Most people spend about a third of their entire life asleep — but for many, the activity isn’t as natural or comforting as it could be.
Up to 70 million adults in the US have a disorder that disrupts their sleep, according to the American Sleep Association, resulting in about $16 billion in medical costs each year. Insomnia is the most common problem, affecting 1 in 3 adults at some point in their lives, and 1 in 10 chronically. Poor sleep has been linked to a variety of health problems, including type 2 diabetes, heart failure, high blood pressure, depression, obesity, a compromised immune system, and low sex drive.
If you can relate to the struggle, you might want to consider trying one medication-free approach: listening to music.
Decades of research suggest that many kinds of music can help people fall asleep faster and improve overall sleep quality. A 2018 online survey of 615 adults published in the journal PLOS One found that 62% reported occasionally listening to music at night to help them sleep, 35% used it at least once a week, and 4% used it every night. (The researchers noted their sample may not be representative of the general population.)
We tried our own (decidedly unscientific) Twitter poll to see how many people use music to help them snooze. Overall, 28% (among 218 respondents) use it regularly, while about 12% said they tried it but it didn’t work for them.
If listening to music before bed sounds like an appealing way to doze off, there are professionals — music therapists — who can help you use this technique successfully.
“Music therapy and its research in sleep is gaining traction as a novel, culturally sensitive, cost-effective, and safe intervention,” Joanne Loewy, a music therapist and founding director of the Louis Armstrong Center of Music and Medicine at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York, told BuzzFeed News. “Our brain likes predictability and thrives on patterning. So, with music and music therapy, we have special ways of addressing sleep by helping people induce a relaxation response.”
While music probably won’t replace doctor-prescribed medication or therapies for sleep problems, you don’t need to have a sleep disorder or be musically inclined to try it for better sleep.
Why does music help some people’s sleep?
Listening to music throughout the day can often help people feel good and distract them from stressors that can contribute to anxiety or depression. Turns out, the same is true at nighttime, and music can help some people fall asleep faster and have better-quality sleep.
According to one 2012 study published in the International Journal of Nursing Studies, 25 adults with chronic insomnia who tuned into “soothing” music for 45 minutes before bed over four days had improved overall rest, shortened stage two sleep (a lighter stage in non-REM sleep), and prolonged REM sleep compared to a control group who didn’t listen to music. REM sleep is associated with dreams and deeper slumber, which is critical for cognitive function, memory, emotional processing, and learning.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine had a similar finding among young adults with long sleep latency, meaning they took an average of 10 minutes or longer to fall asleep.
Part of the reason listening to music can help you sleep is that it can lower the stress hormone cortisol, release pleasure and satisfaction neurotransmitters such as dopamine, and nudge your nervous system from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest mode,” according to Dr. Michael Jaffee, director of the Neurology Sleep Clinic at the University of Florida.
What’s more, your breathing and heart rates can synchronize to music over time. This phenomenon, called entrainment, encourages relaxation. Jaffee told BuzzFeed News that much of the music that improves sleep quality generally plays at about 60 to 80 beats per minute, which is close to an adult's normal resting heart rate of about 60 to 100 beats per minute. (Music has also been shown to have this effect on premature infants, improving their feeding behaviors and sucking patterns.)
Listening to music before bed can distract you from other noises like outside traffic, too, similar to white noise machines. Unlike music, however, white noise (think whirring fans or radio static) emits consistent and simultaneous sounds at the same frequencies that can drown out more intermittent and distracting background noises. Sleep researchers often consider nature sounds like rain or waterfalls to be white noise, as well.
White noise is not as well studied as music for sleep, but the former can be more beneficial for some people because its consistency may be less of a distraction than music, according to Thomas Dickson, a musicologist who works in the Empirical Musicology Laboratory at the University of New South Wales in Australia. However, white noise could be less of a helpful sleeping tool for people who find it boring, he added.
The genres of music that help people sleep vary widely. (Dickson said his research has found anything from classical to ambient music to pop and folk songs can work.) You should try whatever type of music you think works for you, but it may be best to choose tunes that have a lower pitch, don’t encourage dancing, have a smooth sound, and don't have lyrics.
And you’ll want to avoid wearing headphones while you sleep, Jaffee said, because they could cause hearing damage or headaches; they could also prevent you from hearing any safety alarms or problems in your home.
Instead, experts recommend playing music on a speaker with an automatic timer so it doesn’t play all night long. With that said, tuning into your music might be difficult if you share a bed with someone who finds it annoying. Some negotiating with your partner may be necessary.
Just remember you have to be patient, Dickson warns. Generally, studies show it takes about three to four weeks of consistent listening at bedtime, at the same time every night, for music to improve sleep quality.
Jaffee recommends first listening to music during the day to see if it sparks relaxation and joy that might help you sleep at night. (Avoid music that triggers strong emotional reactions, which can be counterproductive to relaxation.)
Volume matters too. Aim for anything under 50 decibels (about as loud as a quiet refrigerator or moderate rainfall), Dickson said, or just start with a volume that’s “as quietly as comfortably possible.”
