Lindsay Bell

Coffitivity: Coffee Shop Noise and Creativity

By: Lindsay Bell | July 23, 2013 | 

Coffee Shop Noise

By Lindsay Bell-Wheeler

Noise. We all live with it. Everyday. All day long.

For most of us, the first sound we hear in the morning is the alarm clock.

It’s annoying. And loud. And it just keeps getting louder.

Garbage and delivery trucks. Non-stop construction and/or road works.

Traffic congestion – horns honking, motorcycles revving. Sirens blaring from emergency vehicles. Public transit vehicles near destroying our innocent little eardrums.

Noise pollution is so common you almost ‘don’t hear it’ anymore in your day-to-day lives. Except you do, really. And it’s been proven time and again the effects of noise pollution go above and beyond hearing loss.

Noise Pollution and Productivity

According to the Unites States Environmental Protection Agency, “Sound becomes unwanted when it either interferes with normal activities such as sleeping, conversation, or disrupts or diminishes one’s quality of life….Problems related to noise include stress related illnesses, high blood pressure, speech interference, hearing loss, sleep disruption, and lost productivity.”

Yup. The issues above all make perfect sense to me. Especially lost productivity. I can’t work in a noisy environment. Can’t think when the TV or radio is on, or when people around me are talking. In fact, even at a party, I’ll have to ‘plug’ my other ear to muffle out some of the noise so I can concentrate on the conversation at hand.

That’s why I was so interested when I stumbled across this article from the New York Times blog.

Coffee Shops and Creativity

Titled “How the Hum of a Coffee Shop Can Boost Creativity,” the article outlines an interesting experiment. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign wanted to specifically explore the effects of noise on creative thinking.

They asked their research subjects to brainstorm ideas while being exposed to varying levels of noise. The results were surprising. Well, to me at least.

It turns out, when exposed to background noise of about 70 decibels (tantamount to a busy coffee shop or a television playing), study participants’ creativity went up, compared to the relative peace of 50 decibels. They found ‘noise tolerance and creativity’ peaked at about 85 decibels (say, a blender, or garbage disposal).

As you know, we run a virtual office at Arment Dietrich, so if we so desire, we can easily pop over to the local Starbucks for a little creativity boosting coffee shop noise. But if you don’t have that luxury, fear not! Once again, necessity has proven to be the mother of invention.


I present to you: Coffitivity! The brainchild of colleagues who realized they got their best work done while hanging out in coffee shops (and whose boss was a bit of a jerk old-school, and wouldn’t allow them to work in one officially), Coffitivity is a free website that plays ambient coffee shop noise. Non-stop. It’s actually pretty cool – I’m listening to it as I write this piece – but I’m not sure I feel any more creatively inspired than normal! LOL

The site, while still in beta, has gotten a ton of buzz (no pun intended), and the creators are in the process of developing apps. Interesting stats about users: Seoul, Korea, is the number one user city, followed by New York, then London, L.A, and Chicago.

I’d be interested to see whether there’s a correlation between “world’s noisiest cities” and Coffitivity usage. It sure would be far more pleasant to listen to mugs clinking and espresso machines hissing, rather than jackhammers and ambulance sirens!

What do you think? Does noise pollution drive you bonkers? Do you work well with background noise? And will you give Coffitivity a test run?

NOTE: I have no affiliation with Coffitivity, and they have no clue I’m writing this article. 

P.S. Don’t forget! This Thursday we have email marketing genius and DJ Waldow on Spin Sucks Pro for a free webinar. You can register here.

About Lindsay Bell

Lindsay Bell is the content director at V3 Marketing, and works in Toronto. A former TV producer, she’s a strong advocate of three minutes or less of video content. She has a cool kid, a patient husband, two annoying cats, and Hank Dawge, a Vizsla/Foxhound/moose hybrid. Ok, maybe not moose.

