One person’s distracting noise is another’s soothing music. The growl of road traffic or the gush of a waterfall might not seem like something you’d like played in a loop while you work or sleep — but others can’t operate without them. And thanks to the phenomenon of YouTube ambient sound videos, these soundscapes are now available anywhere there’s an internet connection.
Why the demand? After a brief lull during lockdown — “the longest period of quiet in recorded human history,” according to scientists — our noisy modern world has reawakened around us, disrupting concentration and mating rituals alike. In such a din, the only solution is to curate a more palatable sound to moderate the noise. Something consistent, without sudden bangs, impromptu wails or the distraction of musical melodies and lyrics.
But a second problem also arises. With so much sound around, periods of silence can be just as disturbing. Millions are turning to the same solution: recorded ambient sound to fill the quiet moments and drown out tinnitus.
As with Brian Eno’s definition of ambient music, ambient sound is something to which you can pay as little or as much attention as you like. Heard live in a field or an urban café, you might even take the wind or the purr of the coffee machine as a cue for some deep listening. But listened to casually via YouTube or an ambient sound app, recordings of unremarkable sounds offer a subtle alternative to the stony silence of the yawning existential void around us or block out competing sounds to provide an illusion of a more desirable environment.
So, which ambient sound is most popular around the world and in each country? And how about the popularity of background ambiances lifted from video games? SimpleGhar analyzed YouTube video search data to find which ambient sounds people are hunting for the most.
What We Did
SimpleGhar listed 100 popular ambient sounds from nature, video games, human activity, the home and color noises, such as white and pink noise. We then used Ahrefs Keyword Planner to find the average monthly YouTube search volume for each sound in every country and around the world. To find each country’s most “uniquely popular” sounds, we identified the ambient sound that had the highest percentage difference in search volume against that sound’s global average.
- The most popular ambient sound in the world is the sound of outer space.
- The second most popular ambient sound is the ambiance from the video game Skyrim.
- City sounds are the most popular human environment sound.
The Most Popular Sounds in the World Include Fans and Outer Space
Sound pollution has bothered urbanites since long before the Industrial Revolution. “[H]ammering tinsmiths, carpet-beating maids, whip-cracking, foul-mouthed animal drovers, and, not least, the purveyors of so-called ‘rough music’” were among the aural irritants of pre-industrial city dwellers, according to environmental historian Peter A. Coates. But each place has developed its own soundscape at its own rate and with its own cultural preferences of what to cue up instead. Here are the most uniquely popular ambient sounds in each country:
A fan may seem like a super-specific sound for Americans to be, well, fans of, but the steady sound of an electric fan stands in for white or pink noise for many in the U.S., where it is a popular solution for sleeplessness. Meanwhile, the UK’s favorite ambient sound is a less obvious sleep aid: the shower.
Brits may listen to the sound to capture the relaxing feeling of being under the hot spray, or to facilitate meditation — a very literal ‘sound bath.’ And then there’s the element of wanting to be somewhere else: Be it the beach or the room next to a party, YouTube sound videos often come with the promise of transporting the listener. Why not transport yourself to the shower?
The most popular ambient sound around the world, by a significant margin, is the sound of outer space. Of course, in space, no one can hear you scream, and neither are ambient sounds audible because outer space is a vacuum with no particles to vibrate. There are space sounds that scientists can pick up with special equipment — but they’re nothing like the sounds the average ‘space ambiance YouTube video offers. The latter tends to offer the imaginative sound of a spaceship engine rumbling through space, offering both a white noise-like effect and the feeling of being far, far away from Earthly distractions.
Nature vs. Human: Americans Love Countryside Crickets, But the World Loves City Sounds
Some people use the ambient sounds of nature to block out the human world around them, and science has shown the benefits of a natural soundscape include “decreased pain, lower stress, improved mood and enhanced cognitive performance.”