Here are some general healthy sleep habits you should follow:
- Avoid electronics, reading, TV, or working in bed
- Drink caffeine only before noon
- Keep your bedroom as dark as possible
- Exercise before 2 p.m. — otherwise, endorphins can make it hard to fall asleep
- Go to bed at the same time every night, even on the weekends
- Keep pets outside your bedroom, especially cats
- Aim to sleep seven to nine hours a night if you can (children should sleep nine to 12 hours; infants should sleep 12 to 16 hours)
Keep in mind that any random music may or may not do the trick for you. Popular sleep and relaxation apps like Calm, Headspace, and BetterSleep may be a better option; they offer prerecorded music or allow you to create your own sound clips.
For an even more custom approach, music therapists can select or create tunes and protocols that meet your specific needs.
What is a music therapist?
Music therapists are trained in psychology, medicine, and music and work as independent clinicians alongside doctors, psychologists, audiologists, social workers, and behavioral health specialists, to name a few.
For years, they have used music in places like hospitals and nursing homes to soothe adults with dementia, improve communication abilities in children with autism, and reduce pain among hospitalized patients.
Music therapists also treat people who still have trouble sleeping despite medication or cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps people change how they think about sleep and develop healthy bedtime habits.
Anyone can call and make an appointment with a music therapist to address sleep problems, but people are most often referred to the professionals by other doctors such as psychiatrists, said Loewy, the New York–based music therapist.
In the beginning, a music therapist will “prescribe” helpful sleep habits, Loewy said, like avoiding food at least a couple of hours before bed. Other sessions address why you can’t sleep, your childhood, lifetime traumas, bedtime habits, and general likes and dislikes when it comes to different sounds and instruments. The result: They can create custom-made tunes or playlists just for you.
Using a sleep music sedation protocol she developed, Loewy starts by playing music or songs that are familiar or induce feelings of safety in people. Next, she removes any lyrics, if patients want, and changes the meter (beats and bars). Then she may implement instrumental sounds and rework pitch, harmony, and melody to match and enhance the person’s breathing.
The final composition is a unique yet simple collection of sounds that’s predictable, repetitive, and comforting, “which is what the brain is looking for to relax,” Loewy said. After several real-time listening sessions in a clinical setting to see how patients react to the music, she then may prescribe playlists for at-home listening beginning half an hour before sleep.
For some, these playlists may last 15 to 20 minutes, but for others with severe anxiety, for example, they may last about 40 minutes, Loewy said.
Still, there is no formula for music therapy sessions or treatments, including how long each visit lasts; treatment plans can range from three months to five years. It just depends on a person’s unique circumstances, she said. A 60-year-old who’s worried because her son recently lost a job, for instance, may need longer sessions than a 25-year-old dealing with a noisy upstairs neighbor.
While sleep apps can help some people, Loewy is not a fan.
“I believe in individual assessment because apps assume that people like a certain kind of music, which tends to be generic and misses culture and transition of tempo. I don't find them very relaxing,” Loewy said. Compared to what music therapists provide, “it’s like the difference between going to a diner and going to a real French restaurant.”
How to find a music therapist
There are currently 9,712 board-certified music therapists, a spokesperson for the Certification Board for Music Therapists told BuzzFeed News. Of that number, 9,129 work in the US.
A 2019 survey conducted by the American Music Therapy Association found more than 1 million people received music therapy services in 2018, according to responses from nearly 3,000 professionals. However, it’s unclear how many people receive music therapy for sleep issues, specifically.
The survey also found the average rate for individual music therapy sessions across the US is $77 per hour; group sessions are about $88 per hour.
Depending on where you live, music therapy is a reimbursable service through Medicare or Medicaid. Some private insurance companies like Blue Cross Blue Shield, United Healthcare, Cigna, and Aetna will pay for the service, the AMTA says. Generally, music therapy, like other types, is reimbursable when it’s preapproved and “deemed medically or behaviorally necessary to reach the individual patient's treatment goals,” according to the association.
The service can also be reimbursed via other sources, including grants, private pay, workers’ compensation, and state departments.
About 31% of AMTA’s survey respondents said their music therapy sessions were covered by either government funding or a third-party health insurance. You can find a music therapist through the AMTA or CBMT.
Listening to music at night for sleep may not suit everyone
Music at night isn’t everyone’s groove — and that’s OK.
BuzzFeed’s own Twitter poll found about 61% of respondents said they can’t listen to music at night. Some said they run their TV on a timer, listen to the radio instead, or scroll on social media until they doze off.
It’s probably because “music can be both beneficially and detrimentally distractive,” Dickson said. “Anecdotally, I've heard from some musicians that they find music too distracting for sleep, and maybe this is because they intellectualize the music instead of relaxing to it.”
A 2021 study published in the journal Psychological Science found that people who listen to music more often (particularly popular or catchy songs, either during the day or before bed) are more likely to catch “earworms” — when a song or tune plays over and over in your mind — at night. This was associated with greater difficulty falling asleep, more nighttime awakenings, and more time spent in lighter stages of sleep among the approximately 250 study participants who either answered survey questions or slept in a sleep clinic.
The researchers from Baylor University in Texas said their results suggest our brains process music while we sleep, and that listening to familiar music before bed may not be in our best interest.
But fear not, Loewy said. There’s really no specific person or group of people that should avoid using music as a sleep aid. If you’re interested, she suggests seeking a professional’s help if you feel you need it. And if it doesn’t work, there are other treatment options.
“Here's a technique that could help a lot of people, but in many cases needs to be individualized or tailored to the individual based on their unique tastes and preferences,” Jaffee said. Music as a sleep aid “shares commonality, but at the same time with that individuality, speaks to who we are as people.”