the person or if the majority of students reach that point at the same time. Most likely all people will not have the same threshold, but if a small range of sound can be determined it may lead to a deeper understanding of how focus and concentration is affected by noise. I am interested in the idea of going beyond sound being distracting to find when it becomes stressful. I used the constant sound of a vacuum cleaner which tends to not fluctuate to much so that the type of sound is not the focus. The following is the recording that was played.

My plan was to have three test subjects work on puzzles while I test them under different conditions. Each subject will do five different Sudoku puzzles. My control subject will do all six of the tests with no noise, will wear headphones, and will be timed. The test will take place in the same room at separate times. The others will each be timed doing the puzzles with increasing levels of sound, however, the first trial of each subject will have no sound. The sound being played will be a clip of a vacuum cleaner being run on repeat and it will be played through Beats by Dre Solo 2 On-Ear headphones that are connected to an Apple iPhone. Level of sound will be determined based on the number of “ticks” displayed on the phone’s volume bar. A timer will be set for twenty minutes and once it finishes, regardless of whether or not the person is done, the headphones will be removed and the test will be reviewed. This time was set to protect the subjects from being exposed to a loud sound for too long, however, this does cause issues with how long the subjects have to complete the tests. After each test the subjects will take a five-minute break. During those five minutes, I will have each of the subjects fill out a survey which asks them how they felt, physically, emotionally, and otherwise during each test. The survey will be attached to this document, here, but the names will be changed so that subjects will remain anonymous. My goal is to observe how the time it takes to complete a puzzle changes with each successive volume, the self-reported emotions and stress levels of each person after each test, and how the emotions and stress levels change between tests in correlation to the volume of sound that they were hearing. My prediction is that the silent test will likely be the fastest time and the next couple will be equally as fast but at some point the volume of the sound will slow the subjects down and be distracting – this is the threshold. If a significant number of the people have similar results I will be satisfied that the prediction was accurate. Issues are likely to occur in response to the difficulty of the tests, the potential background noises, and the individuals familiarity with sudoku.

The majority of the test subjects knew how to play sudoku to some extent and a few were more comfortable with the game than others. The control subject, an eighteen-year old male, was not confident in his ability to play sudoku but was able to complete three puzzles with an average time of thirteen minutes. Two of his puzzles he did not complete in full and he left an average of twenty tiles blank between these two games played. The first two tests did little to affect his emotions and stress and he felt confident upon finishing them, the third and fourth puzzles, the ones that he did not finish, left him stressed, and the fifth puzzle he completed in half the time that it took to complete the first two; this left him very happy. Clearly, the tests were somewhat varied in difficulty level but that should is reflected in the results of the other subjects. This subject responded in the comments section of his survey that he “hates” sudoku. The first and second actual subjects were more inclined to play sudoku. They each started off at a good pace and then thought the first test with sound was very comforting. They agreed with the control that the third and fourth tests were harder than the first and second and the final test was by far the easiest. The students also seemed to all agree that the number of tests were very frustrating and they reported being tired after having done so many. Due to the small number of test subjects and a number of uncontrollable and unpredictable variables, the tests were largely inconclusive.

One of the few things that I was able to gather from the tests, based solely on responses from the subjects, is that all students who listened to music preferred when the sound was on at its lowest setting. This was not shown very well in their results but all responded on their surveys that this seemed to cause them the least amount of stress. What is clear is that at a certain level, the sounds change from being preferable to becoming very irritating and causing stress. The fact that test results points to there being no correlation indicates that the level of sound in an environment does not change productivity but will change stress levels. This evidence could be used in the design of study areas to help decrease stress during times where there are more midterms or finals.

Works Cited

Sudoku 3251 easy. in The Guardian [database online]. 2015 [cited November 23 2015]. Available from

Sudoku 3257 easy. in The Guardian [database online]. 2015 [cited November 23 2015]. Available from

Sudoku 3269 easy. in The Guardian [database online]. 2015 [cited November 23 2015]. Available from

Sudoku 3275 easy. in The Guardian [database online]. 2015 [cited November 23 2015]. Available from

Sudoku 3281 easy. in The Guardian [database online]. 2015 [cited November 23 2015]. Available from

Sudoku 3287 easy. in The Guardian [database online]. 2015 [cited November 23 2015]. Available from

Banbury, SP, and DC Berry. 2005. “Office Noise and Employee Concentration: Identifying Causes of Disruption and Potential Improvements.” Ergonomics 48 (1): 25-37.

Ellermeier, Wolfgang, and Jürgen Hellbrück. 1998. “Is Level Irrelevant in ‘Irrelevant Speech’? Effects of Loudness, Signal-to-Noise Ratio, and Binaural Unmasking.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance 24 (5): 1406-14.

Lucid TV. “Shim vacuuming 12 hours ~ vacuum cleaner relaxation white noise sound sleep colic.” Youtube, Mar 8, 2011 [cited November 22 2015]. Available from

Meinhardt-Injac, Bozana, Sabine Schlittmeier, Maria Klatte, Annette Otto, Malte Persike, and Margarete Imhof. 2015. “Auditory Distraction by Meaningless Irrelevant Speech: A Developmental Study.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 29 (2): 217-25.

Muenssinger, Jana, Krunoslav T. Stingl, Tamara Matuz, Gerhard Binder, Stefan Ehehalt, and Hubert Preissl. 2013. “Auditory Habituation to Simple Tones: Reduced Evidence for Habituation in Children Compared to Adults.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 7 (377).

Szalma, James L., and Peter A. Hancock. 2011. “Noise Effects on Human Performance: A Meta-analytic Synthesis.” Psychological Bulletin 137 (4): 682-707.

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