Tagged Noise

Your Most-Played Song of 2020 Is … White Noise?

Your Most-Played Song of 2020 Is … White Noise?

Ambient music, background noise and calming sound effects have soothed the anxious, isolated and sleep deprived this year.

Credit…Matt Schwerin for The New York Times

  • Dec. 24, 2020, 3:00 a.m. ET

The soundtrack to Maya Montoya’s year was white noise. Specifically, a track on Spotify called “Celestial White Noise”: three whole hours of warm, soothing fuzz.

Ms. Montoya, who is 27 and lives in Everett, Wash., had been a nanny up until the pandemic. But when she found herself out of work in April, she began indulging in daytime naps, which ruined her sleep schedule. “I’ve been listening to the white noise all the time,” she said.

Despite playing the track most nights for the better part of 2020, Ms. Montoya was still surprised when “Celestial White Noise” appeared at the top of her Spotify Wrapped chart this month. She posted a screen shot from the app on Instagram, which was met with a deluge of affirmation from her followers.

“So many people messaged me saying they got the exact same thing,” she said. “It was nice to know I wasn’t the only one blasting white noise into the ether so that I could sleep throughout all this.”

In an average year, Spotify Wrapped is a sharing-optimized novelty hinging on nostalgia for a time that’s barely passed. But in 2020, this data mirror instead 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. (Spotify declined to comment on this trend.)

While thousands of users posted in disbelief about their stress-inflected results, the situation made sense to Liz Pelly, a cultural critic who has written extensively about how Spotify and its competitors work to shape our listening habits. “It says a lot about the ways that corporate streaming services have ingrained themselves into our lives and facilitated music listening becoming more of a background experience,” she said.

Credit…Matt Schwerin for The New York Times

Some listeners have used sound as a coping mechanism for years but became more reliant on it over the last nine months. Isobel Snellenberger, a 21-year-old in Fargo, N.D., has anxiety and is neurodivergent (a category that includes a range of neurological differences including autism spectrum disorder and dyslexia), both of which she manages in a variety of ways, including with music.

“Especially toward the beginning of Covid, my mind was riddled with intrusive thoughts about my friends and family’s safety, and my brain would go into panic mode,” Ms. Snellenberger said. So, she began playing rain sounds almost round-the-clock, which helped her turn off the cognitive noise.

When her Spotify roundup arrived, nine of her top 10 tracks were rain sounds. “Even though I listen to them a lot, I was still caught off guard,” she said, noting that Harry Styles and David Bowie typically dominate her list. Like Ms. Montoya, she found the results both sad and funny.

The findings of some forthcoming research about pandemic coping mechanisms suggest ambient listening may be part of a larger pattern. Pablo Ripollés, a professor at New York University who studies music and the brain, was part of an international team of researchers that surveyed lockdown habits in Italy, Spain and the United States.

Of 43 activities mentioned in a survey the team conducted, like cooking, prayer, exercise and sex, listening to or playing music had one of the biggest increases in engagement during lockdown, as well as the highest number of respondents who said it was the activity that helped them the most.

“People realizing from their Spotify Wrapped that they were listening to a lot more background music to cope with the pandemic fits with what we saw,” Dr. Ripollés said.

But not everyone wants to have the darkness of this year reflected back at them. With the pandemic expected to endure, at least in some countries, well into 2021, a few savvy subscribers are using a workaround to ensure that next year’s recap is a little less grim.

Dylan River Lopez, a 29-year-old video editor who uses non-gendered pronouns, has relied throughout the pandemic on a track called “Brown Noise — 90 Minutes” to drown out many distractions, including their partner’s phone calls in a newly shared office and nighttime restlessness similar to Ms. Montoya’s. “I pretty much developed a relationship with the noise,” Mx. Lopez said.

When it appeared as their No. 1, Mx. Lopez searched online about how to block Spotify from counting those minutes. The answer: a feature called Private Session, which they now turn on along with the brown noise.

“The main thing I learned from this experience,” Mx. Lopez said, “is how to stop Spotify from tracking it.”

Why Thunder and Fireworks Make Dogs Anxious

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Allene Anderson said her foster dog, Wrigley, a golden retriever, quaked for hours after a storm.

Allene Anderson said her foster dog, Wrigley, a golden retriever, quaked for hours after a storm.Credit NYTCREDIT: Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times

It is entirely possible that no one dreads the dog days of summer more than dogs themselves.

Sodden heat gathers itself into sudden barrages of pounding thunder, crackling lightning and pane-rattling rain. Drives dogs crazy, all that noise.

And then, on the Fourth of July: fireworks.

By some estimates, at least 40 percent of dogs experience noise anxiety, which is most pronounced in the summer. Animal shelters report that their busiest day for taking in runaway dogs is July 5.

Veterinarians tell of dogs who took refuge in hiding places so tight that they got stuck, who gnawed on door handles, who crashed through windows or raced into traffic — all desperate efforts to escape inexplicable collisions of noise and flashing light. Ernie, a wired-hair pointer, was so terrified by thunderstorms that he would vault fences at his Maryland farm and run in a straight line for miles.

“It’s very serious,” said Dr. Melissa Bain, an associate professor of clinical animal behavior at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine. “It’s a true panic disorder with a complete flight response.”

