Sleeping Music: Find the Soundtrack of Your Dreams

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Key Points

  • Music helps people relax and improves their sleep quality, according to research.

  • Good sleeping music has a slow pace and includes soothing sounds, sometimes from nature.

  • Many streaming services and sleep apps feature sleeping music playlists.

  • Avoid sleeping in earbuds or playing the radio all night because those may lead to other problems.

More than 300 years ago, the poet William Congreve wrote that "Music has charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak." Modern sleep scientists don't put it in quite those terms, but they agree that music helps people relax and get better sleep. So what makes good sleeping music?

The answer varies from person to person, but there are some general qualities to look for in sleeping music that works for most people. This article reviews the science and aesthetics of sleep music and what to avoid. If you're a fan of both music and sleep — and who isn't — read on!

Can You Listen to Music to Fall Asleep?

Woman lying in bed asleep listing to music on phone.

Ever since the first mother sang her first lullaby to her fussy baby, people have known that soothing music aids sleep — at least in children. Overall, research supports the idea that listening to music helps children and adults fall asleep faster, and there's some reason to believe that it improves sleep quality. How does that work?

This Is Your Brain on Music

Who's better, the Beatles or the Stones? What's the greatest movie soundtrack ever? What's the worst song of the 21st century? Ask any of these questions, and expect some heated debate. That's because music evokes strong emotions and, often, memories. Researchers learned how music triggers these emotions in your brain in the modern era.

Music that listeners enjoy triggers neurotransmitters — the chemicals that send signals between the cells or your brain — associated with pleasure, like dopamine and serotonin. They're actually the same neurotransmitters that recreational drugs set off, which is why people often get a "high" feeling from their favorite music, though thankfully without the hangover.

Evidence also suggests that pleasant music lowers levels of cortisol, sometimes called the "stress hormone," because it spikes when you're anxious. There's even evidence that music reduces the sensation of pain, perhaps because of all these factors combined.

Music also appears to interact with the hippocampus, the part of the brain that stores memories. That's no doubt why music that you heard in the past often strongly evokes memories of that time in your life. It also suggests why people from different places and times have such different musical tastes: the music you associate with good memories isn't the same as the music your great-grandfather danced to.

At the same time, overmuch repetition triggers negative emotions — the "overplayed song" phenomenon. The right balance between familiarity and novelty in music is key to musical pleasure, and different people have different tastes in the matter.

Woman resting on blue couch with blue headphones.

The Research on Music and Sleep

Those triggering effects of music show that it makes you happy, but that's a different matter from putting you to sleep. After all, plenty of happy experiences are stimulating and keep you awake — think of dancing at a nightclub. However, research on music and sleep together support the idea that certain music improves slumber.

Studies of premature infants and school children have found that they sleep better with soothing background music, supporting the lullaby effect. However, the same is true all the way to the other end of the lifespan: older adults also showed improved sleep quality and duration after listening to calming music at bedtime.

"Soothing" and "calming" are the operative words here. Not just any music puts people to sleep.

Which Types of Music Are the Best for Sleeping?

Asian man with white headphones listening to music with eyes closed.

In May 2023, entertainment conglomerate Universal Music Group made a deal with AI company Endel to create what those in the industry call "functional music." This music isn't about making pop hits or personal expression.

As Rolling Stone reporter Ethan Millman explained, "Endel makes these tracks by taking stems that artists provide and morphing them into perpetually changing songs that fit a listener’s desired feeling or vibe." One of the most common functions of functional music is sleep.

While that might sound a bit clinical, the fact is that the music you feel a deep personal connection to probably isn't the best sleeping music. Music that evokes strong emotions and memories sometimes helps you get your mind off the day's worries, but if you really want to turn your brain off and get into sleep mode, consider looking for features in music that don't normally show up on your playlist.

Heartbeat Rhythms

Studies supporting the soothing benefits of music usually choose tracks with a rhythm of 60 to 80 beats per minute (BPM), which, not coincidentally, is about the same pace as the resting human heart rate. If you're not sure what the BPM of a given track is, just take your pulse while listening to it, and you'll know if it's in the right range.

Nature Sounds

Many musical tracks designed specifically for sleep include sounds that you'd hear if you were sleeping in a woodland cabin: gentle rain, distant thunder, flowing streams, leaves rustling in the wind, etc. Even if you're not the camping type, these sounds seem to signal to the ancestral brain that you're in a friendly environment and help you relax.

Instrumental Tracks

Instrumental pieces were once a lot more popular than they are now, but in the modern era, most people don't hear them except in the background of a film or TV show they're watching. Words in music do engage the brain more, but if you're trying to sleep, that's not necessarily a good thing; the idea of sleep music is that you're letting it wash over you more than you're actually listening to it. So even if you're not the instrumental type, try a few lyric-free tracks.

Binaural Beats

Binaural recording is a method of recording sound with two microphones so that the resultant track sends sounds into each ear to imitate the way you hear sounds in real life. Binaural beats use this technique to send a sound with a different frequency into each ear, which your brain synthesizes to create a third frequency. This activity sets your brain waves to match the third frequency.

