Sleep, Meditation, and Music: A User’s Guide

Key Points

  • Sleep, meditation, and music benefit your health and support each other when used correctly.

  • Music for meditation and sleep have similarities but aim for slightly different effects on the brain.

  • Choose music for sleep and meditation based on tempo, frequencies, soothing sounds, and personal preference.

If you're like most stressed-out Americans, you're always looking for better ways to sleep. Two methods you've probably heard about are meditating and listening to music — possibly simultaneously. However, what's the real relationship between sleep, meditation, and music?

The answer is complex because while research indicates that meditation and music are good for sleep, they do more to your mind and body than simply chill you out. Read on to understand how to use meditation and music to get more and better sleep.

Meditation and Sleep

Meditation has become ever more popular in the Western world as a way to relax, and many people include it in their evening wind-down routines. Research supports the connection between meditation and good sleep and meditation's overall de-stressing qualities.

However, meditation and mindfulness practices weren't originally used to put you to sleep. They were used to wake you up — in the spiritual sense. The word meditation comes from the Latin word for "concentrate," and concentration on particular thoughts or experiences (like breathing) is at the heart of the practice. The idea is to get in touch with the deeper reality beneath the daily hubbub.

Man sleeping with headphones

As a result, meditation isn't always relaxing or even pleasant — sometimes, clearing away the hubbub means facing things you've been avoiding. With proper instruction, meditation helps you handle those scary things; the result is better sleep because those suppressed worries no longer haunt you. If meditation puts you directly to sleep, it somewhat misses the point.

"If the purpose [of meditation] is to change the brain… then it's more benefit to stay awake," says Franklin College meditation lecturer Kathy Carlson. However, the changes that meditation brings to the brain likely aid sleep in the long run.

"If a person suffers from anxiety, reducing the anxiety is going to help them sleep better," Carlson explains.

Nonetheless, meditation often prepares the mind for sleep because of something the two have in common: the de-emphasis on external stimulation. That means that music for meditation and music for sleep have overlapping qualities: They both tend to be less stimulating than music designed for entertainment.

Meditation Music and Sleep Music

Meditation aims to draw the mind away from the material world and into the inner realm. That's why traditional meditation music, from Buddhist mantras to Gregorian chants, repeat musical motifs, words, and phrases that reflect spiritual beliefs. Since the 1970s, Western composers interested in meditation, primarily those in the modern-classical and New Age genres, have used some of its concepts in their music, such as composers John Cage and Ben Johnston.

Music for meditation is like meditation itself — it's not meant to put you to sleep, but it doesn't stimulate you in the same way as music that makes you dance, cry, or bite your nails during a tense movie scene. That's why meditation music is often useful for people seeking help with their sleep.

There's also a large body of music specifically designed to help you sleep, easily found on streaming services and sleep apps. What makes these tracks good for sleep? For more on that, you must understand the complex relationship between your brain and music.

Why Music (Sometimes) Helps You Sleep

Unless you're one of the rare people with amusia (tone deafness), music strongly impacts your emotions. No wonder it's everywhere: Music provides emotional cues in movies and TV shows, sets the tone in certain stores, and punctuates ritual occasions like weddings and graduations. When your brain processes the sound waves of music, it sets off a cascade of chemicals in your brain and body.

Woman sleeping with ear buds

Exactly which chemicals do what depends on the nature of the music and your personal response to it — different people have different tastes. Nonetheless, certain patterns emerge.

Research indicates that music boosts the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, which are connected to happy feelings (and which some recreational drugs stimulate). This may or may not be relaxing, depending on the circumstances. After all, dancing in a noisy club also stimulates those neurotransmitters, but you're unlikely to nod off on the dance floor unless you've had a few too many.

A more pertinent finding shows that music lowers cortisol, sometimes called "the stress hormone." One study found that patients undergoing a stressful event (hip surgery) while listening to music had less cortisol in their systems than patients going through the same procedure who did not hear any music.

Other research suggests that listening to music reduces your sense of physical pain, probably because of the dopamine release. Since stress and pain are two of the biggest causes of insomnia, it's no surprise that music helps many people sleep.

Yet another reason music aids sleep is that it masks other, more annoying sounds. Sounds of traffic, dripping faucets, and chattering neighbors make sleep difficult because of their erratic and unmelodious nature. Music creates a more pleasant soundscape to cover up those noises.

What Is the Best Music for Sleep?

When choosing your sleep music, pick something you like. Music that annoys you will probably keep you awake. However, not every kind of music that makes you happy helps you fall asleep because good feelings are often energizing. For sleep, choose music that's pleasant but not too stimulating.

As previously mentioned, some musical tracks are designed specifically for relaxation and sleep and usually include certain science-backed musical elements. Streaming services like Spotify and sleep apps have dedicated sleep music playlists. Before choosing the right sleep music for you, it's essential to understand the sonic vocabulary.

