Listening to Music Before Bed May Disrupt Sleep

Beware earworms: Listening to catchy music before bedtime may disrupt sleep

Listening to Music Before Bed May Disrupt Sleep
Study participants had brain activity and bodily metrics monitored while they tried to sleep after listening to some super catchy tunes. Credit: Robert Rogers/Baylor University.

Michael Scullin kept waking in the middle of the night a song stuck in his head. This nuisance caused him to sleep terribly as no matter how much he tried, the earworm was still burrowing through his brain.

But at least something good came this ordeal.

Inspired by this experience, Scullin, who is an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University, set out to investigate if there was any relationship between listening to music and sleep quality.

The brain can still process music even hours after the tune stopped playing

Previously, a survey by psychologists from the University of Sheffield found that many people use music as a sort of sleeping aid.

The respondents claimed that listening to music close to or during bedtime helps them sleep better because it blocks external stimuli, induces a mental state conducive to sleep, offers unique properties that stimulate sleep, or simply because it’s become a habit. Overall, 62% of the 651 respondents confirmed that they play music to help themselves sleep.

However, Scullin’s research focuses on a rarely-explored phenomenon related to music known as involuntary musical imagery, or “earworms”.

These mental patterns override our normal train of thought, which is replaced with a song or tune that is replayed in one’s mind over and over again. Apparently, Scullin isn’t alone.

Many people who have earworms stuck in their heads report trouble sleeping.

“Our brains continue to process music even when none is playing, including apparently while we are asleep,” Scullin said. “Everyone knows that music listening feels good.

Adolescents and young adults routinely listen to music near bedtime. But sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. The more you listen to music, the more ly you are to catch an earworm that won’t go away at bedtime.

When that happens, chances are your sleep is going to suffer.”

The research consisted of two parts: a survey and a laboratory experiment. During the survey, 209 participants had to answer questions pertaining to sleep quality, music listening habits, and earworm frequency, as well as how often they reported experiencing an earworm while trying to fall asleep, during the middle of the night, or immediately upon waking in the morning.

People who experience one more earworm per week at night were six times more ly to report poor sleep quality compared to those who rarely experienced earworms.

During the experimental part, 50 participants listened to three catchy pop songs — Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off,’ Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’ and Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ — and then had to spend the night at the Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory at Baylor. While they slept, the participants were wired to various instruments that measure brain waves, heart rate, and breathing.

Half of the participants were randomly selected to only listen to the de-lyricized instrumental versions of the pop songs, while the other half listened to the original versions.

This experiment confirmed that those who caught an earworm had greater difficulty sleeping, more nighttime awakenings, and spent more time in light stages of sleep.

“We thought that people would have earworms at bedtime when they were trying to fall asleep, but we certainly didn’t know that people would report regularly waking up from sleep with an earworm. But we saw that in both the survey and experimental study,” Scullin said.

Instrumental music actually triggers twice as many earworms than music with lyrics

Brain scans revealed that those who caught the dastardly earworm had slow oscillations during sleep, a marker of memory reactivation. These telltale oscillations were most active over a region of the primary auditory cortex which is known to be implicated in earworm processing. In other words, the brain scans showed how the earworms were triggering memories of song time and time again.

But the most surprising part was that instrumental music led to the worst sleep quality. You’d think that catchy lyrics are to blame for earworms, but apparently, music with no lyrics leads to twice as many earworms.

“Almost everyone thought music improves their sleep, but we found those who listened to more music slept worse,” Scullin said. “What was really surprising was that instrumental music led to worse sleep quality — instrumental music leads to about twice as many earworms.”

Those most at risk of catching an earworm that threatened to disturb their sleep were individuals with greater music listening habits.

These findings run counter to the notion of music as a sleeping aid, which is embraced by many health organizations that recommend listening to quiet music before bedtime.

Scullin’s research has objectively shown that the brain continues to process music for several hours even after the music itself stops.

Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle. For some, listening to relaxing music before bedtime may indeed work as a sleep aid. Others, however, may find the experience way too stimulating and stay awake well into the middle of the night because they can’t shed the earworm.

For those who have problems sleeping, Sculling advises moderate music listening — especially before bed.

“If you commonly pair listening to music while being in bed, then you’ll have that association where being in that context might trigger an earworm even when you’re not listening to music, such as when you’re trying to fall asleep,” he said.


