Trouble Sleeping? Survey Reveals a Common Aid You May Already Own

You've probably heard of it.

Getting the most out of our few hours of sleep is crucial, especially given the frightening consequences of sleep deprivation. To achieve this some people turn to heavy blankets or try to change their routines, though a survey recently released by a team of scientists in the UK indicates that most people already own a common tool that can improve nighttime hours.

Scrolling through any streaming platform reveals playlists that include a variety of music intended to help you drift off to sleep. “Sleep” is literally a genre on Spotify, replete with peaceful piano tracks and collections of chill ambient music. Data scientist Tabitha Trahan and applied music psychologist Victoria Williamson, Ph.D., at the University of Sheffield, have been investigating how music influences sleep. They recently published a survey in PLOS One that describes the music preferences of 651 participants. They found that 62 percent of survey participants used music to fall asleep, though Trahan adds there are some important things to consider when picking a personalized sleep playlist.

spotify sleep
Spotify's sleep genre homepage 

“Research looking at the relaxing effects of music are beginning to suggest that there is no one-size-fits-all prescription of music type,” Trahan tells Inverse. “Results of our survey provide evidence that the personal selection of music may be an important factor when measuring its effectiveness as a sleep aid.”

While there’s quite a bit of work supporting music’s positive effect on conditions like insomnia, Trahan adds that there’s some experimental evidence that it’s not as helpful as we might hope. However, she believes that we might see stronger evidence for music’s effect on sleep if we focused more on individual music taste when selecting songs during these studies:

“Most objective sleep and music studies utilize music that is deemed to be calming, without taking into account personal preference,” she adds. “Though our results cannot determine if music is an effective sleep aid on its own, it does highlight new factors that have not been controlled in past studies that may play an important role.”

A survey can’t specifically tell us a biological reason why 62 percent of people in her survey turn to music to help them sleep, but it can at least illuminate what types of music tend to be most popular around bedtime for specific people. Her survey found that the most common type of music people used to fall asleep was Classical (used by 31.96 percent of respondents), followed by Rock (10.82 percent) and Pop (7.47 percent). But the big takeaway here is that there were similar numbers of people who preferred other genres: For example, 4.12 percent of respondents preferred indie, and 3.35 preferred metal — not a huge difference between two disparate genres.

sleep music
Here are the music genres people used to help them fall asleep in this survey.

Nonetheless, this diversity of genres doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to optimize sleep music. For example, while most studies list a slow tempo as a component of sleep music, what “slow” means greatly depends on what type of music a listener prefers. Trahan adds that this might help inform researchers in the future who decide to embark upon a different quest: to develop the perfect “sleep song” — which is how she puts it in the paper.

Someone used to listening to indie for example, might have a different definition of what a “lower tempo” is compared to someone who prefers country. Her survey didn’t explicitly measure this, but here she thinks that familiarity is probably a driving factor in why people find these genres relaxing:

“Our survey supports these findings by showing a large diversity in the number of genres and artists used intuitively by individuals seeking aid for their sleep troubles,” says Trahan. “Additionally, the large diversity of musical genres hints to the importance of the overall familiarity of the music to the listener.”

Based on Trahan’s research, it seems that browsing through an unfamiliar playlist — even if it does have the word “Sleep” at the top — may not provide the relaxing effects it promises. Though for fans of ambient indie music, Trahan’s own sleep playlist might be a good alternative: She turns to Bon Iver, Rhye, and Henry Jamison when she’s struggling to fall asleep.