You want to get on with something important, but people nearby are yammering on about football, someone next door is nailing everything in sight to the wall, and every animal in the vicinity has decided it’s time for an afternoon-long sing-song. Argh.
But you can drown out the chaos and focus on your work by donning headphones and firing up our recommended websites and apps. Happy listening (and working)!
First steps: find focus online
We scoured the web for a range of sites that pump all kinds of interesting noises into your head.
None of them needs Flash (spit), and all worked fine for us even on fairly creaky old hardware.
Best for adding colour and sound to your life: Noisli
Noisli offers both audio and visual relaxation. The latter involves pleasant colour cycling that can make for a stress-busting background. Audio-wise, you trigger and mix top-quality loops comprising weather, water, trains, fans, and white noise.
Sign up (it’s free) to save favourite combos, set up timers, and use the site’s own text editor for writing. The only niggle is Noisli’s design requires quite a bit of scrolling, but there are Android and iOS apps if that irks. Alternatively, those with smaller screens can try the similar (but more limited) A Soft Murmur.
Best for nature lovers: Zenmix.io
The idea behind zenmix.io is to immerse your ears in the sounds of nature – or at least ‘soundscapes’ inspired by nature. You get six in total, the first of which is all bells and ambient tones, like a track from a meditation CD escaped to the internet. Elsewhere, you get crashing waves, birdsong, and a forest at night, complete with crickets and frogs.
These rich sounds are low on bass – handy for drowning out local chatter. The interface is also pleasingly straightforward, with massive play/pause buttons on each of the options.
Best for imagining you're in a movie: Tabletop Audio
This one’s primarily designed for tabletop role-playing games. Throw some weirdly shaped dice and end up precariously perched on a volcano, and you can click ‘Volcano’ to hear the sounds of your imminent lava-based bubbly demise.
But there’s plenty of interesting atmospheric fare lurking on this site for general work focus, and the more suitable tracks can be added to a playlist. Probably best don’t add Terror or Disembodied Spirits, though, unless you want relaxing work time replaced by a major case of the heebie-jeebies.
Best for screening out specific frequencies: myNoise
This big selection of streams, loops, beats and synthetic noises isn’t combined with the prettiest of designs, but there are great ideas here. Notably, you get a huge variety of sounds, from the usual rainfall, wind and birds through to tonal drones, industrial hums, and beat generators.
Rather than each sound playing in situ, any clicked link sends you to a page of explanatory text that includes presets and a graphic equaliser. This makes myNoise potentially useful for screening out specific frequencies, or creating something tuned to your own hearing.
Best for pretending you have friends: Coffitivity
For some people, hubbub isn’t something to block out, but instead a sound to embrace. General chitter chatter can for such souls be a boon to concentration and productivity. Which is a problem if you’re, say, a lone freelancer working in a shed.
Rather than hauling yourself over to the local coffee house and then finding it’s disappointingly empty bar one person hammering on a laptop like the keys individually need punching, Coffitivity brings the coffee house to you. Well, not the coffee – just the sounds bit, from Morning Murmur’s gentle hum to the French voices of Paris Paradise.
Best for listening to some actual music: Spotify
Make some noise: the best DIY music apps
There are quite a few generative audio experiences knocking around the web, too, but most of them are rubbish.
To make your own chill-out music for focussing – or just happily collapsing in a heap for 20 minutes when everything gets a bit too much – check out this trio of fab apps.
Best for creating weird compositions: NobeBeat
One of the most visual music-creation apps around, NodeBeat has you create a kind of mesh from nodes and attached notes. Depending on your settings, notes may meander and switch node allegiance, leading to evolving music. Set-ups can be saved for later playback, and built-in examples handily showcase the app’s scope.
Best for pretending you're Brian Eno: Scape
Having tested the water with noodly plinky plonky generative audio app Bloom, Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers went all in with Scape. Here, you get an entire ambient album to play, but can also use the same building blocks to fashion and save your own compositions in a pleasingly tactile manner.
Download Scape for iPad (£8.99)
Best for creating new music loops in seconds: Melodist
If you’re feeling spectacularly lazy but still fancy some noodly background melodies to keep you in the zone, try Melodist. Load a photo from your device, and the app gets on interpreting it as a looping soundtrack. Tones and playback speed can be adjusted; and if you particularly like a track, you can export it to Dropbox. *
Download Melodist for iOS (£free + IAP)