  • Have no idea what this is. I have no traffic lights. No cars honking. No traffic. No people unless I visit people around. Maybe this is what I need?Very interesting study. I was never productive in coffee shops and surely can’t take phone calls there but used to work in them when on business travel doing B2B sales. But really just liked checking out the hot chicks in the Starbucks because they all come in for their lattes. 😉

    We were looking at houses and found one in a town of about 20,000 people across from a two lane highway with a light and 55mph cars going by…..and even though in a minute maybe only 10 cars go by I was dead set against living near such a noisy place LOL
    You know what they say once you live in trees you can never go back 😉

  • When I started reading this, I thought, “What does it make me that I have to have noise around to get work done?” I’ve always blamed it on having five younger siblings and growing up among chaos. But now I can say it’s because I’m creative!

    • ginidietrich Nope. It’s the siblings. LOL

  • I think there is an energy related to not just the coffee house noise but the general environment and activity that creates it.  I actually prefer to put in my noise-abating headphones to concentrate, but I am still conscious of being part of the “positive buzz” of a place.  I question, however, if a website can deliver that same sense of energy along with the sound.  I’ll have to drop by Coffitivity and find out…

    • creativeoncall It’s pretty neat – and you can’t really “make out” much of the conversations that buzz in the BG. I liked it.

  • I can’t concentrate when a TV is playing – I tend to start watching it. Sometimes I like a little soft music in the background helps me focus, and I will say when I have worked in coffee shops, I actually got a lot done. Not sure if I was creative or not – but will check this Coffitivity out.

    • yvettepistorio You go to coffee shops quite a bit! Do you like it?

      • belllindsay yvettepistorio I do! I’m on the fence – it made me a bit anxious when I had it on…I’m going to try again though.

  • We’re big fans of Coffitivity here at CoWork155 — it’s the perfect amount of white noise. ACe is an upcoming guest on my podcast, too! I’m really looking forward to talking to him about what sparked the idea.

  • Interesting! I wonder if Coffitivity vs “Real” Coffee Shops is like running on a treadmill compared to outdoors. Anyway….I vary in my noise tolerance. When I am home in a separate room proofreading/editing, it usually doesn’t bother me for the “main room” tv to be on. I suppose it’s kind of white noise. When I am fortunate enough to be in NYC or any city, I love falling asleep to the general city sound vibe. What I find REALLY difficult is conversing when there is extraneous noise. I would be a horrible bartender. Horrible. 🙂

    • biggreenpen White noise has to REALLY be white noise for me – TV in another language? I could probably tolerate that. Music I’ve NEVER heard before? Maybe (as I would know the tunes and get distracted by the lyrics). I dunno. Maybe I should get my hearing checked! LOL

      • belllindsay biggreenpen Okay, well, I tried it yesterday morning (and as a side note that was a great conversation on Twitter w/you, me, and EdenSpodek !). Have to admit I felt like a bit of a luddite. I really probably would find optimal a combination of music & the BG noise. The Coffitivity site gives instructions for how to mix your music and the BG noise but I couldn’t figure it out! That may have to do with my computer options here at work or just general lack of technical savvy. It’s definitely an interesting concept, and I really loved how Coffitivity jumped in and engaged with us!

  • First, I loved the posting. I chuckled, especially over the strategic use of
    the “strike-out.”
    Being planted in the middle of my own rural hayfield, noises, other than such
    things as the local, singing coyotes, are minimal. Therefore, it was
    interesting to see how the other half lived, in their world of creativity. Possibly,
    it was my intense love of good coffee, or a yearning for something other than a
    staycation, regardless of the reason(s) I didn’t find Coffitivity a distraction…I kept sipping my coffee
    as if nothing had changed.
    Yes, I find background music keeps me clicking.

    • SJSnelling Oh, your “rural hayfield” sounds like heaven to me. I didn’t find it a distraction either – but it didn’t really…I don’t know…”zone me out” for lack of a better phrase.

  • It really depends what I am doing. For some creative activity, sure, I can be out in the world, or listening to my records whilst I think. But sometimes, I sit at my desk with my headphones on but no music playing just for the blessed silence so I can really hear the madness of my mind. Maybe it’s tied to introvert/extrovert thinking?