This matters because the frequency of your brain waves establishes your state of consciousness. Low frequencies, in the one to four Hz range, are delta waves, and they're the waves of a brain in deep sleep. Therefore, musical tracks designed around a binaural beat at that frequency have calming powers.

What Song Makes You Fall Asleep Fast?

Black woman wearing glasses resting on couch listening to music.

While research supports the overall ability of calming music to hasten sleep, there isn't one magic song guaranteed to knock you out. However, British market research outfit Mindlab International did identify the top 10 most relaxing songs according to their measurements of subjects' physical and mental responses to listening to them.

While some famous names like Coldplay and Enya popped up on the list, others came from the functional-music world. The number one track, "Weightless," was the product of a collaboration between English ambient band Marconi Union and British Academy of Sound Therapy specialist Lyz Cooper specifically to lower the listener's heart rate and cortisol levels.

Cooper explained: "It contains a sustaining rhythm that starts at 60 beats per minute and gradually slows to around 50. While listening, your heart rate gradually comes to match that beat. It is important that the song is eight minutes long because it takes about five minutes for this process, known as entrainment, to occur."

It's worth noting that personal-care firm Radox Spa commissioned both the study and the creation of the song, so there's a bit of self-interest at work here. Still, if you're interested, the full list is as follows:

10. "We Can Fly" by Rue du Soleil (Café Del Mar)

9. "Canzonetta Sull'aria" by Mozart

8. "Someone Like You" by Adele

7. "Pure Shores" by All Saints

6. "Please Don't Go" by Barcelona

5. "Strawberry Swing" by Coldplay

4. "Watermark" by Enya

3. "Mellomaniac (Chill Out Mix)" by DJ Shah

2. "Electra" by Airstream

1. "Weightless" by Marconi Union

Because every person has a unique physiology, you'll probably need to find your perfect evening playlist by trial and error. Music streaming services like YouTube and Spotify have channels and playlists of music specifically for sleep and relaxation for you to try out.

Most sleep apps also have a library of music with snooze-inducing qualities, with the added benefit of a timer that shuts off music after a certain period so that it doesn't run your phone all night.

Some music playlists and apps advertise as being "for deep sleep," but there's no real difference between sleeping music and deep sleeping music. During the night, you want to cycle through all four stages of sleep several times, from shallow to deep and back again.

Are There Any Downsides to Sleeping With Music?

Black man asleep lying on couch with white headphones.

Sleeping with music on is fine for your health and has few downsides, especially compared to some other sleep aids like sedative drugs. However, it doesn't work for everyone. Some people need silence to sleep, and even the most calming music is too distracting.

Still, not all of those experiments supporting the sleep-inducing benefits of music had subjects actually falling asleep to the tunes. Even listening for 30 to 45 minutes right before you go to bed puts you in the right mood to enjoy the silence after that. So don't give up on sleeping music just because you need your bedroom to be as quiet as a tomb.

On the other hand, if you're the sort of person who simply must have music playing to fall asleep, you might have a neighbor next door or even in bed who disagrees. Resolving that problem with earbuds is tempting, but that brings other dangers. Sleeping with earbuds in encourages wax buildup that muffles your hearing — and, at worst, encourages infections and other kinds of ear damage.

Fortunately, the tech industry has created alternatives to traditional earbuds that are better for sleeping. One is headband headphones, which are just what they sound like — headphones attached to a headband strategically placed over your ears. The sound quality isn't as good, but they're more comfortable than earbuds.

Another option is pillow speakers. These come in a few different varieties: pillows with embedded speakers, speakers to embed into a pillow, and speakers to put under your pillow. Whichever you choose, they play music straight into your ears as you sleep without the need to attach anything to your head. Because your head is right on top of them, play them at a very low volume.

Aside from the nuisance issue, another thing to watch out for when you're setting up sleeping music is that your source doesn't change over the night. This was a hazard with the old-school approach to sleeping music, the radio.

Commercials are louder and deliberately more stimulating than standard music, and stations sometimes switch formats to talk or a different kind of music late at night. A change of that nature potentially disturbs your sleep cycles — even if it doesn't wake you, it might arouse you enough to prevent deep sleep.

For that reason, streaming apps and non-commercial classical stations are usually your best bet for sleeping music. Some radios also have timers that you set to turn off the machine after 30 or 45 minutes so the sound won't keep going all night.

Make Your Own Lullaby

Little girl lying on grass listening to music with eyes closed.

Music is a great addition to your nightly routine so long as you take a few sensible precautions. Choose tracks with calming characteristics, keep the volume low, and set a shutoff point if you decide to keep the music playing as you fall asleep.

Music is the perfect accompaniment to a relaxing night with all the activities that put you in the mood for shuteye, like turning down the lights, meditating, journaling, taking a bath, and anything else that soothes away the day's stress.

Want to know more about music and sleep? Follow Snooze!

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