Over the years, a mishmash of remedies for noise anxiety have sprung up: homeopathic blends; a calming pheromone; CDs of thunderstorms mixed with Beethoven; swaddling jackets ; even Prozac and Valium. But this month, the first drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration for canine noise aversion (a term encompassing mild discomfort to phobia) came on the market. The drug, Sileo, inhibits norepinephrine, a brain chemical associated with anxiety and fear response.

In the coming days, the annual onslaught of calls will pour into vets: “‘The fireworks are happening and my dog will freak out, so I need something to stop that, and I need it right now!’” Dr. Bain said.

Some vets prescribe strong sedatives, but even if the immediate crisis is averted, the underlying phobia remains untreated.

Being startled by a loud noise is normal, for dogs as well as humans. But these dogs cannot settle back down. Even if most reactions are not as extreme as the dog who tears out its nails while frantically scratching a door, many dogs will cower, pace and defecate indoors.

Cats can have noise aversion, though reports are less common. Animal behavior experts say cats often seem more self-reliant and understated than dogs, so when they hide under beds during storms, owners may not read that response as unusual.

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Storms frighten Stella, a miniature breed.

Storms frighten Stella, a miniature breed.Credit Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

Veterinary behaviorists say that as years pass, dogs with noise aversion may associate one sensation with another: storm-phobic tremors can be set off merely by dark clouds.

And thunderstorms are complicated beasts. “There are significant pressure changes, frantic winds, massive electrical discharges, concussive sounds: Dogs can hear above and below our auditory range,” said Dr. Peter H. Eeg, a veterinarian in Poolesville, Md., who has been reporting Sileo results in patients to Zoetis, the company that distributes the drug.

Wrigley, a 10-year-old golden retriever in Naperville, Ill., started trembling three hours before a recent storm, said Allene Anderson, a foster caretaker of abandoned dogs.

“She was desperate to climb down my throat,” Ms. Anderson said. “I got down on the floor with her, and she clawed me. She couldn’t get close enough.” After the storm passed, Wrigley quaked for hours.

“If owners don’t understand what’s going through the dog’s mind,” Ms. Anderson said, “they shout and throw them in the basement. That just makes it worse.”

Countless other noises set off dogs: jackhammers, lawn mowers, coffee grinders. One vet said that even garments designed to cocoon dogs in a secured wrap can irritate some by the sound of Velcro flaps being ripped apart. A toddler’s shrieks freaked out Winnie, an Indiana bulldog; her owner, Dr. Sara L. Bennett, a veterinary behaviorist, taught Winnie to relax with yoga breaths.

During a thunderstorm two years ago, Rebecca Roach was awakened at 3 a.m. by Stella, her 6-year-old miniature Australian shepherd, clambering on her chest, panting, whining and shaking.

“My instinct was to comfort her,” said Ms. Roach, who lives in Boyds, Md. “so I held her until the storm passed.”

But behavior specialists disagree about whether owners should comfort animals. Dr. Daniel S. Mills, a veterinarian at the University of Lincoln in England who is an expert on canine noise aversion, suggests that owners “acknowledge the dog but not fuss over it. Then show that the environment is safe and not compatible with threat, by playing around and seeing if the dog wants to join you. But don’t force it. Let it make a choice.”

Other experts say that soothing a spooked animal, bred to seek safety with its human, is just fine. “You can’t reinforce anxiety by comforting a dog,” Dr. Bain said. “You won’t make the fear worse. Do what you need to do to help your dog.”

Other tips include muffling noise with quiet music and, if possible, staying with the dog in a windowless, interior room. Because a dog’s flight response is on overload, it is seeking a haven.

For years, veterinarians treated noise phobia with acepromazine, a tranquilizer. It sedates the dog but is not an anti-anxiety medication. During a thunderstorm, the dog can still see and hear everything. But like someone having a nightmare in which he or she cannot run from danger, the frightened dog can’t move to escape. So veterinary behaviorists say that acepromazine can exacerbate noise aversion.

Some dogs function better with Prozac, but as with humans, the daily medicine takes four to six weeks to become effective.

Stella was impervious to prescriptions. During thunderstorm season, she and Ms. Roach lost hours of sleep. Ms. Roach tried positive reinforcement: When Stella’s symptoms would begin, she would be given treats from the night stand.

“Then Stella started climbing on my chest at 3 a.m., whimpering, whining and looking at the night stand,” Ms. Roach said. “And no thunderstorm! That was the end of that.”

The new canine noise aversion drug, Sileo, is actually a micro-amount of a medication approved as a sedative for minor veterinary procedures —- a flavorless gel, measured in a syringe, that is squeezed between the dog’s cheek and gum and absorbed within 30 minutes.

Orion, the Finnish company that developed it, tested it on several hundred noise-averse dogs during two years of New Year’s fireworks. Three-quarters of the owners rated the dogs’ response as good to excellent; their pets remained unperturbed. The drug lasts several hours, after which another dose can be administered.

A syringe costs about $30 and holds several weight-dependent doses. Sileo’s main side effect, in 4.5 percent of dogs, is vomiting.

“I’m not naïve enough to think this is the miracle cure,” said Dr. Emily Levine, a veterinary behaviorist in Fairfield, N.J. But she considered it a worthy option.

The optimal solution, vets say, is catching the response early, and desensitizing the dog with calibrated recordings of the offending noise, and positive conditioning.

But training takes time, patience and consistency.

“And humans,” Dr. Eeg said, “are one of the most inconsistent species on the planet.”