Classical music is not boring.
Let me say that again…classical music is NOT boring.
I have spoken to many people who are not classical musicians, and I have frequently heard people try to make this argument, but it is always an unsuccessful argument. Most people who say classical music is boring simply don’t know anything about it. This blog isn’t exactly for classical music education, but this post is the first of many to come that contain educational elements relating classical music and sleep.
(If you’d like to see a video on this article, check out my YouTube video.)
First, why do we fall asleep to classical music?
We’ve already established that classical music is not boring, so we can forget about that being the reason we fall asleep listening to it. The majority of classical music the average person (non-classical musician) listens to contain no words: they are purely instrumental. This is an important element because it removes a potential distraction. If you were listening to lyrics, your brain would process that information looking for comprehension, which could then lead you to analyzing the lyrics.
In other words (no pun intended), your brain would first process the lyrics to see if you understand them (are the lyrics in your native language, and can you understand what is being said). Then, your brain would process that information to see if it can analyze and comprehend the information (what is the story, who is it about, etc.).
This process happens so quickly that you probably don’t realize it is happening, unless there is something you can’t understand. For example, have you ever tried listening to someone speaking a foreign language? You, at first, are extremely aware of the fact that you don’t understand something, and depending on your personality that can be really distracting.
Whether you do or do not understand the lyrics you are listening to, it is still extra information that your brain needs to process, which keeps your brain active. Listening to instrumental music, especially as a non-musician, can be much more relaxing because your brain needs to do less work.
This is an extremely short and non-scientific explanation (I will do a more in-depth post on this subject soon), but this gets us started for today’s topic.
Characteristics of Classical Music for Sleep
The five pieces of music we will discuss today all share similar characteristics, and these can help explain their sleep-inducing qualities:
- Simple Form
- Consistent, “Calm” Tempo
Repetitive: all of these pieces use repetition, both rhythmically and melodically, to their advantage. Rhythmic repetition is important because it creates a soothing atmosphere through consistency. The more you hear something, the less prominent it becomes in your mind as your brain recognizes it as something familiar. The same can be said for melodic repetition, where the melody becomes so familiar that it begins to move into the background.
Simple Form: related to repetition, all of these pieces are simple in structure, often in rounded binary form (ABA’). For non-musicians, this just means that you start with a main theme (A), do something a little different, often with new material (B), and then return to the main theme with slight variations (A’) – the apostrophe lets us know that the material is slightly different than originally presented. A simple form with built-in repetition again allows our brain to process less and relax more.
Consistent, “Calm” Tempo: your idea of a “calm” tempo (speed) may differ from someone else, but these pieces generally move at a slower pace, typically at a pace slower than you can walk. So imagine walking normally down the street…these pieces of music have a beat that moves slower than every time you take a step. This helps with sleep because the pieces are less energetic: imagine listening to something very fast…you probably will feel more awake, likely because your brain is processing more information at a quicker rate.
Again, I have over-simplified everything, but this gives us a good foundation, and later I can go into more depth in future posts.
Now, let’s talk about the top five most stereotypical pieces of classical music to fall asleep to (in no particular order):
1. Brahms: “Wiegenlied”
Also known as Brahms’ Lullaby, this is the true classic of fall-asleep-to-classical-music. Published in 1868, this is the only piece on the list that contains a vocal part (seemingly going against what I stated earlier). But this piece is so synonymous with sleep that leaving it off the list would likely be considered heretical.
Originally written for voice and piano, the piece has two verses, though the second verse was added later as a revision. The first verse (“Good evening, good night”) comes from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which is a collection of German folk poems. The second verse is an adaptation of a poem by Georg Scherer. Even though the piece was originally written for voice and piano, you most often hear it in purely instrumental versions, whether that be piano and another instrument, or just one instrument alone. Many high-profile musicians have done their own versions of the “Lullaby,” including Yo-Yo Ma and Kenny G.
Guten Abend, gut’ Nacht,
mit Rosen bedacht,
mit Näglein besteckt,
schlupf’ unter die Deck’:
Morgen früh, wenn Gott will,
wirst du wieder geweckt.
Guten Abend, gut’ Nacht,
von Englein bewacht,
die zeigen im Traum
dir Christkindleins Baum:
schlaf nun selig und süss,
schau im Traum’s Paradies.
Good evening, good night,
With roses covered,
With cloves adorned,
Slip under the covers.
Tomorrow morning, if God wills,
you will wake once again.
Good evening, good night.
By angels watched,
Who show you in your dream
the Christ-child’s tree.
Sleep now blissfully and sweetly,
see the paradise in your dream.
The content of the text is self-explanatory: it literally talks about falling asleep.
Musically, the piece is very short. For me, the most “relaxing” element of the music is its use of syncopation in the piano. The right hand plays a repetitive syncopation that together with the left hand creates a composite that accounts for every eighth note within each measure. And since the syncopation is subtle (and used within a composite), we meet the requirement of a relaxing, repetitive rhythm.