Music and Sleep: Can Music Help You Sleep Better?

Listening to Music Before Bed May Disrupt Sleep

Music is a powerful art form. While it may get more credit for inspiring people to dance, it also offers a simple way to improve sleep hygiene, improving your ability to fall asleep quickly and feel more rested.

Music can aid sleep by helping you feel relaxed and at ease. With streaming apps and portable speakers, it’s easier than ever to take advantage of the power of music wherever you go. Given music’s accessibility and potential sleep benefits, it might be a good time to try adding it to your nightly routine.

Can Music Help You Fall Asleep?

Parents know from experience that lullabies and gentle rhythms can help babies to fall asleep. Science supports this common observation, showing that children of all ages, from premature infants to elementary school children, sleep better after listening to soothing melodies.

Fortunately, children aren’t the only ones who can benefit from lullabies before bedtime. People across age groups report better sleep quality after listening to calming music.

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. Even more encouraging is that this benefit appears to have a cumulative effect with study participants reporting better sleep the more often they incorporated music into their nightly routine.

Using music can also decrease the time it takes to fall asleep. 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.

In addition to facilitating quickly falling asleep and improving sleep quality, playing music before bed can improve sleep efficiency, which means more time that you are in bed is actually spent sleeping. Improved sleep efficiency equals more consistent rest and less waking up during the night.

Why Does Music Affect Sleep?

The ability to hear music depends on a series of steps that convert sound waves coming into the ear into electrical signals in the brain. As the brain interprets these sounds, a cascade of physical effects are triggered within the body. Many of these effects either directly promote sleep or reduce issues that interfere with sleep.

Several studies suggest that music enhances sleep because of its effects on the regulation of hormones, including the stress hormone cortisol. Being stressed and having elevated levels of cortisol can increase alertness and lead to poor sleep. Listening to music decreases levels of cortisol, which may explain why it helps put people at ease and release stress.

Music triggers the release of dopamine, a hormone released during pleasurable activities, eating, exercise, and sex. This release can boost good feelings at bedtime and address pain, another common cause of sleep issues. Physical and psychological responses to music are effective in reducing both acute and chronic physical pain.

Listening to music can also contribute to relaxation by soothing the autonomic nervous system.

The autonomic nervous system is part of your body’s natural system for controlling automatic or unconscious processes, including those within the heart, lungs, and digestive system.

Music improves sleep through calming parts of the autonomic nervous system, leading to slower breathing, lower heart rate, and reduced blood pressure.

Many people with poor sleep associate their bedrooms with frustration and sleepless nights. Music can counteract this, distracting from troubling or anxious thoughts and encouraging the physical and mental relaxation needed to fall asleep.

Night-time noise, whether it’s from roads, airplanes, or noisy neighbors, can decrease sleep efficiency and is linked to several adverse health consequences including cardiovascular disease. Music can help to drown out these environmental noises and increase sleep efficiency.

What Kind of Music Is Best For Sleep?

It’s natural to wonder about the best type of music for sleep. Research studies have looked at diverse genres and playlists and there isn’t a clear consensus about the optimal music for sleep. What we do know is that studies have typically used either a self-curated playlist or a one that has been designed specifically with sleep in mind.

One of the most significant factors in how music affects a person’s body is their own musical preferences. Effective custom playlists may include songs that have been relaxing or that have helped with sleep in the past.

When designing a playlist, one factor to consider is the tempo. The tempo, or speed, at which music is played is often measured in the amount of beats per minute (BPM). Most studies have selected music that is around 60-80 BPM. Because normal resting heart rates range from 60 to 100 BPM, it’s often hypothesized that the body may sync up with slower music.

For those that don’t want to design their own playlist, online music services have stepped in and usually offer pre-packaged playlists for specific activities. Helpful playlists may be curated for sleep or relaxation. It may be easiest to find playlists that focus on calming genres, classical or piano pieces.

Feel free to experiment with different songs and playlists until you find one that’s right for you. It may also be helpful to try out a few playlists during the daytime to see if they help you relax.

Music Therapy

While many people can benefit from making their own playlists or finding something pre-mixed, others may benefit from a more formal approach.

Certified music therapists are professionals trained in using music to improve mental and physical health. A music therapist can assess a person’s individual needs and create a treatment plan that can involve both listening to and creating music.

