How music assists with sleep and relaxation

Woman sleeping on bed next to window with blinds down

7 Oct 2020

We are a sleep deprived society. Research outlines the cost of inadequate sleep to our mental and physical health, our immune functioning and the cost to workplaces. The recommendations for a good sleep routine are well documented.  However the benefits of music listening for improved physiological relaxation and sleep are less known. Find out how music listening may be your ticket to a better night’s sleep.

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Some years ago when I was deep in the fog of nappies and sleepless nights, I was fortunate enough to attend a silent meditation ‘Deep Rest’ retreat. These sorts of retreats have a reputation for being somewhat austere with strict routines of mealtimes, jobs, teachings and often uncomfortable hours sitting in meditation. However, in this particular retreat, we were encouraged to rest as much as we needed. This meant we could choose to sleep, rest, snooze or lounge at any point in time during the day. I’m sure that anyone experiencing the extreme sleep deprivation of early parenting will understand the glee with which I took to my bed at every single opportunity …. break time after breakfast? Time for a nap. Still snoozy after mid-morning meditation? Time for a doze. Post lunch dip? Off to bed.

Initially I was worried that this much sleeping would mean that I would be awake all night. However, I found the opposite was true - I slept solidly every night of the retreat. I was so surprised by this! And it made me realise that lack of sleep and rest has become normalised.

A sleep deprived society

We are a sleep deprived society. Given that good sleep is an essential part of physical and mental health, this is not good.  A report commissioned by the Sleep Health Foundation found that 4 out of 10 adults experienced insufficient sleep during 2016-17. The health ramifications for sleep deprivation can be severe, with the report describing:

  • up to 3000 deaths per year result from falling asleep whilst operating machinery or driving,
  • compromised general and immune health, and,
  • an estimation by the World Health Organisation and the Sleep Health Foundation, that the cost in loss of wellbeing for workers in Australia was a whopping $40.1 billion.

Sleep disturbances can exacerbate mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder, and impact our immune functioning. In the face of COVID-19 and the need for optimal physical and mental health and resilient immune systems, sleep health has become even more essential.

Improving sleep with music

Good sleep routines (see here for a reminder), and dietary considerations are well recognised as being important factors in improving sleep.

What is less known, is that music listening can significantly impact the autonomic nervous system - the part of our nervous system that regulates our breathing, heart rate, temperature, blood pressure and other basic bodily functions. This meta-analysis found that music can help to improve sleep for those experiencing acute and chronic sleep disorders. For chronic sleep conditions, it was found that a “cumulative dose”, that is repeated music listening over time, was essential for beneficial outcomes.

Photo: Eric Nopanen

What kind of music best supports physiological relaxation?

Not all music produces physiological relaxation. The recommendations, (which I must add is based on cultural norms in Western music so does not account for the many other cultural responses to music) are summarised here.

It suggests that if you want to unwind, it’s best to choose music that

  • you like (it is not very relaxing listening to something that grates)
  • is consistent, predictable and has a small range and steady pace
  • has descending, stepwise melodies
  • doesn’t change much in volume and pace
  • has a smooth and consistent texture
  • has strings and woodwind (flutes, clarinets etc) and less brass instruments (trumpets, trombones etc) and drums
  • has lots of repetition

A good example of this sort of music can be found here and, for parents wanting to help their children to sleep, look here.

Practice makes perfect

If you would like to explore using music as a support for better sleep, here are some tips:

  • Music listening for relaxation is more likely to be effective with regular practice. You will be more able to engage with the listening and the resulting physiological relaxation if you are familiar with the experience.
  • Getting into a routine of music listening before bed, or choosing a regular time of the day is a good idea. Perhaps you can work out the best time of day for you?
  • If you can practice music-assisted relaxation when you’re feeling OK, it will be more helpful when you are feeling anxious or struggling to sleep.
  • The more often you practice listening to music for relaxation, the easier and more effective it will be!

Related Resources

Header image: Gregory Pappas