Does Music Help Us Sleep

Psychologist Daniel Mullensiefen on why music can work like a sleeping pill and what types of music can put you to sleep

faq | September 11, 2019

Can music help us sleep?

Music can help us sleep, and many people use music to go to sleep. Obviously, it depends on the type of music, and it depends on the type of person. What we found in a large survey that we ran recently is that certain types of music are much better for sleeping than others. Obviously, it should be quiet music, calm music, a slow tempo, and a few dynamic changes: this would help us to calm ourselves down, power down our physiological reactions, and take other thoughts out of our minds. Certain people use music more to sleep, especially the younger ones who have more of a habit of using music to sleep and the ones who are more inclined to music anyway. So if you are a musician or you listen to a lot of music, then you are more likely to use music at bedtime as well.

What is the mechanism behind it?

I think it has two effects. One could be a direct physiological effect: for example, you synchronize your breathing and your pulse to this slow beat of the music and through this synchronization, you kind of shut down your body and prepare yourself for bed. The other thing is it might distract you from thoughts that would keep you awake otherwise, so if you focus on the music or try to understand what is going on in the music, it might take some worries off your mind. So it distracts you and fills you with positive thoughts, which is helpful for falling asleep.

What types of music can put us to sleep?

Usually, it would be calm music, so you should definitely not try to listen to punk or fast heavy metal music. Anything that is loud, aggressive, fast, and has many dynamic changes certainly is not helping. Many people, singers, and songwriters, for example, mention singing in a calm voice or classical music a lot. Obviously, there are pieces that are even composed for having to sleep: for example, the Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach allegedly were composed to help a noble person sleep.

One question that hasn’t been solved yet is the following: does music help everyone to sleep? Are there certain people who don’t feel the effect of music? Could you personalize a music treatment for people who might have sleep disorders? For example, if you know something about the personality and the musical taste of a person, could you put together a playlist that would work for that person in an optimal way? This would be like personalized medicine for helping to sleep. The good thing about music is that it doesn’t have any side effects, so it is much less of a risk than, say, sleeping pills that you could become addicted to. Obviously, you could become addicted to music as well, but that is not a problem, so it is not dangerous or damaging.

Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London
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