For more information on music therapy, talk with your doctor or visit the American Music Therapy Association.

Evolving Science About Music and Health

Interest in music’s effects on the body continues to grow, and major research programs are dedicated to uncovering new ways that music can benefit health.

For example, in 2017 the National Institutes of Health partnered with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to announce the Sound Health Initiative.

This program initiative supports research that focuses on the use of music in health care settings and has already funded several projects.

How to Make Music Part of Your Sleep Hygiene

Music can be a great part of healthy sleep hygiene. Here are a few tips to keep in mind while incorporating music into a sleep-promoting evening routine.

  • 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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Effects of Listening To Music While Sleeping

Listening to Music Before Bed May Disrupt Sleep

If you find it hard to fall asleep, you’ve probably tried it all – from counting sheep to listening to music.  But what are the effects of listening to music while sleeping? Let’s find out.


Music has a range of effects on us. Physiologically, our heart rate and breathing mirror the song’s beat.

  1. Improves our mood: Different songs alter our hormone levels and body chemistry. For instance, if you listen to pleasant music, it can increase serotonin levels and make you happy.
  2. Boosts problem-solving ability: Listening to music can activate both, the right and left side, of our brain. Engaging both sides simultaneously improves your problem-solving ability.
  3. Improves memory: Music triggers the hippocampus, the part of your brain that is involved in memory storage. This is why songs from the past make you remember memories. It is also the reason why most of us feel nostalgic when we hear a song from different times in our life.
  4. Relaxation: Music is relaxing, especially if the song matches our resting heart rate closely. When that’s the case, the song soothes us on a biological level.
  5. Boost Sleep Quantity and Quality: If you choose songs which relax you, you fall asleep faster and get better rest. It’s a lullaby.
  6. Fall Asleep Faster: By the end of the day, our minds are full of a million thoughts, all which take up space in our heads and keep us awake. Putting on some background music can give our brains something else to focus on and take our minds off our daily distractions. Try listening to music when you lie down to sleep at the end of a tough day. You will probably fall asleep much faster!

Harmful Effects

Not only is it uncomfortable to sleep with earphones, but there are other harmful effects of listening to music while sleeping as well. Take a look at some.

  1. Necrosis: Necrosis refers to the death of body tissue due to lack of blood flow. Your earphones can do this by cutting off circulation and causing necrosis.
  2. Wax Build Up: Our ears continuously produce wax which protects our ear canal. However, excessive buildup of wax can be harmful. It clogs our ears and affects our hearing. Prolong use of earphones can lead to wax build up. This is unhealthy.
  3. Strangulation: Sleeping with a cord near you is risky. You could die of strangulation if you wear earphones while sleeping. The chances of this are low but you should always be careful.

There is an alternative, oral appliances for sleep apnea.  Sleep apnea has been linked with insomnia.  Oral appliances for sleep apnea have been proven effective in helping patients to sleep better.

Now that you know the different benefits and risks of sleeping while listening to music, perhaps you can decide whether it is a good idea. Perhaps, you should try using oral appliances for sleep apnea if you face that problem instead of resorting to this tactic. You will see the difference for yourself!

Oral Appliance or CPAP? How Do I Know Which is Right for Me?

Sleep apnea can really take a toll on your physical and mental health. An oral appliance or CPAP machine can help, but you need to know which treatment is best for you. Learn the difference and find out whether you need an oral appliance or CPAP.

Limit Alcohol Before Bed for Better Sleep

There’s nothing quite a glass of red wine to soothe the day’s challenges and help you rest up. But did you know that while alcohol can certainly make it easier to fall asleep, you might actually be sabotaging your efforts?

Could You Have Sleep Apnea — Without Knowing It?

Sometimes the symptoms of sleep apnea are so subtle they escape your notice. Learn the early warning signs of this potentially dangerous condition that affects your sleep so you can prevent serious complications.

Telehealth: The Advantages of Telemedicine

Struggles to get to the clinic? Trying to reduce your exposure to COVID-19, as well as other contagious illnesses, and still need to see your doctor? Telehealth is safe and easy — receive quality care from anywhere.

Can Sleep Apnea Cause Panic Attacks?

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder which is characterized by hypopnea. This is a decrease in breathing during sleep or apnea which is a pause in breathing during one’s sleep.


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