Sweet Music = Sweet Sleep?

Womanwith headphones laying on her back

Photo: whoalice-moore from Pixabay

Sleep plays an important role for maintaining physical and mental health and is critical for general well-being. However, sleep disturbances are highly common in our society, with increased prevalence in ageing, as well as among people at risk of or suffering from a psychiatric disorder. The use of sleep enhancing medicine is problematic, as its effectiveness decreases across time and may lead to addiction. Consequently, researchers need to empirically validate the effectiveness of non-pharmacological and easy to implement tools to support healthy sleep.

Music can impact upon physical, psychological and emotional states, which may explain anecdotal reports of its success. However, the underlying reasons WHY music impacts sleep remains unclear.

Listening to music is a widely used tool to improve sleep. In an online survey in a general population 62% (out of 651 respondents, or 403 people) stated to have at least once used music to help them sleep. In a survey in over 500 patients with sleep disorders, over 50% reported to use music as sleep aid. In a meta-analysis based on six studies for a total of 314 patients, it was reported that music helped to improve subjective sleep quality in insomnia patients. Similarly, sedative music while resting could effectively improve subjectively rated sleep in patients with sleep complaints.

Research into Music and Sleep

There is a growing body of evidence of successful music interventions in clinical populations which indicate a potential therapeutic benefit exists for populations coping with transient insomnia due to life circumstances. However, it is important to note that not all research has shown music is an effective sleep aid.

Piano keys with sheet music partially covering piano keys

Photo: Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

In fact, research published in the journal Psychological Science declares that if you listen to music before bedtime, your brain continues processing the melody while you sleep.  A sleep lab study found that around one quarter of participants who listened to familiar songs before bedtime awoke during the night with the melody “stuck” in their heads. This spontaneous replaying of music in the mind — a phenomenon called an earworm — was associated with lower sleep quality.  We have all experienced, at one time or another, that certain melody or song that just won’t stop playing in our head!

The authors of the study note that someone is more likely to experience an earworm, a form of involuntary musical imagery, after listening to music with a fast tempo and specific melodic contours. Young people are listening to music more than ever, and the music industry is dominated by these types of upbeat songs that are made to be catchy.

In part 2 of the Sleep and Music series, we will look at music – what type, tempo etc. can encourage better sleep.