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


The soundtrack to Maya Montoya’s year was white noise. In particular, a track on Spotify called “Celestial White Noise”: three full hours of warm, calming fluff.

Ms. Montoya, 27 years old and resident in Everett, Washington, was a nanny until the pandemic. When she became unemployed in April, she began napping during the day, which ruined her sleep schedule. “I heard the white noise the whole time,” she said.

Though Ms. Montoya played on track most nights for most of 2020, she was nonetheless surprised when “Celestial White Noise” topped her Spotify Wrapped list this month. She posted a screenshot of the app on Instagram, which was received with a barrage of affirmations from her followers.

“So many people have written to me that they have exactly the same thing,” she said. “It was nice to know that I wasn’t the only one blowing white noise into the air so I could sleep during all of this.”

In an average year, Spotify Wrapped is a sharing-optimized novelty that hangs on nostalgia for a time that has barely passed. In 2020, that dataset instead presented many users with unexpected empirical evidence of their pandemic coping mechanisms: an odd hit parade of ambient music, background noise, and soothing sound effects that soothed them during an unusually anxious and sleepless time. (Spotify declined to comment on this trend.)

While thousands of users reported in disbelief about their stress-related results, the situation made sense to Liz Pelly, a cultural critic who has written extensively about how Spotify and its competitors affect our listening habits. “It says a lot about how corporate streaming services have dug their way into our lives and made listening to music a background experience,” she said.

Some listeners have used sound as a coping mechanism for years but have become more reliant on it over the past nine months. Isobel Snellenberger, a 21-year-old in Fargo, ND, has anxiety and is neurodivergent (a category that encompasses a number of neurological differences, including autism spectrum disorder and dyslexia), both of which are treated in different ways, including with Music.

“Especially at the beginning of Covid, my mind was full of intrusive thoughts about the safety of my friends and family and my brain panicked,” Ms. Snellenberger said. So she started playing rain sounds almost around the clock, which helped her turn off the cognitive sound.

When their Spotify round-up came in, nine of their top 10 tracks were Rain Sounds. “Even though I listen to them a lot, I was still surprised,” she said, noting that Harry Styles and David Bowie usually dominate their list. Like Ms. Montoya, she found the results both sad and funny.

The results of some upcoming research on pandemic coping mechanisms suggest that ambient hearing 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 studying lockdown habits in Italy, Spain and the United States.

Of 43 activities mentioned in a survey the team conducted, such as cooking, prayer, exercise and sex, listening to music or playing music, participation increased the most during the lockdown, as did the highest number of respondents who that it was the activity that helped them the most.

“The people who realized from Spotify Wrapped that they were listening to a lot more background music to deal with the pandemic attacks that we were seeing,” said Dr. Ripollés.

But not everyone wants the darkness of this year to be reflected in them. With the pandemic likely to last well into 2021, at least in some countries, some savvy subscribers are using a workaround to make sure next year’s roundup is a little less dire.

Dylan River Lopez, a 29-year-old video editor using non-gender pronouns, has relied on a title called “Brown Noise – 90 Minutes” throughout the pandemic to drown out many distractions, including his partner’s phone calls all rolled into one newly shared office and nocturnal unrest similar to that of Ms. Montoya. “I’ve pretty much developed a relationship with noise,” said Mx. Said Lopez.

When it came out as their # 1, Mx. Lopez looked online for ways to stop Spotify from counting those minutes. The answer: a function called Private Session, which you now activate along with the brown noise.

“The main thing I learned from that experience,” said Mx. Lopez said, “This is how you can stop Spotify from following it.”