Parents around the world lull their children to sleep by singing to them. Fast forward to adulthood and all your go-to streaming platforms are littered with sleep music playlists — Spotify even classifies “sleep” as a genre on par with R&B and rock. So what is it about music that makes it such a powerful sleep aid? Can any ole tune help you sleep? And is sleep music for everyone? Ahead, experts break down the science behind sleep music, how to incorporate it into your routine, and of course, which music is the best of the best when you need help dozing off.
What is sleep music?
There isn’t really any single definition of sleep music. For one person, the term might invoke the lullabies of their childhood, while another might enjoy dozing off to instrumental film scores. “What seems to be more crucial in determining or differentiating ‘sleep music’ are the musical elements (eg melody, harmony, rhythm, tempo, timbre), their neurological effects, and ultimately, how those elements work in energising or sedating someone within the context of their already established sleep practices,” says Carlos M. Barata, a board-certified music therapist and founder of Aspire Higher Therapy.
Streaming services have had a hand in narrowing down what people typically mean when referring to sleep music, according to Barata. “With a rise in curated playlists and stations over the last decade, ‘sleep music’ can certainly be described as a singular genre, consisting of and borrowing from other genres and sub-genres (eg instrumental, classical, new age, lo-fi, jazz, ambient, etc.),” he explains. “What one considers helpful, however, may not be helpful for others, and thus requires an awareness of personal, social, and cultural preference, as well as age, mental health, environment, etc.”
Why can music help with sleep?
For starters, music can trigger all sorts of emotions in everyone, as well as create a sense of safety and familiarity. Think of it this way: If your parents played the same songs when making dinner as a family while growing up, odds are hearing those tunes as an adult will not only fill you with nostalgia but also calm you down — after all, life’s a bit easier when you’re young and your biggest worry is whether you get to taste test the pasta. And because this particular playlist fills you with the warm and fuzzies, it might very well help you fall asleep, especially if stress is keeping you awake.
In other words, listening to music can help you fall asleep through a myriad of mechanisms, including “encouraging listeners to relax, making the process of falling asleep an enjoyable experience, distracting the listener from anxious thoughts, synchronising the listener’s breath to slow rhythms in the music, drowning out unpleasant background sounds, and creating an association between music and sleep,” explains Thomas Dickson, PhD, an expert in the psychology of music as a sleep aid.
Listening to music is also a deeply physical experience, in the same way that slumber is a deeply physical experience. “Relaxing music [typically slow, or instrumental] triggers changes to the body that, in many ways, mimic a sleep state,” says Michael J. Breus, PhD, a clinical psychologist and founder of The Sleep Doctor. “A slower heart rate, slower breathing, lower blood pressure are all physiological changes that make possible the process of falling asleep and staying asleep.”
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What’s more, music can also have a “soothing effect on our emotional brain, easing stress and anxiety,” adds Breus. There’s a lot of research out there to support this: A recent study found that music reduced cortisol (the stress hormone) in participants, while another one found that music could support the treatment of various mental health conditions, including generalised anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders.
TL;DR, as you listen to music, your body essentially converts the sound waves entering your ear into electrical signals in the brain, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). And as the brain makes sense of these sounds, it sets off a series of physiological effects — many of which either directly promote sleep (eg reduced BP) or lessen issues that might be impacting your sleep (e.g. stress).
Who can benefit from sleep music?
As a general rule, most people should only reach for sleep music if they are struggling with sleep. If you fall asleep easily (meaning you don’t have a history of insomnia), it probably won’t help you all that much. “Music appears to be most beneficial for individuals suffering from insomnia due to anxiety and stress,” says Dickson. “This may be due to its relaxation properties and capacity to distract the listener from stressful thoughts.” In fact, listening to music has been shown to decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
At the end of the day, however, whether or not music helps you to fall asleep will be a question of trial and error. “Music can provide both beneficial and detrimental distraction towards sleep,” says Dickson. For example, if you can’t stop worrying about an upcoming presentation at work, popping in your AirPods and pressing play on a Nora Jones-esque playlist might be just what you need to catch some zzz’s. Why? Because “music can act as a focal point to distract from rumination,” explains Dickson.
“On the other extreme, music that’s too distracting [such as catchy, dance tunes or aggressive rock] could keep the listener awake by providing too much stimulation.” This is also why instrumental music is often considered one of the best types of sleep music, as it doesn’t have any lyrics to distract you from dozing off.
