I’ve never been great with silence. I fill all vaguely uncomfortable moments of quiet with chatter and I have to work to some sort of background noise. There was a period of my childhood where I couldn’t fall asleep unless my sister and I had a DVD on at low volume. Some people find immense peace in a total absence of sound, but it’s always felt like half a life to me. Even when my mind craves some form of serenity, it demands a kind of accompanying soundtrack. Finding the right balance, however, is sometimes easier said than done. I don’t work well with popular music or things with lyrics because it just makes me want to sing along. Podcasts are great for walking and sleeping but prove too conflicting for work. As lockdown has dragged on, celebrating its first anniversary, I’ve never felt the pain of quiet more palpably than I have over the past twelve months. As someone who lives alone, it’s especially prevalent. Spending all day, every day, working from home and leaving the flat even less than I used to wears you down, as I’m sure all of you have experienced in some manner this past year. For most of this period, I’ve been delightfully basic and tuned into the myriad lo-fi anime hip-hop beats to relax/study/sleep to channels that over-saturated YouTube. Yet even that wore thin after a while. It wasn’t just about background distractions anymore. I needed some sort of life.
Enter the world of ambient playlists.
Twin Peaks Double R Diner Ambience - 8 Hours of Smooth Jazz Music, Rain Sounds, & Cozy Cafe Ambience is one of the thousands of results that pops up when you search for ‘ambient’ on YouTube. It’s an eight-hour video with over 783k views to its name as of the writing of this piece. It opens with some samples of the iconic TV series — one of my favorites — but mostly descends into a proto-typical calm diner audio clip. The accompanying artwork includes, of course, coffee and pie, with a Wanted poster for Killer Bob on the walls of the Double R Diner. I’ve watched this video at least a dozen times over the past few months. To be more specific, I’ve played it on my TV then got on with my life, and I return to it more times than I listen to even some of my favorite songs.
This isn’t the only example. Calmed by Nature, the channel behind this video, has ambiance for a rainy night in a French cafe, a campfire by the sea, a cozy evening by your window during a thunderstorm. Other channels offer ambiance inspired by Harry Potter, Studio Ghibli, Pixar, and The Lord of the Rings. One channel even has an eight-hour video of ‘post-apocalypse ambiance’, which feels a little too on the nose under the current circumstances.
While the set-ups are varied, they are unified by the simplicity of calmness. Even in worlds as obviously bleak or fraught with danger as Twin Peaks or a cabin in a Winter storm, there’s a cozy form of escapism on offer with this brand of ambiance. The sounds are mundane, often easy to drown out, and repetitive (they have to be when you need to fill out upwards of six hours of video.) The point isn’t to draw attention to the content but rather to make it so normal that you become immersed in its world. Music can transport you, but right now, I don’t want to be taken away by it. Really, I just want the freedom of a space I can no longer currently occupy, and ambient playlists have proven to be a crucial part of my ongoing efforts to keep my head on my shoulders during the increasingly defeatist force of COVID-19 lockdown in Scotland.
Like many of you, I don’t really leave the house much right now. I work from home and have done for years, which made the transition to lockdown life a touch easier than it was for many of my family and friends. What I miss are the small things that broke up the sameness of my day, whether it’s going out to exercise, visiting the cinema, or just planning a spontaneous day out. I’m sick of looking at the same four walls, no matter how many posters and doodads I add to them. I’ve never felt tenser or more smothered by the smallest of things. I’m clearly not the only one either if the comments sections of these videos are anything to go by (never before have I recommended that people read YouTube comments for wholesome content, but yes, it does exist there.)
Keeping on 12-hour videos of library sounds or oldie tunes playing while you sleep on a train can’t and shouldn’t fill all the gaps in my life. But they do help. They add a new kind of texture to my repetitive days, a welcome illusion of wider space and the possibilities they suggest. It’s kind of amazing how much simply switching up what I listen to has buoyed me in this way. This is very clearly not real life, nor is it even trying to be. Real cafes aren’t this consistently peaceful. There are no wailing kids or dropped plates in an ambient world. The added dash of surrealism only heightens the escapist factor. It’s heightened perfection for a time when even a sliver of peace feels more fantastical than any Game of Thrones playlist (and yes, there are plenty of those.) Frankly, who needs real life right now? In this pandemic?!
Of course, I do need some sort of reality. As do we all. Maybe not the one we currently have but something that feels like a semblance of the status quo from over a year ago. Allowing oneself to be steeped into the quietness of a world almost like ours, if only for a little while, has its benefits. It beats having CNN on for days on end.
Header Image Source: YouTube // Calmed By Nature