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Coffee shops and fantasy worlds: The soothing escapism of ambience videos

| Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Claire Reid | The Observer

About a year ago, one month since COVID-19 had been declared a pandemic, I made a discovery that changed my study habits (and honestly, my life): a YouTube video of Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon” — “but it’s playing in a different room and it’s raining.”

For a total of two and a half minutes, the song had been mixed with the sound of rain and edited so it sounded like it was being played in another room. It was accompanied by an animation of rain pattering on the ground. I was particularly entranced by the combination of sounds. And so, I began to delve deeper into the world — or worlds — of virtual ambience rooms.

As the pandemic raged on and traveling or going to coffee shops remained an impossibility, my screen and headphones played a variety of animated backgrounds, wordless music and background noises. These ambience videos would loop for up to eight hours as I cranked out papers during the fall semester and winter break.

“The genre is a close cousin of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) videos,” The New York Times explains. “… But ambience videos are differentiated, their creators say, by their purpose — not necessarily to give the tingles, but to relax and soothe a viewer by means of an immersive experience.”

And these experiences can indeed be surprisingly immersive. You can feel like you’re spending time in a coffee shop playing jazz on a rainy day, sitting in front of a crackling fire while seasonal Christmas music plays or studying in an old library as a thunderstorm is heard over rustling pages. But ambience videos can also open a door to other worlds.

I must shamefully admit I never read “Harry Potter” when I was younger — as in, I never even opened a book. And while they don’t replace the experience of immersing myself in the pages of a book, Hogsmeade, Diagon Alley and Ravenclaw common room ambience videos make me feel like I have visited these places. In fact, I’ve studied there (from the comfort of my futon)!

With a quick search and a click, I can also visit Aslan’s camp as the army prepares for battle and sit by the fire in Mr. Tumnus’ house, despite not having read “The Chronicles of Narnia.” I can even take an evening stroll through the Shire and spend a peaceful night in Rivendell (though I am glad to report that I did read “The Hobbit”). And when I write papers, the adventurous mood of fantasy ambience videos makes me feel a very helpful sense of urgency.

The appeal of the visuals that accompany these carefully mixed sounds is also not lost on me. These often play on a loop, too, but their vivid detail and creative uniqueness is essential in producing a fully-fledged immersive experience. Many YouTube ambience channel owners, like the creator behind Calmed By Nature, work hours on end to record sounds, craft music (when it’s not borrowed from a movie soundtrack) and also produce animations that make everything work in harmonious, comforting synchronicity.

Like ASMR, ambient music has become more popular in the last year, perhaps due to the heightened stress of the pandemic. When our thoughts get too noisy, our surroundings too quiet or our reality hard to accept, these audiovisual experiences offer us soothing escapism.

The New York Times reported that, at the end of 2020, Spotify Wrapped “presented many users with unexpected empirical evidence of their pandemic coping mechanisms: a strange hit parade of ambient music, background noise and calming sound effects that soothed them through an unusually anxious and sleepless time.”

And my experience has been no different. With ambience videos, I’ve found I am able to study and focus on my writing a lot better by listening to music without lyrics. But I’ve also felt comforted by hearing background conversations, people shuffling about, street noises — the paradoxically calming busyness, the connections that have too often been lost to lockdowns and isolation. Otherwise, the silence can be deafening.

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About Adriana Perez

Adriana is a Notre Dame senior from Guayaquil, Ecuador, majoring in political science and minoring in the Gallivan Program of Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She is currently serving as Editor-in-Chief of The Observer for the 2021-2022 term. You can find her at @adrianamperezr on Twitter.

Contact Adriana