Ambiences

I like to listen to music when I write, but it has to be music that fits certain criteria: I’m looking for something fairly down-tempo or ambient, instrumental as opposed to anything with lyrics, and nothing with prominent percussion. Over the years I’ve experimented with various ways of streaming endless amounts of this stuff without having to pick a new album every hour, and I thought I’d list a few of those solutions here in case you’re looking for something similar.

Early on I found the super-popular YouTube channel ChilledCow, and specifically the always live continuous stream ‘lofi hip hop radio - beats to relax/study to’, which routinely has tens of thousands of people tuned into it. A cute, looping cartoon of a cozy setting, and an uninterrupted current of minimal beats; I’m not sure whether this is the stream that originated the formula, but it’s the one that seems to be most copied. (If you don’t want to keep a tab open to YouTube at all times they also have curated playlists on most audio streaming platforms.)

Tangentially related: in this era of not being able to go out and sit in a coffee shop, I recently came across this 8-hour coffee shop ambience video which makes for excellent background audio if that’s an atmosphere you work well in, or one that you just miss being in. (Fellow Twin Peaks fans: there’s also a version featuring the Double R Diner!)

If you’re looking for something that’s less about music and more about pure ambience, I’ve had good results with Noizio – a macOS app with which you can mix and match from several sound sources: a campfire, October rain, white noise etc. It might take a little work to find a balance that works for you, but once you locate that sweet spot it’s quite effective.

Speaking of pure ambience: for something similar, though less customisable, I’ve also dipped into some of these white noise and ambience podcasts. At an hour each they’re not ideal for endless play, but are well designed for listening to whilst you’re drifting towards sleep.

OK, I’ve front-loaded this list with free and cheap solutions, but I have to include a subscription-based service since it’s the one I’ve relied most upon for some time. With a much-improved front end, and with some fancy science behind it, I can attest to the efficacy of (app & web service) Brain.fm. I was gifted a lifetime subscription a few years ago, and I’d estimate that I wrote about 75% of my novel’s first draft with this as background audio. Unlike any of the above it’s very difficult to describe quite what Brain.fm sounds like, but I strongly recommend you try out the free sessions next time you need to concentrate on something for an extended period.

Bonus pick: not strictly ambience for writing to (or doing much else to), but I’ve also recently enjoyed a couple of these first person urban walking videos, such as this 75 minute amble through London’s West End on a rainy evening. No commentary or music, just pure city ambience. It’s not the real thing, but it’s been a neat reminder of pre-pandemic normalcy.