by Steve Rees, Ret. RN, Harpist
Many of the comments on my YouTube channel describe how the calming music of the harp helps them sleep through the night. While this may seem to be a natural result of the music, I decided to do a little research to see if there might be some scientific studies that better explain how this happens.
One study set out to determine if it takes more or less time to fall asleep using music. In the study, women with symptoms of insomnia, played a self-selected album when getting into bed for 10 consecutive nights. Before adding music to their evening routine, it took participants 27 to 69 minutes to fall asleep; after adding music it only took 6 to 13 minutes.
Johnson J. E. (2003). The use of music to promote sleep in older women. Journal of community health nursing, 20(1), 27–35.
Over the years, many people have commented on my YouTube channel. www.youtube.com/peregrinnatti Most of them tell me that they found the music to be very helpful in getting to sleep. Some have claimed to be plagued by insomnia before finding my harp music but were now sleeping through the night with no disturbance. Some also tell me that playing my harp music while trying to get their children to take a nap has been very successful at getting them quiet so they can actually fall asleep.
This should not be surprising. From time immemorial, the softly sung lullaby has been used to bring wide-eyed toddlers into a dreamy sleep state. No matter the culture, or the language, the lullaby has been employed countless times for the benefit of both mother and child. We probably don’t even need a “scientific study” to convince us of this fact because of its universal application and observation.
But scientific studies have been done and are being done, so let’s look at a few more.
In a study conducted by László Harmat 1, Johanna Takács, Róbert Bódizs, they used a three-group repeated measures design. Ninety-four students (aged between 19 and 28 years) with sleep complaints were studied in 2006. Participants listened for 45 minutes either to relaxing classical music (Group 1) or an audiobook (Group 2) at bedtime for 3 weeks. The control group (Group 3) received no intervention. Sleep quality was measured using the Pittsburg Sleep Quality Index before the study and weekly during the intervention. Depressive symptoms in experimental group participants were measured using the Beck Depression Inventory.
At the end of the study, it was determined that group 1, listening to classical music, had a significant improvement in sleep as well as reduced depression. At the same time, the other 2 groups had little change. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18426457/
Another paper reported on a meta-analysis conducted to evaluate the efficacy of music-assisted relaxation for sleep quality in adults and elders with sleep complaints, with or without a co-morbid medical condition. The results suggested that music-assisted relaxation can be used without intensive investment in training and materials and is therefore cheap, easily available. Also, it can be used by nurses to promote music-assisted relaxation to improve sleep quality. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19456998/
In a previous article I wrote, one of the factors that music provides is a slow constant rhythmic beat that our heart tends to entrain to which is beneficial for sleeping. If you remember, entrainment is the phenomenon in which a strong dominant beat is gradually matched by surrounding devices or organisms. A Dutch clockmaker was the first to notice the feature as his clocks would gradually fall into the same rhythm, tic-tocking in unison. In the same way, our heart tends to slow (or speed, depending on the music chosen) to the rhythm of the music that is surrounding us. Obviously, a slowing heart rate will assist in relaxing, and help to bring us into a sleep state.
Another study I found very interesting was conducted in China by On Kei Angela Lee 1, Yuet Foon Loretta Chung, Moon Fai Chan, Wai Ming Chan. The aim of this study was to investigate the effects of music on the anxiety of patients on mechanical ventilation, as assessed by objective parameters and a subjective validated anxiety scale. Mechanical ventilation, although sometimes lifesaving, is often associated with levels of anxiety requiring sedatives, which has inevitable implications on costs and complications.
“A total of 64 subjects were randomly assigned to undergo either 30 minutes of music intervention or a rest period. The subjects were asked to answer the Chinese State-Trait Anxiety Inventory scale before and after the study period. Physiological indices and resting behaviors were recorded before and after the study period in both groups. The subjects’ satisfaction with music was also obtained after music intervention.
Results: The findings indicate that patients on mechanical ventilation that listened to a single 30-minute session of music appeared to show greater relaxation as manifested by a decrease in physiological indices and an increase in comfortable resting behaviors.
Conclusion: Music can provide an effective method of reducing potentially harmful physiological responses arising from anxiety in mechanically ventilated patients.”
While this study was not specifically designed to access sleep assistance, it is easy to infer that this reduction in anxiety would contribute to better sleep, even when a person is undergoing a radical medical intervention such as mechanical ventilation.
We will look at one more study by Jespersen KV, Pando-Naude V, Koenig J, Jennum P, Vuust P. Cochrane. It is a meta-analysis study designed to see if insomnia can be positively affected by music. “Insomnia is a common sleep disorder in modern society. It causes reduced quality of life and is associated with impairments in physical and mental health. Listening to music is widely used as a sleep aid, but it remains unclear if it can actually improve insomnia in adults.”
The study was designed to assess the effects of listening to music on insomnia in adults and to assess the influence of specific variables that may moderate the effect. The results suggested that music does indeed affect the amount and quality of sleep. The exact quantification is difficult to arrive at since there are so many variables involved. However, it is at least agreed, that music has a positive effect on sleep.
As I read through the different studies, a common theme emerged. First, music doesn’t cost anything to listen to on electrical devices, or at least the cost is low. Second, good music doesn’t have the harmful side effects that drugs do. Finally, music is available no matter where you are on the planet. Music is everywhere, in every culture, and in every language. From the sounds of nature, a quietly sung lullaby, to a professionally played harp or orchestra, there is no end to the possibilities of music that can bring a quiet, peaceful atmosphere that helps bring on sleep.