Follow Mint Lounge

Latest Issue

Home > Smart Living> Innovation > All about the good noise in our playlists

All about the good noise in our playlists

Ambient noises have gained popularity in recent years—but balance and moderation are key

There are many apps with libraries of ambient sounds.
There are many apps with libraries of ambient sounds. (iStockphoto)

Our biggest need seems to be to shut out what’s immediately around us. On the metro or in a cab, we mostly see people with pods in their ears, tuned into a world of their choosing. Songs, sure, but often, we also go a step further in how much we tune out: We have birds chirping or waves crashing on a loop, or long hours of only static buzzing in our ears. Maybe pink noise, with its lower sound waves, which resembles rustling winds to help us sleep, or brown noise, deeper with its rumbling, rainfall-like effect to help with thinking. 

Just last week, Bloomberg cited a January internal document at Spotify to report that “white noise and ambient noise podcasts accounted for 3 million daily consumption hours” on the audio streaming app. 

This great need for audio that can help with focus or calming, however, is not limited to any one platform. There are many apps, including those offering guided meditations, with libraries of ambient sounds. After the iOS 15 update in 2021, iPhones too have started coming with built-in ambient soundscapes that can be played from the Control Centre. On YouTube a few years ago, we witnessed the birth of the Lo-Fi wave, with users like Lofi Girl producing muted, relaxed versions of popular songs. Copyright issues with such modified tracks means that they are routinely taken down but users have sprung up regardless, with playlists like “3 AM coding session” or “beats to relax or study to”.

Also Read: ‘Indus - Battle Royale’ bets big on the Indian touch

Despite the fact that they are not entirely new, interest in ambient noise has only been rising. Back in 2020, when the world was experiencing a series of covid-19 lockdowns, we sought out the mild din of those impersonal-yet-comforting sounds of the world going by. Tracks that stimulated café sounds or office noises gained popularity, boosting hits on dedicated websites and playlists on streaming apps. We also tried to escape pandemic dread by seeking calming ambient noise.

“We live in a time when there is so much information overload, and so many things jumping to demand our attention, that even if you haven’t struggled with attention issues in the past, it is now so hard to focus on one specific thing,” says Shaurya Gahlawat, a psychologist, psychotherapist and mental health influencer (on Instagram as @therapywithshaurya). She frequently uses ambient sounds to treat patients, especially since such ambient tracks, essentially just “consistent, rhythmic noise, at a particularly frequency”, help in connecting to one thing without also having to focus on something else. 

For psychotherapists across the world, these sounds, specifically those that can trigger nostalgia—sounds of a farmland, for example, helped one of Gahlawat’s clients—or evoke calm, help in creating a safe space. This is useful in taking a client through intense emotions. Some mental health professionals also use ambient music along with guided imagery, in order to increase concentration and help with mindfulness and grounding. 

Also Read: Belkin SoundForm Mini review: One for the children

Gahlawat likens this to fire-gazing during the Stone Age—watching the flickering flames and listening to their popping static sound had likely helped the hunter-gatherers relax. This is in line with the findings in anthropologist Christopher Lynn’s Fireside Relaxation Study, started in 2010 at the University of Alabama, US. This ongoing investigation into “cognitive mechanisms associated with relaxation response…that…derive from over 800,000 years of human manipulation of fire” studies the hearth’s “possible effects on cognition”, too. The idea is that deliberate sensory stimulation can help us relax and/or focus. The need for this is undeniable. In addition to an already long list of preoccupations, the many beeps from our gadgets and apps keep us from uninterrupted, focused engagement on anything—even sleep. 

“I used to listen to tapes to help me sleep,” says Sanjana Doss, 23, an actor who has been working in Malayalam and Kannada films. Many a time, when she was too scared of the dark to fall asleep, listening to ambient noises targeting the problem “comforted her”. When she stumbled upon what we now know as ASMR sounds (or sounds that trigger an Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response in our brains) on social media, she was hooked. The tingling ASMR sensations, which occur across the skull, down the spine, and sometimes limbs, have been known to relax people. Initially, Doss did not understand these sounds. After experimenting a bit, however, she found that soft voices and some scrunchy, swishy or shushing sounds would immediately put her to sleep. “The white noise between these distinctive sounds would make me feel like the room was full, even if I was alone,” Doss recalls.

Mumbai-based clinical psychologist and Lounge columnist Sonali Gupta recommended in these pages that learning such ways of self-soothing is important. It is “a skill we all need, particularly in a world that’s constantly overwhelming us”; and it is necessary because “while social soothing has been encouraged in our culture, there are days when we don’t feel we have the reach out to others,” she wrote. Listening to music is one of the simple practices she suggests. 

Also Read: Maybe self-soothing is a superpower we all have

Some of Gahlawat’s patients, too, report similar feelings of ease after listening to sounds she prescribes. For an engineer who had long struggled with public speaking, for example, she recommended certain ambient noises for 20 minutes every day. Soon, “they started (playing the sounds) for 10 minutes before a presentation—this helped them go in with focus,” she notes. Similarly, a master’s student in a creative field would use prescribed ambient noises before jury presentations and to move past creative blocks. 

“However, balance and moderation are key in psychotherapeutic interventions,” Gahlawat notes. Not all sounds can help everyone, and extended exposure can backfire with those prone to overthinking or excess anxiety, leading to hyper-focus and fixation. Also, no two individuals, even those who have grown up together, will share a response to a certain sound. Doss, for example, would only find ASMR sounds beneficial, while her older brother swears by pink noise. 

The proliferation of these tracks across platforms, therefore, means anyone can listen to them without any prior understanding of the effect these may have on them. This also gives rise to the specific concern of their easy accessibility to children and young adults. With their prefrontal cortex yet to develop fully, having excess auditory stimulation through exposure to these sounds can lead to reduced sensitivity and hearing in children, says Gahlawat; and “not knowing when to turn these off, especially when falling asleep to them, can mean that the nervous system is not adequately rested at night”, she adds. 

Sometimes, shutting out what is immediately outside of us is an almost primal impulse—and it can be one that greatly helps us. We just need to be mindful of when to tune back in.

Next Story