Music for sleep


Blog by Tabitha Trahan (Twitter)

Sleep deprivation has become an increasing problem for many citizens throughout the world.  Evidence of this problem manifests as an increase in work related injuries, tardiness, and health declines.

Sleep problems

Additionally, the increase in sleep related spending points to a desire and need to improve sleep quality and hours.


– OTC sales up 31% (2006-2011)
– £50 million on sleeping pills (2012)


– $2,280 in lost productivity (per worker)
– $32 billion sleep related spending (2012)

One option in the fight against poor sleep is a music-based intervention.  While working as an member of the Music and Wellbeing group at the University of Sheffield alongside Dr Victoria Williamson, I joined forces with experts from Lincoln University (Dr Simon Durrant) and Goldsmiths University of London (Dr Daniel Mullensiefen) in hopes of probing this novel sleep therapy. This dissertation project was submitted as part of my MSc in Music, Mind and Brain.

A large-scale, online, survey was conducted between May and November 2014, aimed at investigating the use of music as a sleep aid in a larger, general, population.  Our research group measured basic demographics (age, gender), two aspects of musicality, training and emotional engagement (Goldsmiths Musical Sophistication Index or Gold MSI: Mullensiefen, Gingras, Musil, & Stewart, 2014) and recent sleep quality (PSQI: Buysse, Reynolds, Monk, Berman, & Kupfer, 1989).

Participants answered questions regarding music and other non-invasive sleep aid techniques: how, what, and why each method was used.


Analysis into the responses of the 651 individuals who participated revealed interesting results.

  • 59% of participants stated that music did, in fact, aid them in their sleep
  • 75% of these people, who were 27 years or younger and highly musical engaged, were significantly more likely to report the use of music as a sleep aid.

A look into the genres and artists individuals stated aided them most in their quest for sleep uncovered a large diversity in answers.  Not surprisingly, classical music was the most named genre.  However, the likes of pop, metal, folk, electronic, jazz, and many more where highly represented throughout the answers.

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With 545 uniquely named artists gaining a spot on our participants sleep playlists, our results suggest that the music most suited for a sleep intervention is as diverse as those we aim to aid.

Another large question the survey hoped to tackle was “why” people choose music to help them sleep.  What were the benefits of listening to music that lead to participants choosing this method over other sleep intervention options?

A thematic analysis technique was applied to the response pool extracting any underlying themes present.  These underlying themes represented the ideas being stated throughout the text with one-two word titles, giving the researchers greater incite into how and why music was being utilized. The model we created is presented below (presented at ESCOM 2015):

Theme map

The major themes unearthed were “state” and “distract”. “State” was defined as ‘the person listens to music in order to change their state to one that they believe will boost their sleep in some way’ and “distract” as ‘an attempt to block either a physical sound or a state of mind. This code includes instances where a person is trying to prevent focus on either a physical sound or a state of mind’. 

Nearly 17% of the reasons for using music to aid their sleep fell within the “state” category, and over 12% were in “distract”.  This provides researchers with evidence regarding the reasons music can help sleep that can be utilized in further research designs, such as the pilot study I am conducting at present. 

The results of our large survey suggest that there are many diverse types of and reasons for music being used to cope with disrupted sleep within the UK.  To begin the search for a better understanding of the mechanisms being suggested by this evidence the Music and Wellbeing group and their collaborators have started an intervention pilot study.  More information surrounding the project and how to sign up can be found at this link:

Our survey analysis and ongoing intervention project begin to answer the many questions that arise when thinking about the interactions between music and sleep.  Perhaps the high incidence of “state” codes points to past research suggesting that music can be used to regulate ones mood and arousal (Chanda & Levitin, 2013; Saarikallio et al., 2012).  Both “state” and “distract” codes described a use of music to combat negativity and anxiety at the time of sleep onset, suggesting it helps with the recruitment of larger neural and chemical systems driving the beneficial effects of music on sleep (Nilsson, 2009).


Future investigations into the complex relationship between music and sleep will begin to disentangle the relevant facets of sleep physiology and music psychology.  Looking at music’s dynamic role in the many stages of sleep or pinpointing the properties of music most influential in sleep onset will help to unveil the mystery shrouding this relationship, a step that will mark an important breakthrough for the wellbeing of many people across the globe.

All images marked ‘Free to Share/Use’ on Google at the time of upload.