Illustration by Taman Temirgaliyeva.

Musings on Escapism: Ambient Music and Visuals

Even if you aren’t the kind of person who benefits from music or ambient sounds while working, wouldn’t it still be nice to imagine you’re “Slow dancing to Jazz at 2 a.m.”?

Nov 13, 2021

Finals are coming up and it’s time to study. The coffee is brewed, your laptop is charged, and the AC is at that perfect, focus-promoting temperature. You open YouTube and select one of the many study playlists flooding your screen: “You’re in a 1950s Jazz Club,” “Studying at the Hogwarts Library,” or “Moonlight Sonata from another room while it rains.” You choose the latter, and an image of a rain-stained window appears with Beethoven’s music in the background. The view out the window isn’t the one you see from your dorm, but isn’t that the whole point?
Mixed opinions exist regarding listening to music while studying. While some suggest that it promotes focus and relaxation, others argue the opposite — that it is distracting and best to avoid for a productive work session. Some genres, such as classical music or instrumental chill jazz, are surely better suited than others for promoting concentration.
Personally, I cannot study while listening to any music with lyrics — my mind immediately sings along. While generally being a fan of making my own playlists on streaming platforms, I recently turned to pre-made playlists in an attempt to try something new, and ended up finding escapism. Many of these videos combine music with natural sounds (rain, thunder, birdsongs) or sounds suggesting some other location (occasional creaking door, hushed whispers or clinking coffee cups). Visuals are important here, as they add to the overall feeling of the content. These can include anything from books on library shelves or a coffee shop interior to a rainy window or the great outdoors. Most importantly, they have a specific theme, perfectly captured by their often wordy titles, and all the video’s elements feed into the atmosphere it tries to create.
Music itself has been shown to have an effect on the brain, especially regions which are typically linked to emotion. Listening to sad songs when you are already upset only makes you sadder, and horror movies remain scary even when you close your eyes because of their soundtracks. Some genres or songs can also make one feel better, to the point where music therapy is being used or considered as a potential supplemental treatment for anxiety, symptoms of depression and other conditions. When combined with visuals, ambient sounds and a convincing title, the music included in the study videos that have now become so common really might have the potential to improve study and work outcomes, even if just by providing a virtual change of setting.
I find videos like this such an interesting phenomenon, especially since they often accumulate many views, reaching hundreds of thousands or millions in some cases. Apparently, there is demand for temporarily traveling elsewhere in one’s mind, and I am not surprised. I think a large part of why these videos work for many people is simply that we like to romanticize certain aspects of our lives, especially everyday activities and tasks. For students in particular, assignments and revision are an integral part of the daily routine and can therefore get repetitive. On certain days, it is more difficult to get started with work and remain focused throughout. For some, Chet Baker and a fictional crackling fireplace in an animated 1950s apartment can help. For others, imagining being in Dead Poets Society or a Harry Potter film is the better option.
The variation across music genres, types of images, settings and background sounds in these videos makes for a wide range of choices. The variety of content available (especially for free) is encouraging, as it makes me believe that there is something out there for every type of student and every mind. While “escapism” may carry a negative connotation to some, I do not mean to suggest that one is unhappy with how things are in reality and wishes to run away. Rather, if anything, this kind of content could boost creativity, amplify positive emotions and leave us more content at the end of the day. And even if you aren’t the kind of person who benefits from music or ambient sounds while working, wouldn’t it still be nice to imagine you’re “Slow dancing to Jazz at 2 a.m.”?
Morgane Motlik is Columns Editor. Email her at
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