    • RebeccaTodd I totally do that, too! 😀

      • jasonkonopinski RebeccaTodd It certainly might be related to the whole “sensitives” thing, which is related to intro-/extroversion … hmmm.

        • DwayneAlicie jasonkonopinski RebeccaTodd You guys just are all MAD, that’s all. 😉

  • Coffitivity is really cool, but I found myself wanting the “Starbucks music” layer…might have to make myself a special coffehouse playlist…

  • Kirk Hazlett

    Some of my best/most creative writing (personal opinion, granted) is done on the subway going to work in the morning.

  • Fun post. I agree with rosemaryoneill, miss the music layer, but I sent this link to my co-workers a couple weeks ago along with this one if you’re more in the mood for beach sounds or thunderstorms. 
    Over the years I’ve become accustomed to different environments/noises. Once you’ve learned to concentrate despite the 27th refrain of your kid’s John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt CD, nothing is a distraction.

    • Word Ninja rosemaryoneill And now that song is in my head. Dangit.

    • Word Ninja rosemaryoneill Thanks for the mixer link, that’s cool!

    • Word Ninja rosemaryoneill Ooooooh. Beach sounds! Now THAT I could get into!!

  • suddenlyjamie

    I ADORE Coffitivity. I’ve been using it for the past month or so, and I’m completely addicted. I mix it with my Gipsy Kings station on Pandora to replicate the overall sound ambiance of my favorite in-town coffee shop. I swear it actually has become like a “work trigger” – Coffitivity goes on and my mind is like, “Oh, it’s time to work. Got it.” 
    When I work in the actual coffee shop, people always ask me how I can get anything done with all the noise. I think that it actually helps to drown out my inner voices (critic, monkey, etc.). Also, I have a nine-year-old daughter who hardly ever keeps quiet at home, so I’m used to the noise. 

    • suddenlyjamie “I swear it actually has become like a “work trigger” – Coffitivity goes on and my mind is like, “Oh, it’s time to work. Got it.”  – that made me laugh out loud! LOL Yes, having kids does increase the ‘noise sensitivity’ issue. A LOT!!!

      • suddenlyjamie

        Yeah. I’m like one of Pavlov’s dogs … but with less drool. 😉

  • Oh lord, noise makes me nuts!!!! sydcon always tells me I have ADD as a result! I cant stand it when i am reading and the TV is bugging me…although I can read and listen to music via headphones (Weird I know).
    Having 3 kids & a yappy dog, you would think it wouldnt bug me so much, but it does. When i am working I want them to go away!

    • sydcon_mktg sydcon No way can I listen to music and read. NO WAY! I love music too much, and get drawn into the lyrics, etc..

  • Fascinating!  I have to come out as a person who needs quiet or completely white/gray noise to focus. I live nearish to the 280 freeway here in San Francisco and it functions as something of a white noise machine for me (except for the occasional heart-stopping cacophony of screeches followed by … no crash. That’s a whole story in itself. As usual, I digress.)
    However, I cannot read with a television on. I have to stick my finger in my ear to drown out coworkers’ conversations if I am on the phone at work. I find Coffeetivity pleasant, though! Just like the real thing, as long as no one sits beside me and starts having a conversation — then it’s just over. So Coffeetivity might be perfect!

    • DwayneAlicie I truly miss the soothing sounds of police helicopters flying overhead from my early years in LA back in the 90’s.

    • DwayneAlicie Yup. You and me. Twinsies!!

  • Keena Lykins

    Love it. I grew up (professionally speaking) in a newsroom. I can’t work without CNN or some news channel in the background. Add in a ringing phone, creative cussing, and a screaming match between reporter and copy editor over the proper use of a comma (Oxford vs. AP) and I can write for hours.

    • Keena Lykins OH! I grew up in a newsroom (ish) too! Daily TV production, always had the TV on the desk, insane energy running through the space, people making loads of noise – maybe that’s why I’m so sensitive to it now…???

  • Love this, Lindsey! I always have said that I often get more work done when I work from a coffee shop, but could never quite articulate why. Something about seeing movement, the environment/atmosphere of other people being productive helps me be productive.
    I’ve worked at offices that were dead quiet and they felt life-sucking. If you chewed a carrot too loud, you’d get a dirty look. But working in “busier” atmospheres I’ve always been way more creative and productive. It’s a weird phenomena.

