Using Ambient Sound
I have an old gadget that was my mother’s that plays a range of water sounds to help people sleep or concentrate: ocean waves, a babbling brook and a distant thunder storm. When I was growing up, you could buy entire albums of nature sounds.
I first became aware of the concept of ‘ambience’ videos in December when I stumbled across a Holiday themed video that played festive music over the top of the crackling of a log fire. It seemed like an incredible idea to me: while the music set a mood, the crackling logs appealed to me at a sensory level. I felt warm, cosy and relaxed. After that, I started to see Ambience Videos everywhere I looked.
By definition, ambient sound is whatever sound is going on in the background. It’s a particularly important concept in film making where you have to carefully manage the background sound of a scene so that it’s both natural and unobtrusive. If you watch something and listen carefully, you’ll hear a whole tapestry of background noises: traffic, the chatter of a crowd, cutlery tinkling in a restaurant, nature sounds or just the quiet whir of a refrigerator. These have been carefully recorded, mixed and monitored so that they sound believable and don’t give you an uncanny feeling that what you’re watching is fake. More broadly, 'ambience' is a banner term for the atmosphere and mood of a place, in which sound plays a pivotal role. What I encountered in December is a growing trend to harness both concepts so that people can use ambient sound to sink into a certain mood and even place.
It isn’t a new phenomenon by any means. I have an old gadget that was my mother’s that plays a range of water sounds to help people sleep or concentrate: ocean waves, a babbling brook and a distant thunder storm. When I was growing up, you could buy entire albums of nature sounds. Studies have shown that listening to music or ambient sound can help you concentrate or relax. There are many reasons suggested for this but one most people can agree on is the effect the music or soundscape has on your mood. If you use sound to make you feel safer, cosier or more at peace, you are likely to be in a better place to relax or contrastingly to achieve a goal. You can also elevate your own adrenalin by picking music or sounds that agitate you. It’s a gentle way to hack your brain.
The internet has done powerful things for the spread of ambient noise as it allows people to share their own soundscapes (and to have them on a continuous loop for hours at a time). As well as birdsong and other nature noises, you can find soundscapes that mimic libraries, enchanted forests or rooms in castles. Some of these also mix music with ambience for an even more transportative effect.
As a writer, I’ve started to try to find a video that matches what I’ll be writing that day: this week it’s ranged from an English garden to a marketplace in a medieval city. I can also do this if I’m settling down to read. A lot of these soundscapes have been created by table top role-players (like people running Dungeons and Dragons Campaigns). I can easily imagine how much it adds to an imaginative experience like roleplaying to have your kitchen sound like the fantasy city you’re picturing your character exploring. In that vein, there are also videos that are themed around existing worlds or places: this week, I’ve paid visits to Lothlorien, Hagrid’s Hut, Dumbledore’s Office and the Hogwarts Library.
The benefits of listening to music or ambient sound when studying or sleeping can be immense for some people. What I love about this evolving trend though is the creative and imaginative boost you can give simple activities like reading or writing. It’s like accessing another level of immersion and giving your imagination a helping hand to transport you somewhere else.
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