In September, the UTSC Library added a series of ‘soundscapes’ to its collection for Science Literacy Week. The soundscapes consisted of recorded sounds that might be heard around UTSC, including birds chirping and the river running. These sounds represent UTSC’s natural orchestra at its finest.

Studying with music is a very common habit, and it’s not unwarranted — research suggests that the type of sounds you listen to may influence your ability to focus. So I was curious. Could I improve my study focus using soundscapes from the UTSC Library? 

I set out to test my hypothesis by spending a week listening to each of the six soundscapes and estimating — informally — the impact each had on my mood and productivity. Given all my upcoming deadlines, I reasoned that it would be beneficial to explore new ways to reduce stress and improve my online study habits and well-being. 


A one-week personal experiment 

After a week of listening to soundscapes, I discovered that I usually preferred silence or minimal white noise while studying. I found that when I looped either the “Crickets” or the “Birds in the Forest” soundscapes instead of using the sounds of my fan as a background hum, I was able to concentrate better on studying the subjects that require a lot of practice and tend to make me tired, like organic chemistry.

These sounds, along with abundant sounds found in nature like the sound of rainfall or rustling leaves, are categorized as pink noise. One of the key differences between white noise and pink noise is that white noise has all frequencies mixed at the same intensity, while pink noise has greater intensity at lower frequency and lower intensity in the higher frequencies. 

Although more peer-reviewed research is yet to be done to explore a direct relationship between pink noise and studying, a 2019 study from the University of Texas provided evidence that pink noise might be the optimum auditory stimulation to enhance memory and sleep. 

Perhaps another reason why I found static background noise so soothing is that the soundscapes were able to mask other disturbing sounds. In a completely silent atmosphere, the brain would be alert to almost any type of sound and easily distracted. However, by immersing ourselves in the white or pink noises like the soundscapes, any additional noise is muffled, making it easier to focus.

Moreover, a study suggests that environmental soundscapes can also promote psychological and emotional restoration by comforting us, inducing calmness and naturalness, and reducing perceived stress. Perhaps the reason that I was able to study more efficiently was because I was less stressed after listening to the soundscapes. 

The soundscapes allowed me to reimagine the greenery around my home as if I were surrounded by —  if not my friends — then at least the all-encompassing sounds of nature. Adding another auditory dimension to my imagination made the campus even more beautiful from afar, and it gave me a sense of hope and joy amidst the intense transition from high school. 

With ever-increasing noise pollution in the urban areas, the UTSC soundscapes might be able to transport our minds into a more peaceful inner world, making our online study from home a more restorative, relaxing, and pleasant experience.


Other students react

Four UTSC students shared their experiences with the soundscape library. 

“I listened to the thunderstorm soundscape and I immediately felt calm. My thoughts slowed down and I slowly felt my muscles relax one by one,” Kathleen Hamilton, a fourth-year history student at UTSC, wrote in an email to The Varsity. She also wrote that she usually prefers to study in silence or with less disturbance. 

Maxwell Avery Fine, a third-year physics and astrophysics specialist at UTSC, wrote that he loved the stream-like sounds of the “River Running” soundscape because he could imagine “a nice warm [creek] with some mist and comfortable rocks to lean upon,” which, for him,  would be “heavenly.” 

Libertad Kasandra Rojas, a first-year at UTSC, chose the “Birds in the Forest” soundscape as her favourite while Alexis Ritacca, a second-year UTSC student, felt unaffected by the same audio clip.

Although UTSC soundscapes might not directly increase one’s concentration or memory in a short span of time, it surely reminds all the nature lovers of campus. Hamilton mentioned that she misses the campus the most during the fall, and she felt fortunate that the UTSC campus has “a nature aspect that is literally steps away.”