If it’s been a while since you last listened to this piece, here’s a recording as it was originally written with voice and piano:
2. Debussy: “Clair de lune”
Originally part of a four-movement suite for piano, “Clair de lune” is the third movement of Debussy’s Suite bergamasque, based on poems by Paul Verlaine. The suite was originally written in 1890, but then revised before being published in 1905.
“Clair de lune” (translation: moonlight) is instantly recognizable by most people around the world, and is a common piece for young pianists to learn.
I personally find this piece hypnotic. Unlike the other pieces on the list, “Clair de lune” is less rhythmically repetitive; it goes back-and-forth between consistent eighth notes (particularly in the left hand) and moments of just chords with lots of time separating each chord. The musical space that is created has a more dream-like quality to me, and also (I find) mimics my breathing, where the moments of space are where I would hold my breath as if doing a breathing exercise.
This piece also has a sparkly, twinkly color to it…this is hard to explain in words, but when you listen to it you understand what I mean, and this largely has to do with Debussy’s orchestration and use of open and/or large intervals.
3. Debussy: Rêverie
Another Debussy piece, though possibly less instantly recognizable by the general public, Rêverie (translation: dream) is another piano piece also from 1890, and was one of his first early successes.
Unlike “Clair de lune,” this piece is less “open” (in terms of musical space) and much more consistent rhythmically…in fact, it is extremely rare when eighth notes do stop in this piece.
The melody is very simple and is repeated frequently, and the piece as a whole goes through several tonal centers, which makes it different from the other pieces on this list. The work is still very tonal, though, as this is an early Debussy work.
The piece does, however, use the pentatonic scale to its advantage, which creates a folk-tune quality to it. This quality definitely helps the music sound relaxing, and shows that Debussy was experimenting and starting to move towards his more mature works.
The pentatonic scale is a scale of five notes (penta=five), and is often considered the natural scale that humans sing in. If you want proof of that, check out this video where Bobby McFerrin gets an audience to sing the pentatonic scale without explaining to them what he’s doing.
4. Chopin: Nocturne, Op. 9 No. 2
Considered Chopin’s most famous piece, this is the second nocturne from a set of three written when he was 20 years old between 1830-1832.
This piece has the most ornamentation of any piece on this list…in other words, the melody (which is repeated often) is embellished more and more with each repetition. This ornamentation doesn’t distract from the calm nature of the music, which I think is largely due to the orchestration. It also helps that the consistent rhythm in the left hand almost never ceases.
In order to maintain a sense of calm in the music, Chopin also uses form to his advantage, constantly returning to the main (A) theme. This is a way for Chopin to freely embellish the melody without distracting the listener too much. This is also the only piece on this list to end with a quasi-improvisational figure, but it only adds to the quality of the music and also isn’t a distraction.
5. Beethoven: “Moonlight” Sonata – 1st Movement
Our final piece on this list is the very famous, and recognizable, first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” piano sonata (have you noticed a theme yet…all piano music, and titles that have to do with night or sleep).
Officially Beethoven’s 14th piano sonata (a sonata is a large-scale work, often with a defined form, and usually for a solo instrument), this piece shares all of the characteristics of the other pieces already mentioned. This piece, however, is the only piece on this list to be in a minor key.
If you remember your general music classes from elementary school, we all were told that major keys sound “happy” and minor keys sound “sad.” This is, unsurprisingly, a HUGE over-simplification. Minor keys, in particular, can sound like any emotion…what makes minor keys so special is that they sound “unstable.”
Without going into music theory, minor keys are naturally less stable than major keys. The classic counter-example for “minor=sad” is to listen to the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. This symphony (which you are all familiar with) is also in a minor key, but does not sound sad at all…instead, it sounds like there is a struggle, or sounds like madness, or power, or any other adjective that comes to your mind, but sad it is not.
The “Moonlight” Sonata also has this unstable quality to it, but in a much more subtle way. The rhythm and melody are calm, but the harmonies often exemplify that “unstable” quality. The reason I love listening to this piece for sleep is precisely because of that unstable quality.
For me, the music imitates my struggle with falling asleep. I know that sleep is attainable, and often I am very close to falling asleep, but for some reason just can’t quite get there. I can relate to the subtle struggle in the music (though my personal struggle is less subtle), and I am sort of accepting my struggle while listening to the music as it lulls me into some level of relaxation.
This is my personal experience with this piece, but maybe when you listen to the music you will attribute some other struggle with the music, and I think accepting that struggle can be very powerful…sort of like letting something off of your chest, but through music.
These pieces may be stereotypical to fall asleep to, but they sure do work, and often work very well. These are the prime examples we should look to for the qualities that makes a piece of classical music sleep-inducing.
Let me know, which of these pieces have you played in the background to help you fall asleep? Are you going to revisit any of these pieces? What’s your favorite piece of classical music to fall asleep to?
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