Tinnitus, commonly known as ringing in the ears, affects nearly 50 million adults in the United States. For those living with this often debilitating condition, the constant buzzing, whistling, clicking or hissing sounds can lead to anxiety, sleep problems, concentration difficulties, and depression. While there is currently no cure for tinnitus, many people find relief through sound therapy, which aims to mask or distract from the tinnitus noises. One type of sound therapy gaining popularity is brown noise. But does brown noise really help tinnitus? Here is an in-depth look at the evidence.
What is brown noise?
Brown noise refers to random noise with a power spectrum dominated by lower frequencies, giving it a deep, rumbling quality akin to a waterfall or thunder. It is one of several colors of noise, along with white, pink, red, grey, and blue, which differ in their spectral density and frequency range. Brown noise in particular has most of its energy concentrated around the lower audible frequencies, ranging from 20 to 200 Hz. This distinguishes it from white noise, which spans the entire audible spectrum of 20 Hz to 20 kHz with equal intensity per frequency.
How might brown noise help tinnitus?
There are a few key ways brown noise is thought to provide relief from tinnitus:
- Masking – By generating low, rumbling noise, brown noise can mask and cover up high-pitched tinnitus sounds.
- Distraction – Listening to soothing brown noise can shift attention away from tinnitus noises.
- Promotes relaxation – The deep, steady quality of brown noise may trigger relaxation responses and reduce stress/anxiety.
- Improves sleep – Brown noise blocks out tinnitus at night and provides a calming backdrop for improved sleep.
Additionally, research indicates that exposure to low-frequency sounds like brown noise may stimulate areas of the brain involved in helping adjust sound sensitivity. This potentially allows the brain to better tune out tinnitus over time.
What does the research say?
A growing body of clinical research provides evidence for the benefits of brown noise in tinnitus management:
In a 2018 double-blind randomized trial published in PLOS One, researchers examined the effects of tailored notched music (music with frequencies notched out around the individual’s tinnitus pitch) and brown noise on tinnitus loudness and distress in a group of 50 patients with chronic tonal tinnitus. The results showed both interventions led to significant reductions in tinnitus loudness and distress compared to white noise placebo after daily 1-hour listening sessions over 8 weeks. Brown noise provided slightly greater improvements in tinnitus loudness compared to notched music.
Another study in the July 2016 issue of Frontiers in Neurology investigated the impact of long-term nightly use of white noise versus brown noise generated by a sound generator on tinnitus symptoms and sleep quality in 82 patients with chronic tinnitus. Patients used the sound generators for 8 hours while sleeping over the course of a year. Both groups showed improvements, but those using brown noise generators had significantly greater reductions in tinnitus loudness, annoyance, and difficulties falling asleep compared to the white noise group.
Researchers tested the effects of white, pink, and brown noise along with silence on tinnitus perception and relaxation in a small study published in the September 2018 edition of Noise and Health. 19 participants with tinnitus listened to 10-minute segments of the different sound stimuli. Based on surveys and heart rate variability monitoring, results indicated that brown noise was ranked as the most helpful in facilitating relaxation and reducing the perception of tinnitus loudness compared to other noises and silence.
|PLOS One 2018||50 patients with tonal tinnitus||Tailored notched music vs brown noise vs white noise (placebo)||1 hour daily x 8 weeks||Brown noise and notched music both significantly reduced tinnitus loudness and distress vs placebo|
|Frontiers in Neurology 2016||82 patients with chronic tinnitus||White noise vs brown noise sound generators at night||8 hours nightly x 1 year||Brown noise was more effective than white noise for decreasing tinnitus loudness, annoyance and improving sleep|
|Noise and Health 2018||19 patients with tinnitus||White, pink, brown noise & silence (10 min each)||1 session||Brown noise ranked as most helpful for relaxation and reducing tinnitus perception|
Potential mechanisms of action
Researchers have proposed several theories for how brown noise may provide relief from tinnitus:
- Auditory desensitization – Low-frequency sounds like brown noise can stimulate adaptation effects in auditory pathways that decrease sensitivity to tinnitus frequencies.
- Enhanced background neuronal activity – Brown noise may enhance activity in tinnitus-affected networks in the brain, masking abnormal spontaneous activity underlying tinnitus.
- Improved auditory gating – Exposure to brown noise appears to strengthen the brain’s sound gating mechanism, its ability to filter out irrelevant sounds like tinnitus.
- Reduced cortical hyperactivity – Listening to brown noise may reduce excessive neuronal activity linked to tinnitus in key regions of the auditory cortex.
However, more research is still needed to better understand the precise neural mechanisms through which brown noise impacts tinnitus.
How to use brown noise for tinnitus
People with tinnitus can listen to free brown noise audio online or through apps. There are also devices that generate customized brown noise such as bedside sound generators or wearable sound generators that sit in the ear. Brown noise is generally considered very safe at moderate volumes. Here are some tips for using it for tinnitus relief:
- Set volume low enough to hear comfortably over tinnitus and experiment to find optimal level.
- Use high-quality noise without music or other sounds.
- Listen for at least 1-2 hours per day, focusing on times when tinnitus is loudest.
- Pair with relaxation techniques like deep breathing to enhance effects.
- Use brown noise generators overnight if tinnitus disturbs sleep.
- Give it time – benefits often increase with consistent long-term use.
- See a doctor if tinnitus gets worse or does not improve within a few months.
Are there risks or side effects?
Brown noise is generally considered very safe with minimal risks or side effects at moderate sound levels. However, there are a few potential downsides to be aware of:
- Masking risk – Continuous brown noise may mask important environmental sounds like alarms.
- Hearing risk – Excessively loud volumes could damage hearing over time.
- Sleep disruption – Brown noise can interfere with sleep in noise-sensitive individuals if used overnight.
- Habituation – Brain may adapt and ignore brown noise signal over time, reducing effectiveness.
- Withdrawal – Interrupting regular use suddenly may worsen tinnitus symptoms temporarily.
To minimize risks, keep volumes moderate and avoid very prolonged listening without breaks. It is a good idea to consult an audiologist when getting started with brown noise therapy.
|Potential Risks||Mitigation Strategies|
|Masking of environmental sounds||Keep volumes moderate and use only when needed|
|Hearing damage from excessive loudness||Keep volume comfortable and avoid very high levels|
|Sleep disruption||Experiment with volume and speaker location overnight|
|Habituation reducing effectiveness over time||Take occasional breaks in brown noise exposure|
|Withdrawal effects if stopped suddenly||Taper off brown noise gradually rather than stopping abruptly|
The accumulating research provides evidence that brown noise can offer an effective and safe option for reducing the burden of tinnitus symptoms. By masking distressing ringing or buzzing sounds and promoting relaxation, brown noise therapy can improve sleep, concentration, and quality of life for those living with tinnitus. While risks are low at moderate volumes, care should be taken to avoid excessive loudness, and anyone with hearing concerns should consult an audiologist. Brown noise generators and apps provide an accessible way to try out this promising tinnitus therapy approach.
With more clinical trials underway, our understanding of the therapeutic potential of brown noise for tinnitus will continue to grow. But current data already suggest that for many with this troubling condition, adding some brown noise into their soundscape may help hush the din.