Music is a regular fixture in my daily life. I listen to music to keep me motivated while I exercise, to relax and distract me when I travel, and for a quick creativity boost when I’m writing. My family—especially my kids—have music playing around the house all the time. I also use relaxing music to unwind before bed. Music is an especially effective part of my own Power Down Hour on nights when my brain is wired or I’m feeling tense.
Music is an incredibly therapeutic tool for emotional health, daily performance, and sleep. It has been used as a healing therapy for most of human history. Ancient Arabic cultures had musicians working alongside physicians. The Greeks used music to treat mental illness. After WWII, musicians were brought to U.S. hospitals to aid the healing of soldiers’ physical and emotional trauma.
How music affects the mind and body
We all know the experience of hearing a favorite song and feeling a rush of pleasure or instantly starting to tap our feet. Music has powerful and diverse effects on both the body and mind, influencing breathing and heart rate, triggering the release of hormones, stimulating the immune system, and boosting the brain’s cognitive and emotional centers.
There’s no one single type of reaction to music. That’s part of what makes music such a unique and powerful tool. Different melodies, tempos, and rhythms can trigger vastly different reactions, as can music with lyrics or music without words. Then there are our unique, individual emotional responses to music and the memories we each associate with music that’s familiar to us. (Music activates many parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, which processes memories.)
As a tool to improve sleep, soothing, relaxing music can:
- Slow breathing
- Lower heart rate
- Lower blood pressure
- Quiet the nervous system
- Ease muscle tension
- Reduce stress and anxiety
- Trigger the release of sleep-friendly hormones, including serotonin and oxytocin
- Reduce sleep-stifling hormones like cortisol
Music can also stimulate the mind and the body. Energizing, upbeat music can:
- Elevate heart rate
- Promote physical stamina and endurance
- Activate areas of the brain responsible for physical coordination, mental focus and attention, and creativity
- Trigger the release of hormones, including dopamine and adrenaline, that boost alertness
The key is choosing the right music for the time of day or night, and the desired effects. (More on this in a minute.) First, let’s look at what science has to tell us about how music can enhance sleep.
The benefits of music for sleep
Relaxing music triggers changes to the body that in many ways mimic a sleep state. A slower heart rate, slower breathing, and lower blood pressure are all physiological changes that make possible the process of falling asleep and staying asleep. Music also has a soothing effect on our emotional brain, easing stress and anxiety.
If you’re listening to music that relaxes you before bed, you’re essentially helping to “tune” your body to sleep mode, both physically and psychologically.
So, it’s no surprise that scientific research has measured several benefits that music can have on sleep.
Several studies show listening to music at bedtime improves sleep quality, including in young adults, older adults, and in children.
There’s also a body of evidence showing that listening to music before bed can help improve sleep quality for adults with insomnia.
Music improves sleep efficiency
That’s the measurement of the time you spend actually asleep compared to the overall time you spend in bed. A lower sleep efficiency can be an indication of restless sleep with awakenings throughout the night, trouble falling asleep at the beginning of the night, or waking very early and not being able to fall back asleep.
Research shows that a pre-bedtime music listening session can help you fall asleep more quickly.
Music is an effective treatment for short-term and chronic sleep disorders, according to a recent analysis of research. The therapeutic effects of music on sleep get stronger with time, the study concluded, meaning the more consistently you use music to help you sleep, the more effective the practice may become.
The influence of music over mood and stress helps sleep, too
One of the most important ways music can help sleep is indirectly, by its effects on mood and emotional state. Our mood has a significant impact on how well—or not well—we sleep. Stress is without a doubt the most common challenge to my patients’ ability to fall asleep routinely at the same bedtime each night and to sleep soundly throughout the entire night. Depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders frequently go hand-in-hand with sleep problems, including insomnia. (I wrote recently about how lack of sleep hurts your emotional health—you can read that post here.)
Sleep has what’s known as a bi-directional relationship with mood and emotional equilibrium. That means poor sleep can be both a cause and a symptom of struggles with mood. Depression, anxiety, stress, and other emotional and psychological problems interfere with sleep. And sleeping poorly can make us more vulnerable to stress, more emotionally reactive, and more prone to depression and anxiety.
When we find ways to relieve stress and improve mood, sleep almost always improves. Music, with its ability to activate and influence the emotional and memory centers of our brain, can help.
Several studies have tested music’s effectiveness to reduce stress in high-anxiety situations—often, in patients undergoing medical treatments, like surgery. In these circumstances, researchers have found listening to music can lower anxiety significantly, even more effectively than prescription drugs. It can also lower anxiety and simultaneously improve sleep in people who’ve experienced physical and emotional trauma, as in research conducted at the University of Kansas.
In healthy adults, too, research has shown that listening to relaxing music reduces feelings of anxiety, as well as the physical symptoms that accompany anxiety, including elevated blood pressure and heart rate and nervous system arousal. It also reduces cortisol, a hormone that stimulates alertness and also stress, according to numerous studies.
