Monday 19 August 2019

A little night music

Music can be used to effectively lull you to sleep, but the type of songs you choose and the amount of time you listen for should be careful considerations, writes Shane Cochrane

Some people use music to give themselves more pleasant dreams
Some people use music to give themselves more pleasant dreams

'Intrigued by anecdotal evidence that some people manage their insomnia using music, researchers at the University of Sheffield, the University of London and the University of Lincoln wanted to know who was doing this, why they were doing it, and what they were listening to. So they did a survey.

Six hundred and fifty-one people - aged from 18 to 79 - from around the world completed it. Some 62pc of them said that they had used music as a sleep aid at least once in their lives, 36pc said they were using music in this way at least once a week, and 4.22pc said they were using it daily.

And when asked about why they listened to music at bedtime, most reported that it helped them to relax and fall asleep quicker.

However, when the respondents were asked to explain - in their own words - why they believed music helped them sleep, the true value of this survey was revealed.


Many of the respondents said that listening to music helped alter their mental state: it helped clear their minds or gave them something else to focus on. Some said that the music helped calm their racing thoughts.

Others reported that the music affected them physically.

"It works kind of like a lullaby," explained one of the respondents, "if the music is right, it can get me into a lovely sleepy state that makes it easier for my body to actually relax into sleep."

Another said the music helped them control their breathing, especially when they were feeling anxious.

Some of the respondents said they used music to help block out noises, such as a partner's snoring, or to fill the unbearable silence of the bedroom.

For many, the music helped distract them from unwelcome thoughts.

"If I have a lot going round my head, I think music is a good distraction, which can help you switch off or fall asleep," explained one respondent.

"It stops me thinking about unpleasant things," said another.

A few reported that music provided them with a sense of warmth and security. And a small number said that listening to music actually influenced their dreams.

"Music as a distraction, which was the second most commonly talked about reason for listening to music, is probably the one we were all expecting the most," says Dr Simon Durrant, one of the study's authors. "This is one of the problems people have: they have thoughts going round in their head and they can't get to sleep.

"A lot of people talked about physical relaxation; that music helped calm and slow their heart rate - which we weren't expecting.

"And some people said they were using music to give themselves more pleasant dreams. That was quite surprising. We really didn't think they would be using music for that."


Another of the study's surprises was the diversity of the music that people claimed to be listening to at bedtime. While the majority of the respondents reported that they listened to classical music to help them sleep, others said that rock, metal, jazz, folk, house, and electronic music helped them achieve the same end.

"We expected classical to come top, and it did," says Simon. "But I was surprised that rock music came second, to be honest."

As well as identifying their favourite musical genres, the respondents also listed the artists they like to drift off to. Bach topped the list. Ed Sheeran came second. Mozart was the third most popular musical sedative.

According to Dr Durrant, the wide range of music being used supports the theory that, when it comes to sleep, self-selected music is more potent than any of the commercially available sleep music.

"We've actually just completed a pilot study," he says, "where we tested people in a lab with different types of music to see how much it helped them sleep. And what seemed to help people sleep more than anything was letting them choose their own music. It seems personal selection is a key component."


About 10 to 15pc of the population regularly suffer from insomnia, and some of us are more vulnerable to it than others, says Breege Leddy, who runs the Insomnia Clinic in Kilnaleck, Co Cavan.

"Women are twice as likely as men to get insomnia," she explains. "People who suffer from depression are very vulnerable, as are people who are worriers and people who ruminate.

"Also, people who don't have nine-to-five working lives - like shift workers, the retired and the unemployed - are vulnerable to insomnia."

However, the biggest problem would appear to be our lifestyles.

"Our daytime lives are getting longer and longer," she says. "We're getting up earlier to commute and coming home later. Our daytime lives have become so much longer, and we're trying to fit so much in, that we're really neglecting our sleep."

Left untreated, short-term - or transient - insomnia can become chronic insomnia, which can severely damage our health.

"It can lead to impaired immune systems," says Breege. "It increases the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. In children, we know it can lead to growth suppression and an increased risk of obesity. We're also looking at a connection between poor sleep and premature ageing."

But even one night of disrupted sleep can have consequences. Researchers at Penn State University found that it could disrupt the release of the hormone vasopressin, which regulates the body's hydration, causing physical as well as mood and cognitive problems.

A study by Iowa State University found that one night of short sleep can make you angrier and less able to deal with challenging situations. And researchers at the University of Warwick discovered that a night of disrupted sleep can affect our ability to control our posture and balance, increasing the risk of falls, even in otherwise healthy adults. Sometimes, a night of poor sleep even makes us a danger to others.

"The most noticeable effect of a poor night's sleep is feeling sleepy the next day," says Breege.

"You might be a little irritable and your concentration levels may not be as good as they should be. But what's dangerous is that our judgement and focus may be impaired. So, things like driving and working with machinery can be dangerous and lead to deadly consequences."

To illustrate just how deadly, a study into the causes of car crashes in the US found that 16pc of all fatal crashes involved driver drowsiness.

"Being awake isn't the same as being alert," said Brian Tefft, the study's author. "Falling asleep isn't the only risk. Even if they manage to stay awake, sleep-deprived drivers are still at increased risk of making mistakes - like failing to notice something important, or misjudging a gap in the traffic - which can have tragic consequences."


Having established that music can be an effective way to manage insomnia, Dr Durrant and his colleagues want to take a closer look at the phenomenon.

"We want to test the different music genres more extensively," he says. "And we want to test people in their own homes with full polysomnography (which measures things like brainwaves, oxygen levels, heart rate and breathing during sleep) so we can monitor their sleep structure.

"We want to see if different genres - and even different pieces of music within those genres - have an effect on people.

"We're also going to compare music with lyrics to music without lyrics, because that might make a significant difference, at least in terms of how distracting music is."

Dr Durrant and his colleagues also want to test the theory that it may be possible to create a "perfect sleep song".

"We want to look at the characteristics of the music that is helping people sleep, to see if there's anything common in there that we can extract to put in a perfect sleep song," he says.

"But my suspicion is that there won't be any such perfect song."


For anyone wanting to try the sleep-promoting properties of music for themselves, Breege Leddy has some advice.

"I would definitely recommend music," she says. "It reduces your respiratory rate. It relaxes the muscles. And it keeps your mind focussed on something else. But you need to listen to something that's relaxing for you.

"And the other thing I would recommend is that you only play the music for a certain amount of time. You should set a timer that stops the music after about 25 minutes.

"Because what will happen is, if you're listening to music for an hour or more, yes, it will get you off to sleep, but I guarantee that it's actually going to wake you up again. Because it's noise, and any kind of noise will interfere with your ability to sleep.

"If you're awake when that music stops, then you need to think about getting up and out of the bed, because you're probably not sleepy enough to fall asleep."

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