How Music Can Help You Sleep Better

/ July 3, 2019

Any parent can testify that music hath charms to soothe the fussy infant, with a minute or two of “Toora Loora Loora" turning a tearful bawler into a blissfully sleeping bundle of joy. There's scientific evidence to back this up: A 2013 study at London's Great Ormond Street Hospital found that lullabies slow babies' heart rate and lessen anxiety, while University of Toronto research in 2016 determined that maternal singing may actually stop crying before it starts and give babies a greater sense of security than maternal speech.

Now hear this: Music may have similar benefits for grownups. According to the National Sleep Foundation, music's effect on the parasympathetic nervous system can help ease you into a more serene, sleep-ready state at any age. What's more, 62% of participants in a recent University of Sheffield survey said they use music as a sleep aid—relying on it for everything from clearing the mind and dispelling negative thoughts to boosting mood and even relieving physical tension.

“Listening to music can be a great way to calm the mind and interject a relaxing period between the tasks of the day and sleep," says Catherine Darley, naturopathic doctor and director of the Institute of Naturopathic Sleep Medicine in Seattle. “It can help get you into a 'rest and digest' state before sleep."

Read on to learn how a little night music may be the ticket to your most sublime slumber since your cradle did rock!

The connection between music and sleep

“A number of studies have shown significantly positive results of the use of music to improve sleep and indicate the potential of music as a sleep aid," says Renee Timmers, PhD, associate professor of psychology of music at the University of Sheffield. Consider these results of research with insomnia sufferers:

  • Scientists recorded the EEG signals of insomniac patients during sleep, then transformed the signals into musical tones. When this “brain music" was played for the patients at bedtime, more than 80% reported improved sleep, with neuropsychological and neurophysiological tests confirming it.
  • Listening to music prior to bed proved to considerably enhance sleep quality for people with acute and chronic sleep disorders. Those with short-term problems got relief more quickly than those with long-term insomnia, who needed to listen for several weeks before sleep improved.
  • Sleep-disturbed pregnant women who listened to music at bedtime for two weeks experienced reduced stress and anxiety and improved sleep quality, as indicated by several different self-reported measures.
  • Older adults with age-related sleep problems who listened to music for 45 minutes before bed for three weeks had longer sleep duration, greater sleep efficiency, shorter sleep latency, less sleep disturbance, and less daytime dysfunction.

Related: Podcasts guaranteed to bore you to sleep

How scientists are using music to improve sleep

Scientists speculate that music may reduce stress and promote better sleep by activating areas of the brain associated with comfort while lowering arousal, causing a decrease in heart rate and blood pressure. It is also believed that music may help release hormones such as endogenous opioids (the body's natural painkiller) and oxytocin (often called the “cuddle hormone"), while suppressing cortisol, commonly known as the stress hormone. So it's no wonder that musicians and scientists are now teaming up in the interest of inducing sleep.

  • In 2011, ambient trio Marconi Union worked with the British Academy of Sound Therapy to compose "Weightless," a trance-like track that, according to research by insight firm Mindlab International, produces a greater state of relaxation than any other song tested to date.
  • Minimalist composer Max Richter, in collaboration with neuroscientist David Eagleman, released the eight-hour-plus album Sleep in 2015. Richter has since taken this magnum opus on the road, performing it at giant slumber parties for hundreds of pajama-clad fans. Listen to Richter talk about Sleep:
  • Last year, internationally renowned DJ and producer Tom Middleton, himself a recovering insomniac, got together with cognitive scientists for an album of soundscapes called Sleep Better. Middleton admits he found it “very challenging to actually stay awake" during the creative process.

Related: How white noise helps you sleep

Building a playlist to help you sleep

So what types of music are most apt to send you into the land of nod? Music that proved beneficial in sleep studies has been soft, slow, melodically soothing, and uncomplicated, at between 60 to 80 beats per minute. Think low-activation classical music (such as a Chopin nocturne), ambient and New Age (Enya's “Watermark" is a popular chill-out choice), and even folk (something easier on the ears, perhaps, than Bob Dylan's nasal whine).

While plugging “sleep music" into a search engine will yield options, keep in mind that as long as you stick to the lighter side of your heavy rotation, a selection of your favorite tunes may work just as well. The 651 respondents to the University of Sheffield survey cited as sleep-worthy 545 different artists from 14 genres—with pop star Ed Sheeran mentioned most often—which researches say indicates the validity of personal preference and prior familiarity with the songs.

“Music can be used in effective ways because there's such a great variety of it, and listeners can exert control over it," Timmers points out.

Once you've assembled a PM playlist, try these tips to make the most of it:

  • Find your sweet spot. Adjust the volume so that it's loud enough to hear without straining, yet not so loud that it keeps you awake—between 30 and 40 decibels, Timmers suggests. And eschew those cheap, tinny earbuds, using quality, non-disturbing headphones or speakers.
  • Listen closely. To be beneficial as a sleep aid, music shouldn't be mere background while you're working, reading, or are otherwise intellectually engaged. “Put music on as part of your nightly wind-down ritual—while taking a warm bath, meditating, or doing breathing exercises, or just snuggling with a loved one," Darley recommends. “Listen actively, with music your main focus, so the mind isn't occupied with other things."
  • Give it time. In sleep studies, participants listened to music for between 20 and 45 minutes. Press play before getting into bed, so that by the time you slip between the sheets, you'll be good to go—to sleep.

Beyond listening to soothing music, here are 10 other nighttime activities to help you relax.

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