Falling into a dream state can be anxiety-inducing for the around 25% of Americans who say they have difficulty sleeping most nights. Some turn to music, hoping gentle sounds will guide them to the land of Nod.
Though few studies have looked at the impact of music on sleep, one expert,
an associate professor of Sleep and Chronobiology in Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, explains how sounds can affect sleep and why rituals are the key to a restful night.
Music and the Brain
The auditory system serves as a watchman, says Dr. Basner, who has studied the effects of ambient noise on sleep. “It never shuts down, constantly monitoring the environment looking for potential risks or dangers,” he says.
The brain not only evaluates sound levels, but also content: In a 1960 study, names were played to research subjects as they slept. If the subject’s name or that of a close relative was spoken, he was more likely to awaken than on the name of a stranger. “So it likely matters what sounds are being played while you’re trying to fall or stay asleep,” Dr. Basner says.
In a recent meta-analysis of 20 studies, 95% of 1339 insomnia patients, mostly in Asia, self-reported that listening to music was the best intervention to help them fall asleep. “But it is not clear whether the music was played while they were trying to fall asleep, or before sleep,” Dr. Basner notes. Also unclear was what type of music that was most effective.
The Bedtime Ritual
Experts have standard rules on what is known as sleep hygiene: The room should be cold but not too cold; it should be dark and quiet; and you should follow rituals that signal it is time for bed. Brushing one’s teeth, putting on pajamas and turning off the lights can be signals to the body that it’s time to secrete melatonin, the hormone that helps humans feel sleepy.
Listening to music could also be a trigger for many people. “If you always play a
album to fall asleep, that could be part of your bedtime ritual, and it will help,” Dr. Basner says. But he doesn’t know of any studies that prove music will help you stay asleep, give you a more restful sleep, or if it has any affect on melatonin.
In laboratory and field studies on ambient noise—though not specifically music—the professor has documented dream sleep arriving later when people are exposed to external sounds, but he didn’t find hard evidence that falling asleep is affected.
The professor knows of one study that showed students who regularly listened to music to fall asleep dozed off faster in a lab with music than without. But as there were only around 12 participants, he doesn’t believe the evidence is sufficient to recommend music to everyone. “One of the rules of sleep rituals is, ‘whatever works for you,’ and that might outweigh the results of this study,” he says.
Still, if you want to listen to music to help you sleep, Dr. Basner suggests following a few guidelines. Because people typically fall asleep between five and 30 minutes after hitting the pillow, he recommends you set music to a half-hour timer. “That way you get the benefits from the ritual of falling asleep without the intrusion into your sleep state,” he says.
One of the most important sleep stages happens during the first half of the night, he says, when critical neurological processes that aid in memory consolidation take place. At that point, the room should be silent.
Dr. Basner also suggests you choose music that is soothing: “If the music is of someone singing with real content and crescendos and decrescendos, that may well wake you up.”
As for Dr. Basner himself? He prefers falling asleep to the sound of silence.
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