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Survey reveals how we use music as a possible sleep aid

Respondents believe music stimulates sleep, blocks internal, external sleep disruptors

Many individuals use music in the hope that it fights sleep difficulties, according to a study published November 14 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Tabitha Trahan and Victoria Williamson of the University of Sheffield, UK, and colleagues. As described by the authors, this is the first online survey on the use of music as a sleep aid in the general population.

Sleep loss is a widespread problem with serious physical and economic consequences, and music might serve as a cheap, non-pharmaceutical sleep aid. However, there is a lack of systematic data on how widely it is used, why people opt for music as a sleep aid, or what music works. To address this gap in knowledge, Williamson and colleagues investigated music as a sleep aid within the general public via an online survey that scored musicality, sleep habits, and open-text responses on what music helps sleep and why.
In total, 62% of the 651 respondents reported that they use music to help them sleep, describing 14 musical genres comprising 545 artists. Even respondents who don’t suffer from sleep disorders use music in their everyday lives to help improve the quality of their sleep experiences, and younger people with higher musical engagement are significantly more likely to use music to aid sleep. Respondents believe that music both stimulates sleep and blocks an internal or external stimulus that would otherwise disrupt sleep.
The study relied on self-reported answers and could only investigate respondents’ beliefs about how music helped them sleep, rather than drawing conclusions about music’s physiological and psychological effects. The participants also self-selected for the study, so it may have been biased towards music users. Nonetheless, the study provides initial evidence that many people use diverse types of music in the belief that it helps them sleep.

Some media questions we answered:

1. Did any of the results from the online survey surprise you? If so, what? 

Our team was surprised by the sheer variety of music chosen by people as part of their sleep routine. Headlines have focused on the ‘top sleep artists’ in our study but whilst there were favourites, this finding belies a wealth of musical richness that people access when they have trouble sleeping. We had planned to look into the musical patterns of sounds that reportedly work well for people but this will now require more consideration as there don’t seem to be many obvious commonalities in factors like tempo, tonality or pitch. Our current theory to explain this outcome is that familiarity and liking may have more of a role in the power of music to help sleep than simple musical structures, and hence the key ingredient for successful sleep music is the listener themselves; their music listening history and preferences.

2. What do you think it is about Ed Sheeran’s music that makes him one of the more popular artists that people reported falling asleep to? 
Ed Sheeran likely featured highly in our survey as a result of his current popularity and download success, first and foremost. Beyond that there are a number of features that may have contributed to this result such as the tempo of the tracks people identified, which tended to be slower than average for the genre, and the simplicity of the musical arrangements, which often featured only soft acoustic guitar and voice.

3. Since the respondents self-selected for the study and there is a chance they could just be music lovers, are there plans to use any other objective measures to study this topic?
Of our 651 respondents, 62% reported having used music as a sleep aid in the past. This suggests we achieved a reasonable balance for a self selected survey, as not everyone who took part thought music would help them sleep. Also, you don’t have to be a music lover to see music as a reasonable choice to help sleep. Only a very small proportion of our respondents (less than 2%) reported listening to music before bed because they loved it. The rest provided a number of more practical sounding reasons for choosing music including the benefits of auditory distraction to both internal mind chatter and external noise, a sense of security, and as a way to time their sleep process.
Our next planned steps are research studies that will build on the insights from this survey and use objective sleep measures to look at the impacts of music on different aspects and stages of the sleep process. We aim to understand how music impacts on both our brain and body sleep patterns, with a view to better advising people on exactly how music can best support healthy, restorative sleep.

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