Katelyn Holub

blogging about music, art, and creativity


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Are You More Creative When Working in a Coffeehouse?

“Katelyn, your chai tea latte is ready.” I swiftly step over to the counter to take my drink from the barista and meander back to my table. After setting my drink down, I reach for my backpack, and pull out my laptop and notepad. A quick glance at my to-do list reminds me of the twenty pages I have to read by tomorrow and the five-page paper I must draft by next week. Empowered by my caffeinated beverage, I set out to work on writing my paper.

*Photo Credit: Terry Johnston, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Terry Johnston, Creative Commons

Is this a familiar scene? Even though I could have easily stayed home or gone to the library to work on my paper, I chose the coffeehouse because I wanted a change of scenery or thought that drinking a nice chai latte would alleviate the stress of writing a paper. Now that I’m sitting in the coffeehouse, I wonder if coming here to work was such a great idea.

As the bell on the door rings each time it’s opened, I find myself looking up from my screen to see who just walked in.

The fresh aroma of chocolate chip cookies wafts past my nose as the barista puts a fresh batch behind the glass bakery display case.

A song I like comes on softly through the overhead speakers, and I start lip syncing the words.

Two people at a table near me are talking loudly about politics, and try as I might to ignore them, their conversation sidetracks me from working on the paper I have to write.

With all these distractions, are coffeehouses really such a good place to work?

*Photo Credit: Alex Barth, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Alex Barth, Creative Commons

The Power of Ambient Noise

In spite of the distractions, coffeehouses can provide supposedly helpful ambient noise. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research pointed out that a moderate level of ambient noise (about the level of background sound at a bustling cafe) enhances creativity and encourages the purchase of innovative products.

A new ambient noise industry has been developed around the notion that certain levels of background sound can increase creativity and productivity. Noisli offers different types of ambient sound that visitors can layer on top of one another. For example, I layered ocean waves and a crackling fire, reminiscent of a beachside bonfire.

Alternatively, Coffitivity replicates coffeehouse sounds for your working pleasure—pick from “morning murmur” to “lunchtime lounge” and even “university undertones,” if you are missing your favorite college hangout.

Cutting the Tension of Silence

The soft ambient noise of a coffeehouse can make it a little easier to get our ideas out by eliminating the barrier of silence. Library-like silence can sometimes feel restrictive—much like a blank piece of paper can intimidate a writer. The silence amplifies the sound of our typing, which can subconsciously put pressure on us to make every word count, forcing us to over-think—heaven forbid we need to use the backspace key!

Vicarious Energy

In addition to the energy in most coffeehouse drinks, the vicarious energy from other people coming and going within the coffeehouse can spill over into our own psyche and increase motivation and productivity.

I’ve been in a number of libraries surrounded by dozing students using textbooks as pillows, and that kind of environment was the opposite of energizing. Although you might find the occasional napper in a coffeehouse, most of the time the bustling energy of the baristas and customers is enough to keep you from yawning that second or third time.

For a Creativity Boost, Try a Coffeehouse

Although coffeehouses are not the best location for increased productivity because of all the distractions they provide, changing up your work environment now and then by going to a coffeehouse is worth a try. You might be surprised the kinds of ideas you come up with while sipping on a mocha.

Do you think coffeehouses increase creativity? What have your experiences been?

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What is the Most Beautiful Sound in the World?

Is it birds chirping?  A babbling brook?  Wind through the trees?  Children giggling?  I was listening to a Spark podcast the other day and there was a segment about a recent contest for the most beautiful sound in the world.  Now this contest specifically excludes music and deals only with other kinds of sounds.  Submissions are judged by two people, albeit sound experts, but I nevertheless am a little skeptical that such a subjective thing like beauty can really be determined by two people!

The winner this year is “Dusk by the Frog Pond.”  It is full of melodic frog calls layered on top of a full and persistent insect hum and buzz.  Even though it is a natural sound, it kind of reminds me of outer-space—like this is how aliens might sound having a conversation with each other on their UFO.

Generally, when I think of sounds I tend to think of nature sounds, but actually there are a lot of ambient, man-made or mechanical sounds that we hear all the time throughout the day but tend to ignore or find annoying.  Some of the entries in the contest were recordings of these ambient, man-made sounds, including one of the finalists—sound generated by traffic on a bridge in Victoria, British Columbia.  I was totally shocked and impressed with this!!  It is quite intriguing how rhythmically symmetrical it is and how well balanced the lower drone sounds are with higher-pitched metallic pings and bird calls.

The beauty in the mechanical, urban sound of the Johnson Street Bridge made me consider the ambient, man-made sounds around me.  I wondered if I was surrounded by such equally beautiful sounds. . .

The Elevator--an 'oft forgot sound machine

The Elevator–an ‘oft forgotten sound

Katelyn’s Inventory of Sounds:  My Apartment—

  • My refrigerator is constantly humming a very low pitched tone, and every hour or so my fridge makes a very percussive, clicking sound for a reason beyond me.
  • Then we’ve got my heater/air conditioner—the fan is so loud that whenever it comes on I have to turn the volume on my television up at least three notches in order to be able to hear it.
  • My apartment also shares a wall with a mechanical room which produces a sort of deep-pitched purring/humming sound every couple of hours.
  • Along that same wall shared with a mechanical room, my apartment backs up against a wall of mailboxes, so I hear the metallic doors swinging open and slamming shut whenever someone checks for their mail.
  • My apartment is near an elevator, so I hear it faintly whirring as it takes people to different floors.
  • I hear the echoes of people talking/shouting/laughing as they wait for the elevator.
  • Lastly, I have the city sounds of sirens, people shouting, horns honking, helicopters flying lowly overhead, and trains whistling their way through.

Whew.  Listing all those sounds makes me realize just how noisy my living environment is, yet it is interesting that over time I have been able to generally block those sounds out.  When I think about them now, I just don’t think they contain the beauty of the Johnson Street Bridge.  The ambient sounds around me don’t have the same kind of comforting balance, regularity, and interest of the bridge.  But maybe I’m just being too critical?!

All this got me thinking . . . what sound sample would I have submitted to the world’s most beautiful sound contest?

Hmm. . . such an interesting question.  I think I would choose the sound of a fire crackling with some owls hooting periodically in the background.  Guess I’m a sucker for those nature sounds!

So, what do you think is the world’s most beautiful sound?  And what are your reactions to this year’s winners?