Music has been an integral part of human culture for millennia, originally thought to have been a method of communication and language in some of the earliest examples of our species. While many of us enjoy music during our waking hours, its therapeutic effects can extend into the world of sleep. The practice of incorporating music into one's bedtime routine has gained popularity, and research suggests that there are several notable benefits to this soothing habit.
Listening to music while you sleep can be a transformative experience that goes beyond the realms of mere entertainment. Music has been shown to have a profound impact on the human psyche, and when integrated into our sleep routine, it can influence our dreams, emotions, and overall well-being. In this article, we will delve into some of the science behind music and sleep, explore the benefits and potential drawbacks, and offer recommendations for creating a personalised playlist to enhance your nightly rest.
The Science of Music and Sleep
The relationship between music and sleep is a complex interplay of neurobiology and psychology. Research has shown that listening to music can trigger the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. This can create a positive emotional state, helping to alleviate stress and anxiety, common impediments to a good night's sleep. As our body gradually becomes accustomed to this dopamine release, we can effectively train our mind to have a positive reaction when we hear music.
Furthermore, the rhythm and tempo of music can have a direct impact on our physiological functions. Slow and calming music has been found to lower heart rate and reduce cortisol levels, promoting a state of relaxation conducive to sleep. This is often referred to as the "entrainment" effect, where the body synchronises its physiological functions with the rhythmic patterns of the music (1).
Benefits of Listening to Music While You Sleep
1. Stress Reduction
Listening to soothing music before bedtime can act as a powerful stress reliever. It helps to unwind the mind, easing the transition from the hustle and bustle of the day to a more serene state ready for a good night’s sleep. Many individuals, particularly those who suffer with anxiety and depression experience racing thoughts and overactive minds as they lie in bed, hindering their ability to fall asleep. Music provides a welcome distraction, helping to redirect the mind away from stressful thoughts and creating a mental space conducive to sleep (2).
2. Improved Sleep Quality
The calming effect of music can contribute to better sleep quality. When the mind is at ease, the body is more likely to enter deeper stages of sleep, essential for physical and mental restoration. Music has been shown to help regulate and synchronise our internal body clocks, known as circadian rhythms. By creating a calming atmosphere, music can facilitate the transition from wakefulness to sleep, leading to improved sleep quality. Many individuals find that they fall asleep faster and experience fewer disruptions when music is part of their bedtime routine. For many, watching TV as they fall asleep is their solution, however it has been proven that the blue light produced by TV screens actually suppresses the production of the sleep-wake cycle hormone melatonin, often keeps your brain active and can lead to long-term health effects. Many experts even suggest avoiding screen-time an hour before bedtime to allow your mind to come back to a more neutral mode (3).
3. Enhanced Dream Recall
Some individuals report enhanced dream recall when they fall asleep to music. This could be attributed to the emotional and psychological impact of music, which may influence the content and vividness of dreams. Music has a deep connection to us as a species, almost a universal language, also connecting us ancestrally to the earliest stages of mankind, it’s no wonder that it puts our minds into a state of creativity, allowing us to dream more vividly. It could also be an interesting experiment to see if certain types of music cause you to have different kinds of dreams, which is something to consider (4).
4. Reduced Insomnia Symptoms
People dealing with insomnia may find relief through music therapy. Calming melodies can help break the cycle of racing thoughts and promote a more relaxed mental state, making it easier to fall asleep. Music therapy has emerged as a non-pharmacological intervention to alleviate insomnia symptoms, often in a similar way to white noise machines. People have found that just by having a constant source of sound while they are in bed, insomnia symptoms have started to melt away. In a study done in 2003 of women suffering symptoms of insomnia, the subjects were asked to play an album of their choosing while trying to sleep. Before introducing music to their sleep schedule, it took the test subjects times ranging from 27 to 69 minutes to fall asleep, after introducing music, the times ranged from 6 to 13 minutes.
Adequate sleep is crucial for cognitive function, and music can aid in achieving this. By facilitating better sleep, music indirectly supports memory consolidation, problem-solving, and overall cognitive performance during waking hours. It has also been shown to improve cognitive ability in children. Parents have used lullabies to soothe their children for centuries, and it has been proven that the slow, gentle rhythms can help babies to fall asleep. Scientific research backs this widely known theory, showing that children even from the earliest stages of life, benefit from hearing music while sleeping. A good night’s sleep is paramount in the development of cognitive performance in children, but also in the ongoing performance in adults.
Choosing the Right Music for Sleep
Not all music is created equal when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep. The key is to opt for music with a slow tempo, minimal fluctuations in volume, and that has soothing melodies. Genres such as classical, ambient, and certain types of instrumental music are often recommended for their calming qualities.