But others prefer the constant hum of human activity, which has been shown to enhance creativity and productivity. After all, even in a big city, life can get lonely, and the flourishing ASMR video phenomenon over recent years is a testament to our craving for company. Human activity ambiance creates a background of impersonal, ersatz company without the feeling of the intense, intimate attention that ASMR delivers — making it easier to push into the background and get on with work.
The U.S. and Canada are united in their preference for the chirp of crickets among natural sounds. Crickets make this sound (formally known as stridulation) by rubbing their wings together to attract a mate or scare off competitors. For humans, the sound conjures images of balmy days and nights in the countryside and also of solitude — since crickets tend to get quieter when there are lots of people around.
Deprivation of human company grew so profound during lockdown that simulators, such as this fake bar sound mixing desk, emerged to fill the void. But while ‘tavern’ is the third most popular human activity sound (looking at you, fantasy fans) and bar sounds come in at number six, the more general city ambient sound of traffic, sirens and chatter is what is most searched on YouTube.
Skyrim Has the World’s Most Popular Video Game Ambiance
The true pleasure of many video games comes not from the gameplay but from immersion in a novel environment. And so, the sounds are transferable out of the gameplay and into everyday life. Video game ambiance functions perfectly when you’ve got other stuff to get done since it is designed for both escapism and to enhance concentration and engagement in a specific task. It’s also a way to be gaming-without-gaming during periods of work or study.
Skyrim’s ambiance is the most popular, searched more than five times as often as second-placed Minecraft. Some may be searching for the game’s music, which is noted for its sleepy effect. The game’s fantasy setting and open-world structure emphasize natural and pre-industrial sounds and leave plenty of open sonic space to explore. Perfect if you actually like those previously-mentioned sounds of “hammering tinsmiths, carpet-beating maids, whip-cracking, [and] foul-mouthed animal drovers,” after all.
Environments Within Environments
Much like today’s game ambiance designers, the artist and designer Irv Teibel was involved in recording — ‘foleying’ — natural sounds for film in the 1960s. It occurred to Teibel that his ocean recordings might have other uses, and he released a later beachside recording in 1969 on his own label, Syntonic Research, Inc. It was called Psychologically Ultimate Seashore — a name that wouldn’t be out of place on a YouTube ambient playlist today — and led to the release of a total of 22 soundscapes across 11 records, kickstarting broader public interest in the idea of recorded soundscapes.
In the networked age, Teibel’s environments series has become an app, joined online not only by countless YouTube ambiances but bespoke websites such as the Sound of Colleagues, which sprung up during the lockdown. As climate change alters the natural environment and technical advances introduce new sounds to our surroundings (ever blissed out on an electric car parking on gravel?), the needs and the options for ambient sound listeners are sure to diversify in strange and unpredictable new ways. Meanwhile, for an aural glimpse of the ambient soundscapes that the world is dialing into right now, you can click Play on our interactive data table below.
METHODOLOGY & SOURCES
We curated a seed list of 100 ambient sounds within the categories of nature and wildlife, video games, human activity, the home and color noises (e.g., white noise).
We used Ahrefs Keyword Planner for YouTube to discover the average monthly search volume in every country and as a global total when searching for [sound name] + “ambient,” “ambient noise” or “ambient sound.”
For each country, we isolated the ambient sound and the ambient sound from nature that had the highest percentage difference in search volume vs. the global average for that sound.
We also ranked ambient sounds overall, ambient sounds from video games and ambient sounds from human activity as having the highest average monthly search volume worldwide.
The data for this research is correct as of August 2023.
- Mangru, V. (2022). Nearly two-thirds of Americans said they were able to study better with sound on in the background. swnsdigital.com
- Gould van Praag, C., Garfinkel, S., Sparasci, O. et al. (2017). Mind-wandering and alterations to default mode network connectivity when listening to naturalistic versus artificial sounds. Sci Rep. 7(45273).
- Mehta, R., Zhu, R J., Cheema, A. (2012). Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition. Journal of Consumer Research. 39(4).