There’s no denying that music forms a big part of our waking lives. We listen to it when we get up to help us start our day, we listen to it while we drive or ride the bus to work, when we’re visiting with our friends, or on an exciting night out. Some people devote their whole lives to creating and sharing music with the world. But what about while we’re sleeping?
As any musician will tell you, music is vastly complex and does a lot of cool stuff to our brains and bodies. Can listening to music help us sleep better? Or does it do more harm than good? Let’s explore the benefits and drawbacks together.
Our brains are biologically wired to respond to music. Pleasant music (which of course varies from one person to the next) will trigger the release of serotonin, improving our mood. Listening to music also engages the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain associated with storing long-term memories, and it’s been shown to increase creativity. This means it’s great for studying and other times when you need to get the most out of your cognitive function. Listening to music has also been proven to reduce the levels of cortisol, or the stress hormone.
Music also helps to regulate our body — our breathing and heart rate will begin to mirror the beat of the song that we’re listening to. This is one of the reasons why upbeat music is so beneficial for exercising. On the flip side, listening to music with a more gentle rhythm can help relax you and slow your body down, which is great when you’re preparing to settle in for the night.
So can listening to music help improve your sleep quality? Let’s look at some of the benefits to having music play while you fall asleep.
It’s no secret that music can relax the mind, but it can also help relax the body too. Listening to the right song can help slough off your worries from the day, letting you settle into a happy sleep space faster. Plus, when your music is in the range of 60 - 80 beats per minute, it will match your heart rate and help get your body into a comfortable rhythm.
Music has also been shown to be effective in treating depression, relieving pain symptoms, and lowering our stress levels — all super beneficial in getting a good night’s sleep.
Music has been proven to release mood enhancing chemicals into the brain. In fact, the amount of dopamine our brains produce in response to music is about the same as what’s produced in response to more physical, tangible stimuli, such as good food. When we’re feeling happier, our bodies are able to function better on a variety of levels including getting a deeper, healthier sleep.
Plus, feeling happier as you fall asleep contributes to having more positive dreams. We know that having bad dreams can seriously mess with your ability to get the most out of your sleep, and keeping those nightmares at bay will vastly improve your sleep quality.
One of the worst feelings in the world is lying in bed spinning around and around inside of your worries, impending deadlines, shopping lists, regrets, arguments of the day, and fears for what tomorrow might bring. When you listen to music while you fall asleep, it gives you something to fixate your attention on so that your mind doesn’t keep running in circles. By giving your thoughts a sort of fixed lifeline, you can put yourself in a meditative state and fall asleep faster and happier.
Our relationship with music, in addition to soothing our minds and aching bodies, has also been shown to enhance our mental performance. It triggers areas in the brain associated with memory, understanding, and problem solving. Amazingly, music has also been shown to increase plasticity, or flexibility, in the brain, which enhances our ability to absorb new knowledge. By listening to music while you fall asleep, not only will you get a better sleep and be better prepared to face the day; you’ll also wake with a brain that’s in better shape and ready to take on the day’s challenges.
Overall, multiple studies have shown that listening to music while you fall asleep not only helps you fall asleep faster and happier, it also improves the quality of your sleep. Recent studies on patients with insomnia tested the efficacy of listening to music while they fell asleep. They found that patients who listened to music not only fell asleep faster, they also experienced more time in deeper, more restful states while they were asleep. This led the researchers to believe that their overall sleep cycle was healthier and more beneficial to the body than the sleep cycle of the participants who didn’t listen to music.
Every one of us is a unique individual, and what works best for one person might not work for another; plus, personal tastes in music can vary, so you’ll need to find which music gets the best results for you (we’ll talk more about music choices down below). However, on average it seems that music has a measurably positive effect on how much benefit you get from your night’s sleep.
With all those benefits in mind, there are still a few things to be aware of that could reduce the quality of your sleep, or even be damaging. Here’s a few things to be mindful of as you fall asleep.
Keeping earbuds in for extended periods isn’t super healthy at any time of day, but they can do a lot of damage while you sleep. This is because in addition to the fact that your body needs to heal, grow, and breathe while it’s sleeping, it’s when you’re asleep that you’re more likely to toss and turn and push the earbuds further into your ear canal.
Keeping earbuds in while you sleep can put damaging pressure on your eardrums, as well as facilitate wax buildup which can clog up your ears and negatively affect your hearing. It also puts your ears at risk of necrosis, a condition where your skin tissue begins to die off due to poor blood flow. The solution? Stow the earbuds and use external speakers or a pillow with built-in speakers to give your ears a rest.
Unfortunately, not every playlist is going to be a recipe for a good night’s sleep. Fast tempoed music can actually speed up your heart rate, making it harder to relax and fall asleep. This might be helpful in the morning when you’re trying to drag yourself out of bed, but at bedtime? Not so much.
The good news is that just about every genre from classical to rock to jazz has both fast and slow tempoed songs, so there’s a perfect snooze tune for everybody. We’ll talk more about music choices for helping you sleep a little further on.
If you’re trying to get a safe, healthy sleep, wrapping a line of headphone wire around your neck is the last thing you need. Headphone wires are one of the biggest safety risks while you’re sleeping — even just leaving them nearby in your bed can cause the wire to become wrapped around you while you sleep. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “death metal”.
It’s always best to keep your sleep area free of hazards, so instead, listen to your music from an external source that can’t hurt you.
The ideal music for falling asleep is between 60 and 80bpm, or beats per minute. This nifty site actually lets you input a song title, and it’ll tell you exactly how many beats per minute it has! It makes it super easy to put together your own nighttime playlist. Try looking at youtube or spotify playlists specifically designed to encourage peaceful sleep, and then compare some of the songs with the ideal bpm.
The song “Weightless” by The Marconi Union is exactly 60bpm, and is thought to be the most relaxing song ever written. The Joni Mitchell songs “River” and “California” are 61 and 71bpm, respectively. Aim for slow, dreamy twilight tunes that make you think of introspective road trips and starry nights.
Regardless of the tempo of your chosen music, you want to make sure it’s something that feels good to listen to — something you love. This positive connection ensures you get all the cerebral and mental health benefits along with it while you sleep.
Music has formed such a huge, integral part of our cultural history as human beings; it’s no surprise that our bodies have such a healthy response to it. Music, of course, is incredibly varied and complex — almost as much as people. What works best for one person’s sleep habits might not be the right choice for you, and vice versa. Play around until you find the perfect song or collection of songs to lull you into dreamland. You’ll feel healthier, more well rested, and happier overall.