Man sleeping on sofa listening to music

Beats Per Minute (BPM)

Researchers have found that a musical rhythm of 60 to 80 BPM is the most relaxing, probably because that's the same pace as the average resting human heartbeat. While BPM information isn't always available on streaming apps, several websites let you look up the BPM of almost any song by entering the name into a search engine.

If you're not sure which songs to start with, check out Snooze's list of the most relaxing songs, which all have a "heartbeat" tempo or slower. They also come from a range of genres.

Many people think classical music is quieter and more relaxing than modern popular music, but that's only partly true. Symphony, ballet music, and opera are quite dramatic (there's a reason John Williams drew on Wagner to score the Star Wars movies). Choose classical pieces with slower tempos — often the middle sections of three- or four-part symphonies — when you want to relax.

Binaural Beats

"Binaural beats" have a somewhat misleading name because they don't have a thumping rhythm. The "beat" refers to the rhythmic frequency that all sounds have.

A binaural beat takes advantage of stereo headphone technology by feeding the sound of one frequency into one ear and a different frequency into the other ear. Though it sounds chaotic, your brain harmonizes the two into a third frequency.

Woman with ear buds sleeping

This harmonizing process affects brain function by getting in tune with the frequencies of the brain itself. The term "brain waves" refers to the electronic signals with which brain cells communicate. These signals have their own wave frequencies, just like musical sounds do, and they differ at various stages of consciousness.

  • Delta waves (1 to 4 Hz) happen at the deepest stage of sleep.

  • Theta waves (4 to 8 Hz) occur in the REM (intense dreaming) sleep stage.

  • Alpha waves (8 to 13 Hz) occur in light sleep.

  • Beta waves (14 to 30 Hz) are the frequency of normal wakefulness.

  • Gamma waves (30 to 50 Hz) signal heightened alertness.

It's possible that if you listen to binaural beats in which the third tone (the tone your brain creates) is at the same frequency as a particular brain wave, it puts the brain in the same state as that brain wave. In other words, higher frequencies make you more alert and focused, while lower frequencies help you relax.

For instance, another study of pre-operative anxiety found that binaural beats in the delta frequency range significantly reduce stress compared to the control group. If you're looking for deep sleep music, look for delta wave frequencies in your streaming service.

Solfeggio Frequencies

Solfeggio frequencies also coordinate sound waves with brain waves. Instead of the binaural-beats system of creating the correct frequency by combining two beats, the solfeggio system corresponds sonic frequencies directly to brain-wave frequencies.

Woman sleeping while listening to music

If you're a classically trained singer or musician, you probably know solfeggio as the name of the old six-tone scale: the "do-re-mi-fa-so-la." The medieval Gregorian chants' distinct intervals come from that scale. Researchers have identified the frequencies of each tone and tied them to specific emotional states due to their harmony with brain waves that signal different states of consciousness (delta, theta, etc.). There's reason to believe that using solfeggio frequencies with this in mind has healing properties.

As with the binaural beats, the lower frequencies connect to more relaxed states. Evidence suggests that music based on the 432 Hz and 528 Hz tones enables sleep and stress relief.

Aficionados have since expanded on the six-tone system to as many as nine frequencies, to which they ascribed benefits like enlightenment and transformation that fit into meditation practice. Therefore, you can use solfeggio tones for both meditation and sleep by selecting different frequencies.

Nature Sounds

Thanks to the many millennia humans spent living in the natural world, your brain responds favorably to low sounds that indicate a pleasant environment: flowing water, gentle rain, a light breeze, rustling leaves, etc. Some sleep apps offer tracks consisting only of these sounds, but other tracks combine them with music for extra calming properties. This could be the right touch if you enjoy camping or staying in a remote mountain cabin.

Using Meditation and Music To Aid Sleep

While meditation and sleep are different states, use music and other sounds to help you with both as part of your evening wind-down routine. Meditation aims for a calm, relaxed state that's still mentally alert; deploy these same resources in different ways to aid sleep.

Spend half an hour before bed meditating to a binaural beats track set at beta or alpha frequencies, then switch to delta when you're ready to doze off in bed. Do something similar with different solfeggio frequencies.

Many sleep apps offer bundled services for meditation, music, and sleep. For instance, use a guided meditation audio track, with or without music, then switch to sleep music when you go to bed. Such services are a good way to start if you're new to meditation and are trying to work out a routine that works for you.

If you don't have time to do a whole meditation session before bed, meditation at any time of day can still improve sleep by helping you de-stress and discipline your mind. As Kathy Carlson advises, "The most important thing is to have a daily practice."

Woman with ear buds and phone in bed

Sleep Better With Meditation and Music

Whatever routine you develop for meditation and sleep, rest assured that you're doing wonders for your health. Everyday stress and insomnia lead to multiple physical and mental problems down the road, so don't feel guilty about sitting around, listening to music, and doing nothing. A great night's sleep better prepares you to tackle the day.

Subscribe to Snooze to learn more about building a good sleep routine.

Was this article helpful?