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.
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.”