• Kara DeMaio

Can Music Help You Sleep Better?



Something you may not know about me is that I've been suffering from insomnia for ... well, it feels like my whole life. For as long as I can remember, and even when I was a young kid, I have always had a difficult time falling and staying asleep. In high school and college, I pulled all-nighters regularly, and not because I wanted or needed to for school. I simply couldn't keep my mind or body to quiet down long enough to sleep. As I've gotten older, it's become more difficult to recover from sleepless nights. My days are so much less productive and I start to feel terrible physically.


I feel like I've tried everything, from meditation and yoga before bed, to prescription sleep aids, to natural sleep aids, to light blocking masks and curtains, to sound machines. Nothing has ever helped on a regular basis, and my frustration has reached a boiling point. There are weeks at a time where I can sleep okay, but it's rare that I get more than five solid uninterrupted hours of sleep a night. The past few weeks have been exceptionally difficult, and there have been multiple days in a row where I haven't slept at all.


So what do I do when I'm frustrated by something I can't figure out? I read and read and read as much as I can about it to try to learn something new. And then I love to share it with all of you!


One of the things I've been reading a lot about is music and how it relates to sleep. The Sleep Foundation reports that in one study, adults who listened to 45 minutes of music before going to sleep reported having better sleep quality beginning on the very first night. The study also showed that listening to music before bed has a cumulative affect on sleep, meaning that the more often you do it, the better sleep you experience.


Because I struggle the most with actually falling asleep, I've been researching how music actually decreases the time it takes people to fall asleep at night.

In a study of women with symptoms of insomnia, participants played a self-selected album when getting into bed for 10 consecutive nights. Before adding music to their evening routine it took participants from 27 to 69 minutes to fall asleep, after adding music it only took 6 to 13 minutes. That's a big difference!


One of the other major issues I have at night is that once I fall asleep, I am a light sleeper and wake up easily and often.

There have been times where I've drifted off and woken up no less than 20 times in a few hours. It leads to me feeling less rested than if I didn't sleep at all, and I feel tired and cranky the whole next day. According to these same research studies, incorporating music into your nighttime routine also helps improve sleep efficiency. This means that once you fall asleep, it's more likely you'll stay asleep, leaving you feeling rested and refreshed in the morning.


As someone who loves to better understand how things work, I want to know more about how music helps to do all of this. Did you know that when we hear music, there are all kinds of steps happening inside of us to convert sound waves coming into our ears into electrical signals in our brain. As our brain works to interpret and understand these sounds, there is a domino effect that happens physically within our bodies, and some of these effects either directly induce sleep or reduce some of the issues that get in the way of sleep. Many studies show that music helps because it triggers our bodies to regulate hormones including the stress hormone cortisol. Listening to music helps to lower levels of cortisol and triggers the release of dopamine, a hormone released during pleasurable activities, like eating, exercise and sex. It's because of this release that some people feel relief from acute and chronic pain as well. And because of the way music helps to relax our autonomous nervous system (think the processes we don't have to think about in our lungs, heart and digestive system), it leads to slower breathing, lower heart rate and reduced blood pressure.


So, now that we know how it works, what is the best type of music to listen to before bed? Well, the answer isn't as black and white as we'd like. Studies haven't really pinpointed the types of music that work best for people, because it seems to be individual to the person. What the research does suggest, however, is that tempo is important because the body syncs up better with slower music.


Here are some tips from The Sleep Foundation on how to incorporate music into your evening routine for better, more efficient sleep:

  • Make it a habit: Routine is great for sleep. Create evening rituals that give the body sufficient time to wind down, incorporating music in a way that’s calming and consistent.

  • Find enjoyable songs: If a pre-made playlist isn’t working, try making a mix of songs that you find enjoyable. While many people benefit from songs with a slower tempo, others may find relaxation with more upbeat music. Feel free to experiment and see what works best.

  • Avoid songs that cause strong emotional reactions: We all have songs that bring up strong emotions. Listening to those while trying to sleep may not be a great idea, so try music that’s neutral or positive.

  • Be careful with headphones: Headphones and earbuds may cause damage to the ear canal while sleeping if the volume is too high. Sleeping with earbuds can also lead to a buildup of earwax and may increase the risk of ear infections. Instead, try setting up a small stereo or speaker somewhere close to the bed. Choosing speakers without bright light, which can interfere with sleep, and find a volume that is soothing and not disruptive.

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