Sleep of Ages: the past, present and future of music for sleep

That an ever-growing portion of the world’s population is struggling with sleep is well documented. In the last few years, the number of prescriptions of sleeping pills dispensed has reached more than 40 million. However, there are still people that would rather have a better night’s sleep avoiding the side effects and risk of dependency that some of these medications present. Cue the music...

Since 2015, playlists on Spotify crafted specifically for sleep have become very popular. As of September 2015, 11.6% of the albums added to the Spotify catalog were related to the relaxation and sleeping category. This amounted to 2.8 million playlists on Spotify with music related to sleep.

Musicians have also seen the need to mix music and sleep into their creative process. For example, in 2016, Radiohead explored the area of creating playlists for sleep. Thom Yorke, Radiohead’s front man, released through BBC Radio a 45 minute long mix of songs that aimed to ease sleep; it also included a live performance of his song "Bloom". 

Crafting music for sleep does not end in just making playlists. Although sometimes artists like Ed Sheeran unconsciously create music for sleep, many musicians have crafted tunes specifically for "the midnight hour" or the expressed goal of sleep—an approach that has been used from the antique Neelambari ragas found in traditional Indian music to Chopin’s Nocturnes.  

Contemporary classical and electronic artists (and even celebrities) have added to the cannon of calm by composing music for sleep, but this time round, often taking cues from science and research. Starting with Robert Rich’s sleep concerts designed to be fertile beds of restive imagination to contemporary classical composer Max Richter’s Sleep, an eight hour live chamber performance for repose, modern approaches to music for sleep have often have a view towards understanding the physical and psychological effects of listening to music while asleep.

One of the most renowned and reviewed songs of recent times specially crafted for sleep is Marconi Union’s "Weightless". Released in 2011, this song has been described as being one of the most relaxing songs out there. From the reduction in the beats per minute from the beginning to the end of the song, its specific duration, and the fact that it has no repetitive melody, the entire composition appears to be a perfectly graded musical experience for relaxation. The group collaborated with sound therapist Lyz Cooper to understand what musical properties, and concurrent physiological effects such as entrainment, may be most helpful for inducing relaxation in their audience.

While gathering data after its release, it has been noted that Weightless induces a reduction in both in anxiety levels and reported sleep quality. When we recently interviewed Marconi Union band member Duncan Meadows about the public response to Weightless, he had this to say:

Looking back no-one involved had an idea of what would happen with “Weightless”, but personally, the gratifying thing for me is that we heard about people (and they contact us) about how Weightless had helped them overcome and manage different health problems. Although we’re very keen to stress that for us “Weightless” is a piece of music, the fact that people are taking these things away is incredible
— Duncan Meadows, "Music, Health & AI: Making Unwind.ai with Marconi Union"

Although this track, and music in general, is recommended to sleep or relax – some people may need a more personalized approach in order to actually fall asleep with music. Integrating the spirit and intent of "Weightless" with cutting-edge technology in Unwind.ai, Marconi Union created a new piece, called "Adrift". This song is played through a unique system developed at Sync Project that harnesses the benefit of biometric data and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to provide a personalized performance that takes into consideration the actual heart rate of the listener before playing the music. The piece is designed to never play the same way twice so whether it’s been a hectic day or you’ve managed to get to bed at a reasonable time, the performance can be tuned to your needs.

Approaches to music for sleep like Unwind.ai tie the age-old intuition of music’s calming effects with a system for evaluation and personalization, which we hope signal a new chapter in the history of music for sleep. 

Written by Paola Solis and Alex de Raadt