Shower songs, but not as you know them: an intro to rain music
Watery soundtracks on YouTube are a lifesaver for insomniacs and an unexpected source of community
image My Neighbour Totoro, Studio Ghibli
words Kyle MacNeill
When it comes to mood, rain is a bit of a grey area. It’s no surprise, really. Unlike the sun, which pretty much everyone but Dracula counts as one of life’s simplest pleasures, rain effuses an entire rainbow of connotations, feelings and emotions depending on the individual and their context. Take the actual feel of it. Sure, when it’s scorching hot, a tropical shower can be a total tonic, but if you’re caught short at the bus stop and sleet soaks you through to the spleen, it won’t just dampen your fresh Arc’Teryx, but your spirits, too. Then, there’s the appearance: there’s something mesmeric about it, but the gloominess that comes with it can drain our energy. Rain and its impact on my mood and mind has long fascinated me, so I decided to track down an expert to see if science backs up these observations. Turns out, it kinds does.
“I think in mood terms, it isn’t the rain itself that’s important, so much as lack of sunshine," Trevor Harley, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Dundee and author of The Psychology of Weather, explains. "Exposure to sunlight is important for our mood, setting the sleep-wake cycle, producing Vitamin D, and even controlling blood pressure. And obviously, when it is raining it is mostly not going to be sunny.”
Dark skies, sweet dreams: the sound of rain and sleep
If the pathetic fallacy of precipitation wasn’t enough, there’s the fact that rain – as a multi-sensory entity spanning smell, sound and sensation – is a strong trigger for our implicit memory. So, if we kissed our first love in the rain, we might have more fond memories of it than, well, if we got dumped in a storm instead. Anyway, this means it’s hard to make an umbrella statement about rain; but if there’s one thing a lot of us agree on, it’s that it sounds really, really nice. The pitter-patter of rain is, for many of us, a naturally soothing sound that makes us super sleepy. Why does rain make us drop off? Well, it’s all down to the colour of noise.
You probably know about white noise, which contains all frequencies across the spectrum of audible sound: examples include TV static or a whirring fan, and it’s great at totally blocking out any other sounds around you. The other two hues, though, are more important here: on the other end is brown noise, much deeper and resembling heavy rain, crashing waves or thunder. In the middle – and, in my opinion, the Goldilocks tone – is pink noise: it resembles heartbeats, steady rain, rustling leaves, a moving car (a surefire way for me to head into the land of nod) or gentle wind. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
Harley agrees: “Rain resembles pink noise, a more balanced sounding version of the random white noise of ‘static’,” he explains. “There is some evidence that pink noise can relax us, probably by influencing our brainwaves and might promote better sleep. It has also been reported that white noise helps babies to fall asleep more quickly and pink noise – not white noise – might mask tinnitus for some,” he says. While there’s a lacuna in the research, some studies back this up: this paper published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology, for example, concluded that steady pink noise reduces brainwave complexity and induces more stable sleep time.
Inside the world of Rain Music
The issue, of course, is that unless you live in Manchester like me, you can’t have rain on tap to help you sleep. Enter rain music. Sent from the heavens, this genre of ambient music is designed to help people relax quicker and is ready to play on-demand quicker than you can flick off your light switch. Starting way back with CDs filled with rainy tracks, tons of apps – from Rain Sounds to Rain Rain to Rainy Mood – now exist to help you find peace and comfort with an entire fountain of moods and sounds. There's also plenty of rain music content on YouTube, which is arguably the main hub for rain music lovers.
Apps are great, as an insomniac who can’t help but scroll to the comments in extended periods of sleeplessness (don’t do this, blue light is bad!) I've found there's something even more special about YouTube’s rain community. It’s outrageously vast; whatever kind of rain you want, it exists, and you can listen to hours of the stuff for free thanks to a whole host of field recorders, composers and producers bringing showers to our speakers. I tune in to the The Relaxed Guy's channel every single night.
“I got started in mid 2014,” Steven Smith, the man behind The Relaxed Guy, tells me. “I had been filming and sound recording nature for many years before that for enjoyment and my own personal therapy. One day, I just decided to upload on YouTube, as I thought it would give me easy access to enjoy when I travelled,” he explains. Using a variety of audio recording devices to record sound everywhere from New Zealand to Japan, he's built up a large collection that he shares with 1.3m subscribers, clocking up half a billion views in the last decade.
So why does he think rain music helps so much? “I think rain is very calming,” he continues. “I think it’s comforting for so many people. It helps to mask other environmental noises, it helps to quiet the inner voice [when we focus on the rain sounds]. I think it creates a soothing and consistent sound that viewers may find relaxing and stress relieving,” he says. For Steven, even heavy rain can give people feelings of calm and security, that nice, cosy, safe feeling of being out of the rain but hearing it while tucked up in bed.
Rain music's unlikely YouTube community
I’ve struggled with insomnia since I can remember, caused by a perfect storm of anxiety, depression and SSRI medication. As soon as my head hits the pillow I don’t, regrettably, fall asleep. Instead, I spiral into a cyclone of whirling thoughts spanning from major life epiphanies to questioning whether I messed up at work to deciding what I’m going to scran for lunch tomorrow. Rain, though, makes me sleepy without leaving me washed out, drowning out my chaotic inner monologue and stemming the flow of incessant, obsessive neurons - and it turns out, there are plenty of people like me.
Although it’s not a great idea to be scrolling while trying to get to sleep, the comments sections of these kinds of videos have helped me find peace during the nighttime. Every video is awash with stories, memories and words of comfort. “Fun fact: the sound of rain is soothing to us because natural predators tend to avoid hunting during the rain, and humans have evolved to associate the sound of rain with safety from these predators” suggests one. “You’re not alone if you’re scrolling down here while still trying to sleep. I hope you find solitude and peace” goes another.
Of course, rain music won’t work for everyone, and the science still isn’t cut and dry. Sometimes, though, finding something safe that helps is more important than understanding how it works; while it’s hard for me to pin down the exact reason rain resonates with me so much, there’s a magic to its enigmatic quality and the shared sonic experience, like with ASMR’s Tingle Community, that it precipitates. I still have awful nights, but at least there’s a chance that every time I press play on something rainy and turn the sound on, I fall sound asleep.
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