How Ambient Sound Impacts Creativity, and Where Music Fits In

PauseHoward Schultz built the ubiquitous Starbucks around our need for a “third place” (and you thought is was only about the coffee?) Those of us who are addicted to the house blends and frappuccinos and chais know, if only intuitively, that these contemporary coffee shops operate upon us psychologically in many ways. They give us certain kinds of comfort, some of it hard to quantify. It is a place, or space, other than home or the office in which to find community, if only at arm’s-length; to disengage or to focus; and to be transported to another mindset via the locale’s ambience. See the UPDATE below. 

For me, whether it’s minutes or hours that I spend there it seems to be always productive. I have joked with colleagues that it is my second office—or my “real” office, in fact—as I go there on breaks from my desk to clear my head and actually get stuff done. I gaze, people-watch, write, read, research, and I think. Sure, that caffeine/sugar combo has something to do with it. Yet the very ambience itself—that which helps to make a third space palpable as a place of inclusion as well as other-mindfulness—is a significant factor in the degree and type of free-thinking and creativity inspired within me and probably you, too. There you can hear the sounds that your home sanctuary protects against and an office generally does not provide. Swaths of conversations, subtle or even overt music, mingled with baristas going about their work in the background, all lapping in tidal waves and occasional spikes of sound…this is the stimulus that puts our minds into a different state. But how?

I came upon a curious academic paper awhile ago and the takeaway, from its top page summary excerpted below, has stayed with me as insight to the gravitational force and the binder of third spaces that I’ve experienced.

“…subtle cues in our physical environment can indeed affect human cognition and behavior.”

“(While) there is no clear understanding of why noise affects creativity…there is some evidence that for highly original individuals, moderate noise may lead to improved creative performance.”

“…moderate (70 dB) versus low (50 dB) level of ambient noise enhances performance on creative tasks…. A high level of noise (85 dB)…hurts creativity. …a moderate…level of noise increases processing difficulty…thus promoting abstract processing, which subsequently leads to higher creativity. A high level of noise, however, reduces the extent of information processing and thus impairs creativity.”

quoted from Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition by the Journal of Consumer Research

Range of sound sensations, in decibels, and our perception. Source:, hearing loss advocates

Music as ambience imbues an environment with its own stamp. Of course, the ambience of a Starbucks ripples with music: some possessing depth and meaning, some merely common and tepid. There is the laudable and the disposable: John Coltrane and Haircut 100. Even if it is a little louder than preferred at times, I credit Starbucks for making the effort to create an ambient environment through attentive music curation (I can testify that Coltrane and that ’80s band are gratifyingly not in the same playlist). It’s an interesting mix and flow that has been with the company for many years now, since its acquisition, in 1999, of Hear Music: a commendable catalog and retail operation that has since become the Starbucks record label as well as its in-house music service for all stores. Although they most certainly could stand to add *living* jazz musicians—arguably “highly original individuals” themselves—to the stores’ music playlists to build upon the creative juices that its spaces engender.

Read more at Daily Beast’s Jazz (The Music of Coffee and Donuts) Has Respect, But It Needs Love by Dan Gioia

“…as jazz disappears from the mainstream culture, it dominates the ambiance at eateries, and especially coffee shops. (Research indicates) food tasted worse when hip-hop played in the background. But jazz had a positive impact on diners’ tastebuds.”

Also NYT’s Some Venti Tunes to Go With That Latte,

and Forbes’s Do You Hear What Starbucks Hears?


UPDATE: Here is another Forbes article that further addresses why we “…work better in the coffee shop….

The key to enhancing productivity through sound…is consistently generating that office “hum”—the unintelligible mixture of sounds.


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