Sleep is highly important for health in terms of recovery and is essential for learning and forming memories. Chronic sleep deprivation has been shown to decrease several important cognitive abilities such as creative and flexible thinking, planning, and effective communication. Therefore, one of the simplest ways to maintain your cognitive abilities, is to ensure that you get enough sleep. This seems to be easier said than done, as insomnia is a very common ailment. Estimates of prevalence of sleep disorders range from 30-40 % of all adults, with a subset of individuals experiencing severe daytime effects from insomnia. These reduce focus and concentration at work, as well as increase probability of accidents. They are also connected to a wide range of health problems including severe medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and depression. Sleep medication may provide easy relief but interest in non-medical ways to support sleep quality is growing. Recent evidence from research shows that music holds great promise in treatment of sleep disorders.
In 2014, a meta-analysis comparing ten randomized controlled trials of music listening for treatment of sleep disorders involving altogether 557 participants was published. The studies included in the meta-analysis used mostly subjective ratings of quality of sleep, but two also included data from polysomnography, which provides an objective measure of sleep quality. Polysomnography entails recording brain activity, heart rate, breathing, and eye and muscle movements during sleep. From these data, the different phases of sleep can be determined and as well as total sleep time, providing the basis for more precisely estimating sleep quality.
Most of the studies in the meta-analysis used western classical music, with a tempo of 60–80 beats per minute, slow and stable rhythm, tones low in pitch, and melody characterized as soothing. Here’s an example of a piece that mostly fits this description, which after a quick review seems to be included in a number of Spotify playlists people have intuitively created to help them sleep. This doesn’t mean that only classical music will work, though. The final outcome and effects will depend not only on the objective characteristics of the music but also on personal preference and on the specific reasons that underlie the sleep disorder. For some, classical music will be soothing, but for others it may be more of an annoyance than a relief.
What are the mechanisms through which music listening improves sleep? This question is still unresolved, but researchers have put forth a number of suggestions and hypotheses. For instance, scientists propose that the improvement in sleep could stem from the effects that music listening has on emotions and emotion-related physiology: Music listening has been connected to activation of brain areas important for pleasure and reward, and listening to soothing music has been shown to lower arousal, with subsequent decrease in heart rate and blood pressure.
Another way that music may influence sleep is through altering the release of hormones. For instance, music listening has been found to increase the release of endogenous opioids and oxytocin. Oxytocin is called the “cuddle hormone” and it is important for functions related to intimacy, reproduction and bonding. Endogenous opioids are the body’s own painkillers, functioning much like the opioids that are used in medicine. The release of these two hormones during music listening decrease stress, and experiences of physical as well as emotional pain, which may be at the root of some cases of sleep disorders.
Even though the mechanisms behind the effects of music listening on sleep quality are still unknown, anyone can already start experiencing these benefits. Music has been an intuitive way of improving sleep probably for as long as humans have had the capability to sing - in the form of a lullaby. Parents intuitively know that a state of high arousal before bedtime will not help the child fall asleep. Therefore, lullabies and bedtime stories read with a soothing voice have been used throughout history as a way to aid children sleep. Arousal-related mechanisms influence sleep throughout life, and a little help may be needed also as an adult for relaxing and calming down before bed. Obviously, there are many ways to calm down and relax, but music may be one of the most powerful, natural and enjoyable ones.
written by ketki karanam
Bernatzky, G., Presch, M., Anderson, M., & Panksepp, J. (2011). Emotional foundations of music as a non-pharmacological pain management tool in modern medicine. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 35(9), 1989–1999. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2011.06.005
Harrison, Y., & Horne, J. A. (2000). The impact of sleep deprivation on decision making: A review. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 6(3), 236–249. doi:10.1037/1076-898x.6.3.236
Wang, C.-F., Sun, Y.-L., & Zang, H.-X. (2014). Music therapy improves sleep quality in acute and chronic sleep disorders: A meta-analysis of 10 randomized studies. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 51(1), 51–62. doi:10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2013.03.008