The easiest way to cue up calming sounds on your iPhone

It all comes down to how fast you can press a button.
A bald man wearing headphones and a backpack in a crowded area, maybe a train station.

When you need a quick hit of ambient sound, Apple's Background Sounds can help. Andriyko Podilnyk / Unplash

The fastest way to get ambient sound burbling out of an iPhone is now built into the device itself. With iOS 15 and iPadOS 15, Apple has introduced Background Sounds, an accessibility feature meant to hide unwanted background noise, reduce distractions, and help people focus, calm down, or rest.

You can enable this function in about 10 seconds by tapping through the Settings app, but that’s a relatively glacial pace compared to what you can do with shortcuts. Anyway, enough dawdling, let’s get to it.

The fastest way to use Background Sounds

The quickest way to flood your ears with the sound of pouring rain is to set up an accessibility shortcut. Once that’s done, you’re limited only by how rapidly you can triple-click a button. You don’t even have to set anything else up first.

To do so, open Settings, find Accessibility, scroll down to Accessibility Shortcut, and select Background Sounds. Now, you can press the Home or side button on your device three times to bring up your list of shortcuts. From there, tap Background Sounds to bring the noise. Activate the shortcut again to turn it off.

The limits here all have to do with customization. There’s no way to change the sound you’re listening to, so you’re stuck with whatever your phone has queued up. You can adjust the volume with the buttons on your device, but that’s about it. You’re also beholden to whatever other options Apple has enabled by default.

Background Sounds settings

So, about those options. To really dig into this feature, open Settings, go to Accessibility, tap Audio/Visual under the Hearing heading, and find Background Sounds. You can use the toggle switch up top to turn them on and off, but you already know there are faster ways to do that.

Underneath that switch, you can choose one of six sounds, each representing a different stage in the water cycle. You’ve got rain, stream, and ocean, signifying the path a drop of H2O takes from heaven to earth, and also bright noise, balanced noise, and dark noise, signifying what will happen to water when the sun eventually engulfs the Earth before the inevitable death of the universe itself. Our metaphorical connections—not Apple’s.

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You can also adjust the noise volume (though you can adapt on the fly with your device’s buttons), and how loud it is when you’re listening to other music or watching something. This is key: Background Sounds won’t stop unless you make it, so it will keep fizzing along behind your favorite playlist if you want it to. People are already using this to fine-tune their vibes.

Finally, you can tell Background Sounds to Stop Sounds When Locked. This is off by default, likely because most people will want to use the feature for extended periods—much longer than they will (or should) have their device unlocked.

The best way to use Background Sounds

For a comfortable mix of speed and customization, add a Background Sounds widget to your Control Center. Open Settings, find Control Center, and tap the green plus icon next to Hearing.

Now, whenever you open your Control Center (by swiping down from the top right corner of the screen or up from the bottom, depending on your device), you’ll see an icon that features a human ear. Tap that, then tap the matching icon at the bottom of the next screen to turn Background Sounds on or off. You can also change the sound by tapping the name of the sound that’s currently playing, and adjust the volume via a slider on the same screen.

An added benefit to all of this is that Background Sounds works whether or not you’re connected to any type of internet or cell service. So the next time you’ve got your phone in Airplane mode and need to hear the soothing sounds of gurgling water, just smash that side button.