Research further shows how music can be effective in relieving the symptoms of depression and other mood disorders. It can improve both depression and sleep in people with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to recent research. Depression and sleep also showed improvement in a study that investigated the effects of relaxing music for people with schizophrenia.
Music treats pain—and helps sleep by association
Another indirect benefit of listening to music may have for sleep? Its ability to reduce pain. Physical pain and discomfort are common obstacles to sleeping well. Like mood, pain and sleep have a complex, dynamic relationship that works in both directions. Pain interferes with sleep, and sleeping poorly increases our sensitivity to pain. The good news is, when you improve one, you’re likely to improve the other.
There’s a growing body of research demonstrating what our ancient ancestors seem to have known: music can relieve pain.
An analysis of more than 70 studies shows listening to music before, during, and after surgery reduces pain (as well as anxiety). Patients who listened to music were less reliant on pain medications.
Listening to music can help both acute pain and chronic pain, including hard-to-treat chronic pain associated with conditions like fibromyalgia.
At the same time it relieves anxiety, music also stimulates the immune system and provides an outlet for emotional release, which may help explain why studies show music is effective in improving pain in a range of conditions and circumstances, in both children and adults.
Scientists aren’t yet sure why music has pain-relieving effects. It may be music’s ability to relax and relieve tension, or to distract from the unpleasantness of physical pain. It may be music’s stimulation of hormones (like dopamine and oxytocin), the emotions and memories music evokes—or all of the above.
Not just for relaxation: ways music can enhance performance
There’s some pretty interesting research on the many ways that listening to music may influence both mental and physical performance.
Creativity: Studies like this recent one from 2017 indicate that listening to “happy” music can stimulate creative, innovative thinking. What’s happy music? The answer may be a little bit different for everybody. But broadly speaking, it is music that is both energizing and positive to the listener.
Focus: There’s evidence indicating that music enhances the brain’s ability to concentrate and be productive. But the science is far from definitive, and the effects of music on focus and productivity appear to be highly individual—what works for one person may not work as well for others. Some basic guidelines? Avoid music with lyrics if you’re trying to concentrate on a task that uses language. Don’t play music too loud. And be sure to pick music you like—but not so much that it will distract you from your task at hand!
Stamina and physical performance: If you exercise, you’ve probably had the experience of cycling a bit faster when that song (whatever song you really love) comes on the sound system at the gym. Studies show music can help us increase our effort and stamina during exercise. Listening to music also makes even vigorous workouts feel more fun, and maybe makes us more likely to stick with them. You’re probably not looking for slow ballads when you’re working out. Instead, opt for high-energy, motivational music, with a strong, steady beat. Scientists who’ve studied the effects of music on exercise say a tempo in the range of 120-140 beats per minute is generally ideal for enhancing performance for many exercises—but set the pace that works best for you.
How you can use music to sleep better
Want to start using music as part of your nightly routine? Here are my tips for how to do it well:
Slow beats are best. Remember, the body and brain are highly responsive to music, including its rhythm and tempo. To move your body into relaxation and sleep mode, use songs that have a rhythm of about 60-80 beats per minute. Your heart rate will gradually adjust to match these slower beats, and your breathing will slow, putting you closer to a sleeping state. Save those up-tempo songs to get you moving in the morning, or to keep you alert on a long drive.
Avoid emotional triggers. The breakup songs from your college days might still hit a nerve. Those are not the songs you want to listen to at bedtime. Steer clear of music that makes you feel strong emotions, whether sadness or excitement.
Go lyric-free. Everyone is different, but I recommend to my patients they opt for music without words, at bedtime. Your mind can’t help but follow along, and lyrics can be mentally stimulating. You want to give those cognitive centers of your brain a rest, not light them up.
Be consistent. Research suggests that the beneficial effects of music for sleep and relaxation get stronger over time. If you’re wired, alert, and stressed out in the evenings, your new music routine might not make an immediate difference in those first few nights. Stick with it for a few weeks and you’ll likely find that the soothing effects kick in more strongly.
Don’t ignore the rest of your sleep environment. If you’re listening to a Bach sonata in a room blazing with lights, or with your face in a computer screen, you not likely to get the sleep-inducing effects of the music in the background. Make sure the rest of your nightly routine and environment is soothing, calm, and dimly lit. I encourage my patients to flip on some relaxing music for the last 30 or 45 minutes of their Power Down Hour.
Don’t fall asleep with earbuds. If you want to listen to music as you fall asleep, that’s fine. But don’t rely on headphones or earbuds, which can make sleep uncomfortable and damage your ear canal.
Pay attention to how you feel. The experience of listening to music is an incredibly individual one. We all react and relate differently to songs and find different meaning within them. Classical music is often used in the studies I’ve cited here and is a popular choice for bedtime listening. If it’s not your thing, that’s fine. Try jazz, or new age, or folk.
Whatever makes you feel calm, soothed, relaxed, and puts your body and mind in a restful mode is the right choice for you.