Music and the Quest for Better Sleep

We know that music is an extraordinarily powerful form and many key figures throughout the history of Western thought have devoted time and energy to trying to understand what it really is, how it works and how it should best be handled. From Plato in Ancient Greece to Schopenhauer in 18th/19th century Germany, there has been all manner of stimulating and influential approaches to music over the years.

Music as data?

Today, with the focus on Materialism and Empiricism, our understanding of music is as sound waves that pass into the human being through the ear and are then processed by the brain. How we connect that data to the extreme emotional responses that we can then experience though is quite another matter. From tear-jerkers to toe-tappers, and everything in between, music as a phenomenon really continues to mystify us.

Relaxing Classical music?

What we can do at this point in time, however, is to measure certain physiological responses to different genres and the different forms within those genres. Heart rate and breathing can certainly be slowed down by certain kinds of music to produce a restful state and even induce sleep. Of course, the lullaby would be the most obvious example, but a nocturne from the Romantic period of Classical music would be another (plenty more examples here).

This said, one should be careful not to fall foul of one of the misconceptions about Classical music today which is a product of its popular presentation by radio stations such as Classic FM: that the whole genre is relaxing and good for listening to in order to unwind and doze off! This is an entirely misleading angle since Classical music really means all of music prior to the development of Pop in the 20th Century, and so covers everything from energetic waltzes to rousing, tumultuous symphonies and soulful, poignant lieder.

A holistic approach

Of course in the quest for better sleep, one has to realise too that the music and ambient sounds one listens to in bed are only part of the picture. Equally important is the elimination of certain sorts of stimuli immediately before bedtime, such as the kind of light emitted by tablets, smartphones and so on. This disrupts circadian rhythm in a subtle but potent way and should be carefully side-stepped.

Similarly, the bed and mattress itself can be far more affecting than is always obvious. A supportive surface for the body over an eight hour period is crucial and new beds are actually very affordable today. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the latest memory foam or a mattress with an adjustable angle. However, proper support for the neck and back with a mattress from somewhere like Bedstar is certainly advisable.

No less important is the décor of the bedroom. That might sound like a relatively trivial concern, but physical form can be as affecting as music. Soft, side-lighting in the run-up to bedtime rather than a very harsh overhead light helps the system to start winding down. The choice of colour for walls and flooring is very important, and the absence of very stimulating pictures on the wall can also make a difference. The French philosopher Foucault for example used to have horrific images by Goya on his wall and the exposure to these every night before bed must have been far from soporific!

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Jamie Coughlan is the founder of Overblown. He talks a lot about himself and is totally pretentious. Terrible with personal finances. Loves beer gardens. He has written for the RTE Guide, A Music Blog, Yea?, The Thin Air, Gigwise, and is a contributor to The Tipping Point.