Nearly everyone experiences sleep difficulties from time to time. Although an occasional night of sleeplessness is unlikely to cause lasting harm, the long-term effects of too many nights of too little sleep can increase your risk of future health complications, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, anxiety, or depression.
If you have difficulty falling asleep or wake up frequently during the night, you could be one of the millions of US adults living with insomnia. While you may be tempted to solve your sleep issues with medication, pharmaceutical solutions aren't right for everyone.
When caffeine restrictions or a consistent sleep schedule aren't providing the relief you need, consider adding music to your nightly routine. Many people with insomnia find listening to sleep music surprisingly effective.
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There are many potential causes of insomnia, from relatively minor changes in daily routine to medication side effects. However, many sleep experts believe stress¹ is most often to blame.
Although the complex relationship between stress and insomnia is not completely understood, it's clear that workplace demands, worrisome thoughts, and other stress-invoking triggers can keep your body in a state of high alert.² The alarm will continue to "sound" until your brain signals that any threat to your physical or emotional well-being has passed.
Ideally, you would have plenty of time to recover from the stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) surging through your veins long before you're ready to turn in for the night. But life is seldom ideal. Without enough time for stress-hormone triggers to reduce before bedtime, you could find it increasingly difficult to transition from wakefulness to sleep.
However, learning to calm the impact of stress may not be all that beneficial if your insomnia is caused by:
Stimulants, including alcohol, nicotine, or caffeine
A medical condition or physical discomfort
Hormonal shifts during menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause
Depression, anxiety, or other mental health disorders
Working swing shifts or traveling to a different time zone
Restless leg syndrome, sleep apnea, or other sleep disorders
If you suspect your sleep difficulties may be caused by a medical condition, medication, or coexisting sleep disorder, consult your healthcare provider. Your sleep could improve with proper diagnosis and treatment. Until then, consider some of the many ways music could help you get the rest you deserve.
Most people are at least somewhat familiar with the research highlighting the benefits of learning to play a musical instrument and the positive impact on working memory, fine motor skills, and academic performance. However, far fewer realize that listening to music can also have a significant effect on their body and brain.
As the scientific study of music evolves, researchers continue to evaluate its potential impact. Today, many psychologists, musicologists, and philosophers credit the "passive" enjoyment of music to an intriguing list of benefits, including emotional regulation and self-awareness.
Although some of the earliest conclusions were based on theory, speculation, and observation alone, evidence suggesting music's sleep-promoting potential is based on research investigating the physical impact of auditory stimulation, sleep quality, and REM³ sleep.
To fully understand how listening to music could impact your ability to fall asleep easily and sleep peacefully through the night, you may find it helpful to first consider how sound waves impact your brain.
Your ability to hear the complexities of any melody requires the conversion of sound waves to electrical signals. As your brain interprets the sound, the resulting cascade of electrical impulses can have a significant impact on your central nervous system. If you've been losing sleep tossing, turning, or trying to get comfortable, consider the sleep-promoting potential of the following observations.
Your sleep cycles are regulated by your circadian rhythms,⁴ the 24-hour master clock responsible for numerous bodily functions, including melatonin production. When physical, mental, or emotional stress increases the amount of cortisol circulating in your system, melatonin⁵ production declines. Without enough melatonin, you could find it increasingly difficult to fall asleep.
Based on a small-scale study⁶ involving 40 randomly assigned patients, subjects listening to instrumental music showed evidence of lower cortisol levels than the control group.
If you're losing hours of precious sleep because of physical discomfort, consider some research⁷ linking music to dopamine production. The more dopamine you have in your system, the less likely you will be affected by pain's physical and psychological impact.
According to the results of a 2017 report,⁸ functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) also shows measurable changes in dopamine responses in areas of the brain linked to the expectation, anticipation, and reward of music.
Researchers believe the impact on neural pathways could decrease the need for opioid medications over time.
Your autonomic nervous system controls the many functions in your body that don't require conscious effort, including your heart rate and breathing.
There are two separate branches. Your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is responsible for the "fight or flight" response associated with stress or danger. Your parasympathetic nervous system⁹ (PNS) controls the "rest and digest" processes that helps restore balance (homeostasis) as your stress levels decline.
As music engages the calming, soothing effect of your PNS, you could notice a marked improvement in digestive function, temperature regulation, and several other functions that can help encourage restful sleep.
Researchers investigating the physical and psychological effects of music have not reached a clear consensus about which types or genres are optimal for sleep. Why? Because so few studies rely on a comparison of playlists. Study participants tend to select their own. But before adding your favorite tunes to your nightly routine, you may want to first consider the tempo.
The tempo of any song is measured in beats per minute. So is your heart rate. According to a 2015 article¹⁰ published in European Heart Journal, music can have a profound effect on heart rate variability. Excitatory music can increase your heart rate and blood pressure while calming, soothing sounds have the opposite effect.
Since the average resting heart rate is about 60–80 beats per minute (BPM), you may want to stick with tempos closer to that range.
Once your sleep cycles are disrupted, it can be difficult to get back on track. Although medications are available, many healthcare providers prefer encouraging simple lifestyle modifications to improve sleep hygiene and help restore natural circadian rhythms.
If you're struggling with insomnia, consider adding sleep music to a routine that includes going to bed and waking at the same time each day. Once you're ready to make music part of your insomnia solution, consider the following recommendations:
Try classical music or instrumentals: Actively listening to lyrics could keep you awake
Avoid songs that invoke strong emotions: Play selections you find neutral or positive
Stick with music you enjoy: Instrumentals with slower tempos may not be right for everyone
Make music a habit: Consistent routines signal to your body that sleep is coming soon
Avoid headphones and earbuds: Speakers reduce the risk of ear infections and hearing loss
Experiment during the day: Test various selections to determine which songs you find the most relaxing
In a randomized controlled trial,¹¹ participants listening to music for 45 minutes before turning in for the night reported better sleep and shorter sleep latency (time spent lying awake). In a similar study, listening to music while lying in bed proved equally beneficial, with sleep latency reduced from a baseline of 27–69 minutes to 6–13 minutes over time.
However, not every study showed a clear improvement of insomnia levels. In response, researchers recommended further investigation¹² on the impact of sleep music on different insomnia subtypes.
Sleep deprivation and poor sleep quality increase your risk of an alarming number of future health complications. Although most of the evidence supporting the use of sleep music is based on a small number of clinical trials, the results for insomnia are encouraging.
Current investigations suggest listening to sleep music could have a positive impact because of the way electrical impulses influence numerous responses linked to stress reduction, pain perception, and autonomic function.
NIOSH training for nurses on shift work and long work hours | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Music and the heart (2015)
Sleep and sleep disorders | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
How do we hear? | National Institute of Health