Sleep and Music – Music and Sleep: That is the Question

Let me introduce myself. I am a composer with a particular interest in music for films. I studied music at some of the best institutions in the world: Berklee College of Music (BM), the New England Conservatory of Music (MM) and the University of Edinburgh (Ph. D). During and after these years I have been very fortunate to be constantly composing for both the concert stage and the screen. My musical interests extend into sound design and music for interactive environments including games. I presently hold a professorship in the Interactive Arts and Media Department at Columbia College Chicago.

Having said this, let us move to the question of whether music can help you sleep better? Well, that all depends on what you are listening to. Music has that magical ability to bring back long forgotten memories, create imaginary atmospheres, evoke emotions from the depths of human experiences as well as a multitude of intangible and other effects. Music can lift you, drop you and paralyze you if you’re not careful. Obviously, listening to music that “charges” one’s emotions would not be a good choice to induce sleep. When choosing music to promote sleep, many people associate “classical” music or some kind of “new age” music with the task. There are many reasons why people may find certain types of music relaxing, and although delving into psychoacoustics is beyond the purview of this column, it is fair to say that there are certain characteristics which exist in the musical spectrum that contribute to sending the mind on a journey, and finally sleep. In its simplest form, long sustained chords, otherwise known as “pads”, are particularly effective. Other musical devices include tonal melody, tonal or modal harmonies and relaxed rhythms. Good examples of this might be Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony, Claire de Lune by Claude Debussy, and the Faure Requiem.

One very important consideration is the distraction level around the listener. In other words, sound level and quality play major roles in the listening experience when trying to sleep. Musical absorption is the key to immersion. Getting lost in the patterns and raw sound of the music will cause the mind to wander and thus take control and allow the listener to sleep. Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Terry Reilly particularly stand out as good examples of this.

A fascinating point regarding all of this is the paradox that the more musical experience a person has, either theoretical or practical, the less effective musical listening becomes as a sleep aid. What makes this possible? Listening is a trained skill, and as far as classical music is concerned, learning how to listen enhances the experience and activates the mind. When the mind is activated, the layers of musical complexity are revealed. This keeps the interest level in the music high and makes it less likely to fall asleep. Of course, a person will eventually drop off due to sheer exhaustion.

There is an enormous amount of music which can possibly induce sleep. I will speak about these pieces as well and others which may be of interest in future columns.