    • devanmarie Mmmmmm, dead quite. Bring it on!!! LOL

  • susancellura

    Hey Lindsey! I have always been one who creates, writes, etc., better with noise. Preferably music. I remember in college (way back when), that was the only way I could write all of those term papers. In high school, it would drive my mom crazy that I would have music on while I studied. Of course, as long as I brought home the good grades, she didn’t say anything. 😉

    • susancellura Oh wow, I have such a problem with it! I always have earplugs in my purse! LOL I worked in a tiny, office once with ten people crammed into one room all working and yakking away – I almost died. 🙂

  • I did every single one of my Master’s degree assignments in a coffee shop. Partly because it was an excuse to leave the baby with my husband, and partly because I work much, much better there. On the other hand, noises of other people living – you know, when you have to live in an apartment or townhouse? – those infuriate me. It’s completely irrational. That’s why I love working from a virtual office, so I can max my productivity by controlling the environment!

    • Kato42 It is irrational. LOL You need Coffitivity – on 11!!! 😉

  • KevinVandever

    Cool. I’m going to give this a try. We just moved our office suite from a space that pumped in white noise to one that does not. I was blown away at the difference. I usually have music playing in my office, but I might see if I can try this over the speaker system in the suite. That would be an interesting test. I’ll have to be careful, though. It might spawn too much creativity in the workplace. What if people start wearing jeans on non-Fridays or begin to use Mac computers. Oh my!

    • KevinVandever Uh oh. It’s a slippery slope Kevin. Coffee shop noise: The gateway drug!! LOL

  • rdopping

    I bet they branch out to food courts, malls, trade fairs, airports, or anywhere else that has ambient sound. It would be a really cool experiment to see if you are more or less creative with different types of ambient noise, like nature. Nature, new age soundscapes have been around forever, right?

    I will certainly give it a go the next time I am working on something creative. Like today!

    • rdopping dude food courts sounds would be the best! But Canadian ones. 
      Want more fries Aye? Hey you don’t stand aboot get a move on Aye!

      • Howie Goldfarb rdopping EH!!! How many times do I have to tell you?? Seriously though, right now there are sirens blaring, I can hear a motorcycle revving, people next door chatting, traffic, etc.. I swear, when people ask me why I get up and start work so early in the am, THAT is my reason. SILENCE!

        • rdopping

          belllindsay Howie Goldfarb rdopping Thanks Lindsay. When are the going to learn it’s EH! And what’s this aboot thing? Who says that?

  • Great topic, belllindsay! It’s funny because I am reading this from Starbucks and it all hits home. But, I have to have my music on when I am at a coffee shop. The background chatter sure does beat silence, though! In college, I always liked meeting at a coffe shop for a group project. Just made things are little more exciting; a little more inspiring!

    • Matt_Cerms belllindsay I used to have a Starbucks crawling distance of my place in Redondo Beach. One day I realized I was spending $6 a day there. $2000 on coffee. So I bought one of those fancy coffee machines that grinds the beans so I could set it at night. 2 months later it broke and I was back to $6 a day. I could get my coffee and be back showering before work in less than 2 mins.

      • Howie Goldfarb belllindsay Funny how that works out, Howie! Posting up at a Starbucks, for me, is sometimes the only I can get shit done. But then there’s that 6 dollar cover charge that comes with it! Again, and again…

        • Matt_Cerms  Howie Goldfarb There’s Howie, being all holier than thou’ again. 🙂

    • Matt_Cerms HA! That’s too funny. I need dead silence. Maybe it’s my advancing age….? 😉

  • When my office was at home, my routine consisted of rising early.. getting the girls up and out the door and then coming back to settle in for my work day. There was no noise. No radio, no tv, nothing. I would go all day with nothing on and it was always jarring to me when they got home and immediately turned something on. POOF! Creativity and productivity were gone. Which is why I was locked and loaded between 8-3 🙂