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How the difference between sound and noise can influence our ability to learn

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 (Valerii Minhirov/iStock)

Of the five senses, the ability to sense sound is “undervalued and underappreciated,” and yet inextricably tied to our understanding of the world, says neuroscientist Nina Kraus.

“We live in a visually-oriented world,” says Kraus. Visual objects have “ingredients” such as size, texture and color. “So does sound. Sound is invisible but consists of so much information: pitch, timing, rhythm, timbre and phrase." 

Kraus’s new book, "Of Sound Mind: How Our Brain Constructs a Meaningful Sonic World,” is her love letter to sound. Drawing on decades of research from her Brainvolts auditory neuroscience laboratory, she offers compelling insights for parents and teachers as they think about children’s sonic environment – and how everything from background noise to music lessons can influence brain development. 

"Sound is easily overlooked, and yet it has a huge impact on who we are and how we engage with the world. Sound is a tremendously powerful force in our lives.” 

Noise vs. sound

Put simply, noise is unwanted sound. While loud noises can damage our ears, Kraus is also concerned about so-called “safe noise” and its effects on children. “We live in a pretty noisy world,” says Kraus, and these constant, moderate amounts of noise “don't hurt our ears, but they hurt our brain.” 


Think about that moment when the dishwasher finishes its cycle or the neighbor shuts off the lawnmower. “You hadn't even noticed that those sounds were there. But when they are turned off, we breathe the sigh of relief because, from an evolutionary standpoint, sound is our alerting sense.” There’s a reason we are attuned to sounds at night, says Kraus. Our ancestors needed to be able to detect threats in the darkness. Noises, whether we are consciously aware of them, tax our brains because they keep us in a state of alert.

Shaping a Healthier Sonic World for Kids

There are things we can do to control and shape our sonic environment, says Kraus. First, we need to pay more attention to the noises that fill our homes and classrooms and think about which are and are not necessary. For example, do we need a ping every time we get a notification on our phone or computer? Does that iPad app your child is playing need the sound on to function, or are the beeps simply noise? We are, she says, too “cavalier about the sounds that we salt and pepper our lives with.” 

Noise is almost always human-made, so spending time in nature offers children and adults a rejuvenating auditory experience. “You can go into a forest, and it's teeming with sound. There are brooks running, birds tweeting and animals moving around in the thicket.” These sounds help us connect to our environment and experience multi-sensory beauty. Silence, also, is part of a healthy sonic diet. “Quiet is part of sound. It's the space between the notes,” says Kraus, and removing noisy distractions and stimuli allows our brains to relax and wander to new places. 

The effect of noise on children’s learning is a factor that must be considered in the efforts to increase educational equity. For example, studies have found that children whose classrooms were nearest the subway tracks – leading to higher decibel levels and more interruptions – underperformed on testing when compared to peers in classrooms on the opposite side of the school. 

“We've done a number of studies of children in low-income areas,” says Kraus, “and we've found that there is a biological signature of poverty.” In these high-noise environments, sound processing in the brain can become diminished, and there can also be increased neural noise – or “background static in the brain.” 

While teachers can’t control the external noise environment, they can do more to create auditory choices in the classroom. Anita Collins, a music educator and author of “The Music Advantage,” says that teachers often create classrooms that work best for them. “If teachers find a busy auditory environment stimulating, they create that in their classroom. But not all children will learn well in that environment.” During work-time, she recommends creating both collaborative learning spaces and quiet learning spaces, including access to noise-canceling headphones. And for whole-class experiences, balance moments of high auditory stimulus with moments of quiet. “Building in those tiny little changes in our teaching can be powerful. It lets kids say ‘I can control my environment and make choices that make me as productive as possible,’ and that’s a wonderful skill to take into adulthood,” says Collins.

The ameliorating effects of music and language learning 

Music and learning an additional language both have a powerful effect on cognition. Kraus notes that for low-income children who are bilingual, the “neural signature of poverty is lessened.” For all children, “learning another language as early as possible has a tremendous benefit in strengthening the sound mind, reading skills and the kinds of processing skills that children need to learn.” 

In addition, music education – from beat-keeping to note-reading – offers clear cognitive benefits to children. “In my view,” says Kraus, “music should be a part of every child's education. It should be a priority as important as learning to read and write. And in fact, playing music will help the reading, writing and arithmetic, in addition to the other ways that it strengthens brain development.”

Adults have a responsibility to create nourishing sound experiences for children, says Kraus. “If we are aware of our sonic environment, and the environment that we create in our homes, in our schools and in our communities, we can work towards doing our part of getting rid of unnecessary sounds and stimulating children to listen to birds, to listen to each other, to honor the wonderful and rich information that is contained in sound.”

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