Listening to music can be one of the most beneficial ways to relax and unwind before falling asleep. But why do we fall asleep listening to music? Today I’ll give a brief overview of the reasons why music can relax us and help us sleep.
(If you’d like to see a video on this article, check out my YouTube video.)
The importance of Music
Music is the universal language. In all cultures around the world there is some form of music, and music has always been connected to human life. Festivals, theatre, weddings, funerals, and other forms of celebration have long been music’s partner.
The Bible has thousands of references to music, both worship and social music, as early as Genesis 4:21 (“…the father of all those who play the harp and flute”), and has an entire book of songs known as the Psalms.
The ancient Greeks had music accompany almost every aspect of their life. Music was a big part of their religious beliefs and mythology (think Pan, who played the flute), and music was also incorporated into the theatre through the use of a chorus who would often sing their commentary on a play’s action.
It is also from ancient Greece that we have the oldest surviving complete musical composition, the Epitaph of Seikilos.
We know that throughout history music has played a crucial part in our lives, but some advancements in our understanding of how music affects us is pretty astonishing.
The Power of Music
One of the most powerful images I have ever seen came from the 2014 documentary Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory. This documentary showed how music can bring severe Alzheimer’s patients back to the present and be aware of their surroundings, often for the first time in years.
One of the patients (clip below) has severe dementia and cannot remember anything, and also hasn’t spoken in years. When headphones are placed on him and music from his youth is played, he suddenly snaps back to the present and sings the lyrics of the song. This song even keeps him in the present long enough to answer some interview questions about his younger days.
The exact ways music affects our brain, and to what extent, is still somewhat of a mystery. At the University of Central Florida, a popular course called “Music and the Brain” has been taught by neuroscientist Kiminobu Sugaya and violinist Ayako Yonetani where they explore how music impacts our brain.
According to them, music impacts every part of our brain. In the case of Alzheimer’s disease, music can increase the function of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memories, and the first part of the brain to be impacted by the disease.
Music can also leave a lasting impression on the cerebellum, which is responsible for storing physical memory. This is why many people who studied piano at a young age can still remember how to play their favorite piece. For a pop culture example, think of the climactic scene in The Notebook where Allie remembers how to play a piece on the piano, which then brings her back to the present for a moment.
(To see how music can affect each part of our brain, click here for an interactive tour.)
Music and Sleep
Studies have shown that listening to music for 45 minutes before bed can increase your chance of falling asleep quicker, staying asleep, and waking up feeling that the quality of your sleep improved.
Why does this happen?
First, if you listen to music that makes you happy, you will feel more relaxed as you listen to the music. Music can increase your dopamine and serotonin levels, both of which increase happiness.
Second, it’s important to not only listen to music that makes you happy, but to listen to music that falls within a certain tempo range. Tempo, or how fast or slow the beat of music is, should fall between 60-80 beats per minute. This range is suggested because that is the range of our resting heart rate, and we are looking to relax and lower our heart rate as we get ready for bed.
Music has shown to have a direct impact on our heart rate. Think about it: would you want to listen to incredibly fast, loud, hyped-up music as you’re trying to relax? Or would you go to a rave and listen to slow, quiet music? Music does a great job of influencing how we feel.
Along with listening to music in the tempo sweet-spot, it is also recommended to listen to instrumental music so that there is no distraction from lyrics. For a list of the most common pieces of classical music to fall asleep to, read my article here.
Finally, most people are probably wondering…do I have to listen to classical music before bed?
You should listen to any music you want to, as long as it meets the above criteria; if it makes you happy, is at a slower tempo, and possibly doesn’t have lyrics, then listen to it. The three most common genres of music to listen to before bed are classical, jazz, and folk, but go explore and figure out what music helps you unwind in the evening.
A quick recommendation: don’t listen to music with headphones and/or earbuds. Instead, use an external source. Along with being generally healthier for your ears (as long as you don’t turn the volume up too loud), there is less risk of falling asleep with headphones/earbuds on, which if done repeatedly could have long-lasting negative impacts on your health.
As this website continues to build and grow as a resource, explanations will continue to get more in-depth and analytical on more focused topics.
But as a start, this is a good way to introduce us to the huge topic that is music and sleep. Music’s impact on us is communally understood, yet scientifically can still be somewhat of a mystery.
Let me know, do you like listening to music before falling asleep? Does it help? Or will you start trying it now?
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