Headphones: the new office wall?

Too much noise at work? Are headphones the solution?

Headphones have become the new wearable wall that can shut out the distractions of the open-plan office, but they’re not for everyone.

If you work in a cubicle or open-plan office, what type of interruption annoys you the most? And what does that interruption sound like? Chances are, it’s the sound of someone else’s conversation that you can clearly hear.

Researchers repeatedly find that intelligible but irrelevant speech tops the list of the most irritating and distracting office noise.

If you can’t escape it, frustration rises along with blood pressure, while productivity and engagement take a hit. 

Too much noise and too little privacy make workers very unhappy, say the studies.

That’s not to say that quieter is always better. Silence is eerie, and an overly hushed office makes us feel self-conscious when speaking.

But if your work requires a high level of concentration and your office acoustics leave you bouncing off the walls, then you should feel justified in establishing your own sound barrier.

On with the headphones

If you are using headphones to block out noise, choosing the right type is important. Noise cancellation headphones are well suited for industrial settings but may not be the ideal choice for an office.

“These headphones will cancel out constant background noise more effectively than irregular noise. This means that speech, which is irregular, will stand out more,” says Professor Jonathan Tapson, director of the MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development. 

“Noise isolation headphones are very effective in blocking out all noise, but they tend to be heavy and bulky.”

If you simply want your headgear to signal “do not disturb”, you might need to spell that out to colleagues and get your boss’s blessing for some allocated distraction-free time.

David Harris, head of business development and strategy at RedSeed, an online retail training provider, plays music through his headphones for about two-thirds of a typical office-based day. 

“Music that has a higher pitch and is in a major key is the most effective in boosting mood.” Bill Thompson, Macquarie University.

He regards his headphones as an essential productivity tool that has helped ease his apprehension about moving into the co-working space at Hub Sydney a few months ago.

“I wear headphones to block out background noise, which I am easily distracted by, and I play music because I enjoy it,” says Harris. His morning repertoire involves classical music, and in the afternoon he listens to more upbeat songs on radio.

The effect of music on our ability to work is highly individual, but there are structural features that seem to have consistent effects across cultures.

Bill Thompson, music cognition researcher and professor of psychology at Macquarie University, summarises the research. “When people listen to music that induces a positive mood and higher levels of energy, they perform better at creative tasks and mental quickness,” he says. 

“Music that has a higher pitch and is in a major key is the most effective in boosting mood.” 

Related: Crowdfunded Nura headphones will change the way we listen to music 

If it’s energy you want, tempo matters most. Faster music makes people feel more energised and helps them perform better at mental tasks.

Harris says sometimes his afternoon music gets too upbeat. “If I need to prepare a presentation, I’ll go back to classical,” he says.

Research confirms that the higher the mental challenge, the more likely it is that music will be distracting, especially if it contains lyrics. When it comes to volume, keep it down or off altogether for focused work.

Acoustics, it seems, are like coffee – we need to get it “just right” for it to have the desired effect.

What about genre? Preference and familiarity are more important, says Thompson, so play what you know while paying attention to structural features, such as high pitch, major key, fast pace, low volume and not too much dissonance – in which case Strauss will be better than Stravinsky or Silverchair.

However, strong likes or dislikes can interfere with concentration, a 2011 study from Taiwan suggests.

For people who are very sound sensitive, “white noise” – comprising all audible sound frequencies played simultaneously at the same volume – is a better choice than music, according to Brisbane-based audiologist Nolene Nielson. It can help absorb and mask unwanted sound without triggering a reaction.

Nielson advises her clients to find soothing background sound that’s emotionally neutral, and to play it quietly on their computer. It doesn’t have to be true white noise – natural, mechanical and electronic sounds can all work well, too.

Nielson is not, however, a fan of headphones. “

They cut you off from office dynamics,” she says, “and too much sound exclusion can make people even less sound tolerant.”

As with music, people’s general sound preferences are highly individual, so it’s a matter of finding what works best for you. Acoustics, it seems, are like coffee – we need to get it “just right” for it to have the desired effect. 

If you pay attention to the effects of volume, pitch and tempo, as well as the benefit of a background-covering sound, you have enough rudimentary data to start dabbling in audio architecture – selecting the sounds you like to ease a hard day’s work.


  • Work out some headphone etiquette with colleagues, especially if you want wearing headphones to mean “do not disturb”.
  • Keep the volume down, to protect your eardrums and help you work better.
  • Leave non-headphone time for office interaction.

White noise

  • Pure white noise contains all audible frequencies played at the same volume, and is used to mask unwanted sounds.
  • It is often altered to specifically mask the sound frequency of speech or to make the sound more pleasant (this is called pink noise).
  • Continuous unobtrusive background noise, which can include unintelligible speech, an air conditioner or nature sounds, also has a soothing effect.
Acknowledgments: Tom Hardy of 45db Workplace Acoustics, 45db.com 

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There’s an abundance of online white and background noise available online.

  • Simplynoise.com offers white noise as well as other variations. 
  • Chatterblocker.com and Rainymood.com allow you to create your own mix, blending nature sounds with background cafe chatter.
  • Coffitivity.com puts you in another space with background

Read next: Open-plan offices work for your boss but not for you

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