It’s no secret that music is a powerful universal language. It can inspire you, pump you up during workouts, and help you relax and reduce anxiety. Music has been scientifically shown time and time again to calm the autonomic nervous system, the endocrine, and psychological stress response. Classical music in particular and sounds of nature seem to be especially effective.
Many of us turn to calming music in the hopes that it will lull us out of our anxiety spiral and into something resembling rest. Music won’t cure your insomnia, but it can provide short-term relief. There’s even evidence that listening to music before sleep might improve sleep quality.
Music 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. Fortunately, children are not the only ones who can benefit from music before bedtime. People across all ages report better sleep quality after listening to calming music.
Using music can also decrease the time it takes to fall asleep. In addition to improving time taken to fall asleep and sleep quality, playing music before bed can improve sleep efficiency. This 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 brain. 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.
Research suggests 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 cortisol, which may explain why it helps put people at ease and release stress.
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 system. 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 thoughts and encouraging the physical and mental relaxation needed to fall asleep.
It can feel impossible to tackle anything without first attaining some peace of mind. Meditation, yoga, and working out more generally can help clear the static fogging up your brain, but music is a major, underrated tool for reducing your stress levels. If you’re a true hippie, then the concepts of sound healing or vibrational medicine – whether it involves gongs, Tibetan singing bowls, or sound baths – are probably familiar to you, but even if this is all new, there’s no denying that some soothing music can help you achieve relaxation and release.
What kind of music is best for sleep?
There isn’t a clear consensus about the optimal music for sleep, however one of the most significant factors in how music affects a person’s body is their own musical preferences. Effective playlists may include songs that have been relaxing or that have helped with sleep in the past.
First, it’s generally agreed upon that lyrics are a no-go, as they are likely to spur our brains into more activity. “Lyrics tend to remind us of people or events in our lives and that can drive anxiety or deep thought,” says Dr Nancy Irwin, a psychologist who specialises in sleep hygiene and disorders. She recommends listening to instrumental music instead, particularly tracks that rely on low instruments like the cello or the double bass. It's also good to keep tempo in mind.
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. Try 20 of the best songs to chill out to.
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.
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.
How to make music part of your sleep hygiene
Music can be a great part of healthy sleep hygiene. A few tips to keep in mind:
- 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 – try making a mix of songs that help you to relax and unwind before bedtime.
- Avoid songs that cause strong emotional reactions – we all have those songs that bring up strong emotions, so try music that’s neutral or positive.