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Music is a powerful art form. While it may get more credit for inspiring people to dance, it also offers a simple way to improve sleep hygiene, improving your ability to fall asleep quickly and feel more rested.
Music can aid sleep by helping you feel relaxed and at ease. With streaming apps and portable speakers, it’s easier than ever to take advantage of the power of music wherever you go. Given music’s accessibility and potential sleep benefits, it might be a good time to try adding it to your nightly routine.
Can Music Help You Fall Asleep?
Parents know from experience that lullabies and gentle rhythms can help babies to fall asleep. Science supports this common observation, showing that children of all ages, from premature infants1 to elementary school children2, sleep better after listening to soothing melodies.
Fortunately, children aren’t the only ones who can benefit from lullabies before bedtime. People across age groups report better sleep quality after listening to calming music.
In one study, adults who listened to 45 minutes of music before going to sleep reported having better sleep quality beginning on the very first night3. Even more encouraging is that this benefit appears to have a cumulative effect with study participants reporting better sleep the more often they incorporated music into their nightly routine.
Using music can also decrease the time it takes to fall asleep. In a study of women with symptoms of insomnia, participants played a self-selected album when getting into bed for 10 consecutive nights4. Before adding music to their evening routine it took participants from 27 to 69 minutes to fall asleep, after adding music it only took 6 to 13 minutes.
In addition to facilitating quickly falling asleep and improving sleep quality, playing music before bed can improve sleep efficiency, which means more time that you are in bed is actually spent sleeping. Improved sleep efficiency equals more consistent rest and less waking up during the night.
Why Does Music Affect Sleep?
The ability to hear music depends on a series of steps that convert sound waves coming into the ear into electrical signals in the brain5. As the brain interprets these sounds, a cascade of physical effects are triggered within the body. Many of these effects either directly promote sleep or reduce issues that interfere with sleep.
Several studies suggest that music enhances sleep because of its effects on the regulation of hormones, including the stress hormone cortisol. Being stressed and having elevated levels of cortisol can increase alertness and lead to poor sleep. Listening to music decreases levels of cortisol6, which may explain why it helps put people at ease and release stress.
Music triggers the release of dopamine, a hormone released during pleasurable activities, like eating, exercise, and sex. This release can boost good feelings at bedtime and address pain, another common cause of sleep issues. Physical and psychological responses to music are effective in reducing both acute and chronic physical pain7.
Listening to music can also contribute to relaxation by soothing the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is part of your body’s natural system for controlling automatic or unconscious processes, including those within the heart, lungs, and digestive system8. Music improves sleep through calming parts of the autonomic nervous system, leading to slower breathing, lower heart rate, and reduced blood pressure.
Many people with poor sleep associate their bedrooms with frustration and sleepless nights. Music can counteract this, distracting from troubling or anxious thoughts9 and encouraging the physical and mental relaxation needed to fall asleep.
Night-time noise, whether it’s from roads, airplanes, or noisy neighbors, can decrease sleep efficiency and is linked to several adverse health consequences10 including cardiovascular disease. Music can help to drown out these environmental noises and increase sleep efficiency.
What Kind of Music Is Best For Sleep?
It’s natural to wonder about the best type of music for sleep. Research studies have looked at diverse genres and playlists and there isn’t a clear consensus about the optimal music for sleep. What we do know is that studies have typically used either a self-curated playlist or one that has been designed specifically with sleep in mind.
One of the most significant factors in how music affects a person’s body is their own musical preferences. Effective custom playlists may include songs that have been relaxing or that have helped with sleep in the past.
When designing a playlist, one factor to consider is the tempo. The tempo, or speed, at which music is played is often measured in the amount of beats per minute (BPM). Most studies have selected music that is around 60-80 BPM. Because normal resting heart rates range from 60 to 100 BPM11, it’s often hypothesized that the body may sync up with slower music.
For those that don’t want to design their own playlist, online music services have stepped in and usually offer pre-packaged playlists for specific activities. Helpful playlists may be curated for sleep or relaxation. It may be easiest to find playlists that focus on calming genres, like classical or piano pieces.
Feel free to experiment with different songs and playlists until you find one that’s right for you. It may also be helpful to try out a few playlists during the daytime to see if they help you relax.
While many people can benefit from making their own playlists or finding something pre-mixed, others may benefit from a more formal approach. Certified music therapists are professionals trained in using music to improve mental and physical health. A music therapist can assess a person’s individual needs and create a treatment plan that can involve both listening to and creating music. For more information on music therapy, talk with your doctor or visit the American Music Therapy Association.
Evolving Science About Music and Health
Interest in music’s effects on the body continues to grow, and major research programs are dedicated to uncovering new ways that music can benefit health. For example, in 2017 the National Institutes of Health partnered with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to announce the Sound Health Initiative. This program initiative supports research that focuses on the use of music in health care settings and has already funded several projects.
How to Make Music Part of Your Sleep Hygiene
Music can be a great part of healthy sleep hygiene. Here are a few tips to keep in mind while incorporating music into a sleep-promoting evening routine.
- Make it a habit: Routine is great for sleep. Create evening rituals that give the body sufficient time to wind down, incorporating music in a way that’s calming and consistent.
- Find enjoyable songs: If a pre-made playlist isn’t working, try making a mix of songs that you find enjoyable. While many people benefit from songs with a slower tempo, others may find relaxation with more upbeat music. Feel free to experiment and see what works best.
- Avoid songs that cause strong emotional reactions: We all have songs that bring up strong emotions. Listening to those while trying to sleep may not be a great idea, so try music that’s neutral or positive.
- Be careful with headphones: Headphones and earbuds may cause damage to the ear canal while sleeping if the volume is too high. Sleeping with earbuds can also lead to a buildup of earwax and may increase the risk of ear infections. Instead, try setting up a small stereo or speaker somewhere close to the bed. Choose speakers without bright light, which can interfere with sleep, and find a volume that is soothing and not disruptive.