In addition to helping you drift off to dreamland, a 2005 study found that listening to calming sleep music can also help you stay there, too. While the research was primarily done on older people, the findings are still pretty noteworthy: Adults who listened to 45 minutes of music before going to bed reported better sleep quality starting from the first night. And the more they kept with the nighttime ritual, the better their sleep continued to become, according to the Sleep Foundation.
How to incorporate sleep music into your routine
When it comes to using music to achieve deep sleep, consistency is key, says Dickson. This means listening to the same tunes at the same time, every day.
As for what tech to use, all the equipment you already have can work, but may not be the most ideal. “Listeners can use headphones, speakers, mobile phones, or specific white noise devices to improve sleep but each comes with challenges,” says Dickson. “For example, in-ear headphones should be used with caution as they may cause irritation from extended use, [while] using speakers may impact [any] partners’ sleep quality if they find the music unpleasantly distracting.” Purpose-built equipment may be a good investment if you’re planning to really commit to using calming sleep music.
Now that you’re all equipped, at what point should you press play? There’s no universal answer to this question. “Some sleep researchers have suggested that music could be used an hour prior to falling asleep due to its capacity to encourage relaxation for winding down to bedtime,” says Dickinson. “My research [however] has proposed that music may be beneficial to be used only at bedtime [ie once in bed] to create an association between the music and falling asleep.”
That being said, you don’t want to spend too much time on any device before dozing off, as doing so can interfere with your sleep. (Blue light, be damned!) So, knowing where and what to look for the best sleep music before hitting the hay is essential. Streaming platforms such as Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, Pandora, or 8Tracks (read: whichever is your go-to) can and should be your first port of call when sourcing relaxing sleep music. Some of these “have a large number of sleep playlists allowing the listener to find music they resonate with,” says Dickson. “Further, some YouTube channels are dedicated specifically to music for sleep.”
You can also turn to sleep music-specific apps, such as Calm, Pzizz, and Relax Melodies, which “offer well-curated music listening,” says Dickinson. Although saving money is always great, you’re not going to want to skimp on streaming services or subscription-based apps, as free versions can have advertisements between tunes, and let’s just say they’re not exactly conducive to catching zzz’s.
To help kickstart your perfect playlist, here are some of the best sleep music options out there, according to the pros.
5 types of sleep music
In his research, Dickson found that classical pieces including Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and Mozart’s “Piano Concerto no. 21” successfully helped subjects fall asleep. But beyond the science, pianist and composer Thomas Feng explains that classical music has a long tradition of lullabies. “In the Western world, perhaps the most famous lullaby is the ‘Wiegenlied’ of Brahms, which in English we sing as ‘lullaby, and goodnight,'” he says. “But classical music for most of its history wasn’t played in bedrooms or meant to actually put people to sleep.”
Many classical pieces feature the characteristics defined by the experts as potentially helping people fall asleep; however, Feng cautions against bundling all classical music together, since a lot of it is, in his words, “very dynamic.” Essentially, if you’re planning to use this genre to snooze, make sure you pick a playlist that’s fit for the purpose, such as this one created by Dickson.
Most of the experts mentioned ambient music as being potentially helpful for getting to sleep. For example, Dickson’s research showed that a relaxing music medley by The Honest Guys helped participants fall asleep, while Feng listed Brian Eno and Barata Miracle Tones as the creators of ambient tunes that could count as relaxing sleep music.
Any slow harmonies
It’s not rocket science: In the majority of cases, slow, relaxing, non-dancey music tends to work better for falling asleep than, say, the “Macarena.” But of course, slow music spans a wide range of genres, from jazz to folk songs. The lullabies of your youth and any track that might qualify as a “ballad” can certainly do the trick, as well. While the experts say to privilege music without lyrics to help you sleep, some people can and do fall asleep to music with words. Again, it’s all trial and error.
Your personal playlist
By now, you know that certain types of tunes are more likely to help you fall and stay asleep than others. But determining the best sleep music for you is still a very personal experience. “It seems that the listener’s relationship with and preference for the music is of primary importance but that in general there are relaxing features associated with sleep music,” says Dickson. So much so, in fact, that “one listener [in our study] used heavy metal to successfully fall asleep, music which contains features very different from those typically associated with sleep music,” he notes.
So while your favourite club song probably shouldn’t be your first choice for relaxing sleep tunes, it still might be worth trying if, for example, instrumental music just really isn’t doing it for you.
White or pink noise
“In some instances, researchers include nature sounds [as well as] white or pink noise as sleep music, though these are not ‘music’ in the truest sense,” says Dickson. With that in mind, some artists create sleep music that incorporates both instruments and nature sounds — just take it from Barata who recommends numbers from Deep Sleep Music Collective as one option.
This story first appeared on www.shape.com.
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