1. Classical Music for Sleep
The timeless compositions of classical music, characterised by their melodic structure and moderate tempo, make them a popular choice for bedtime listening. Pieces by composers like Mozart, Beethoven, and Debussy are frequently embraced for their tranquillity. This is why radio stations like Classic FM and BBC Radio 3 almost exclusively play more music at a slower tempo past 9pm; they are leaning into the research.
2. Ambient Music and Nature Sounds for Sleep
Ambient music, characterised by its atmospheric and often instrumental nature, is designed to create a calming environment. Additionally, recordings of nature sounds such as flowing water, birdsong, or gentle rain can mimic the soothing sounds of the natural world, promoting relaxation. Apps like Calm and Headspace often utilise this in their guided meditations or playlists.
3. Instrumental Music for Sleep
Instrumental genres, whether it be acoustic guitar, piano, or electronic ambient, can provide a harmonious backdrop without the distraction of lyrics. This allows the mind to focus on the music itself, aiding in the relaxation process. In a similar way to classical music, these genres have been proven to work as sleep aids for decades.
4. Personalised Playlist
Crafting a personalised playlist tailored to your preferences is essential. Experiment with different genres and artists to discover what resonates most with you. Consider creating a playlist with a gradual decrease in tempo, mirroring the body's descent into sleep. If you need help or suggestions, there are often customised playlists on music streaming platforms that are specifically created for this purpose. Some are made by the companies themselves, some are made by members of the general public, so it could be worth getting some inspiration there. We have also included a guide in this article on how to craft the perfect playlist.
Potential Drawbacks and Considerations
While the benefits of listening to music when sleeping are evident, there are potential drawbacks and considerations to keep in mind.
1. Volume Control
Excessive volume can be counterproductive, causing disruptions rather than promoting relaxation. Keep the volume at a moderate level to avoid overstimulation. Sudden jumps in volume level are also not advised, as they can shock us, and again, cause a disruptive experience. Also try not to have large jumps in volume between the end of one track and the beginning of another, even a moderate difference in volume could cause you to react negatively to the experience.
2. Lyrics and Emotional Content
While instrumental music is generally recommended, some people find comfort in songs with lyrics. However, it's crucial to be mindful of the emotional content, as certain lyrics may evoke strong emotions that could hinder sleep. Deep and meaningful songs may have a relaxing backing track, but the lyrics could be nebulous, or confusing, leading you to expend energy trying to analyse them.
Relying solely on music to fall asleep might lead to dependency. It's essential to cultivate good sleep hygiene practices, such as maintaining a consistent sleep schedule and creating a conducive sleep environment. A tidy sleep space, clean body, clean bedding, a healthy diet and a good routine are all things that are worth considering too, not to mention a comfortable bedframe and mattress with the right comfort rating for you.
4. Sleep Disorders
Individuals diagnosed with sleep disorders, such as sleep apnoea or insomnia, should consult with a healthcare professional before incorporating music into their sleep routine as a “fix”. While music can be a helpful aid, it may not be a standalone solution for certain sleep-related issues. Your physical health comes first. If you are concerned about any sleep-related disorders, consult your GP as soon as possible, don’t rely on music to solve the problem.
5. Devices and Charging
It is worth noting that it is not advised to keep your devices on charge overnight, as it can damage the life of the battery. It is recommended that you use adaptive charging if you can, to help prolong the battery life on your devices. If you need a full phone battery when you wake up, and you are using it to play music, then proper charging practices are something you should factor in.
Creating the Ideal Sleep Playlist
Creating a sleep playlist involves a thoughtful curation of music that resonates with you personally. Here are some tips to guide you in crafting the perfect bedtime soundtrack:
1. Start Slow, End Slower
Begin your playlist with slower, more calming tunes, gradually decreasing in tempo as you progress. This mimics the body's natural slowing of physiological functions as it prepares for sleep.
2. Instrumental Dominance
Prioritise instrumental tracks to minimise distractions. However, if you find comfort in lyrical content, choose songs with soothing and positive themes.
3. Nature's Embrace
Integrate nature sounds or ambient tracks that mimic the sounds of a peaceful environment. This can enhance the overall calming effect of your playlist.
4. Personal Preferences
The most effective sleep playlist is one that aligns with your personal taste. Experiment with different genres and artists to discover what resonates best with you.
5. Consistency is Key
Maintain consistency in your sleep playlist. The familiarity of the music can signal to your brain that it's time to wind down and prepare for sleep.
Sleeping with Music: Our Conclusion
Incorporating music into your sleep routine can be a simple yet powerful way to enhance the quality of your rest. The soothing melodies and calming rhythms have the potential to alleviate stress, improve sleep quality, and contribute to overall well-being. However, it's crucial to approach this practice with mindfulness, considering individual preferences and potential drawbacks. By curating a personalised sleep playlist and adopting good sleep hygiene practices, you can create a harmonious bedtime routine that sets the stage for restorative and rejuvenating sleep.