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Can music ease insomnia?

A European research project seeks alternatives to sleep medications

insomnia
A scientific study finds that music has a restorative effect on sleep, because it can lower blood pressure and heart and breathing rates.Guido Mieth (Getty Images)
Inés Sánchez-Manjavacas Castaño

Music and sleep have had a close relationship since birth. Mothers sing their babies to sleep, and people listen to relaxing music before bedtime. Some sleep disorder therapies are now experimenting with music to see if it improves their results. The Pompeu Fabra University (UPF) in Barcelona is taking part in a European project that seeks to learn how music affects the brain before and during sleep, and identify the most effective qualities of music for inducing sleep. The appropriately named Lullabyte research project is studying the relationship between music and sleep, while considering individual needs and characteristics, and hopes to find an alternative to pharmacological treatments.

The research focuses on determining how music or sound can induce sleep, but also whether it can help people sleep more soundly with greater restorative effect, says Sergi Jordá, the UPF’s lead researcher on the project. “Although we spend a third of our lives sleeping, it’s curious how little we know [about sleep],” said Jordá.

The Lullabyte project combines musicology and neuroscience with other disciplines such as psychology, computer science and data science. Jordá says this is the first attempt at applying a comprehensive, interdisciplinary perspective. Nine other institutions from Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and other countries are taking part in the project, which began earlier this year and will conclude in 2026. The project is funded with a €2.5 million ($2.76 million) grant from the Horizon Europe program.

The UPF researchers’ role is to study sleeping patients and figure out how to convert brain wave data into music or sound. Jordá says they will start by generating synthetic sounds, “like electronic music,” in real time. “An individual’s brain activity will determine the sounds that are generated,” he said, which will lead to personalized treatments.

Ana Fernández, coordinator of the Spanish Neurology Society’s (SEN) sleep study research group, believes that a better understanding of this relationship can help people who have difficulty falling and staying asleep. “It’s a low-cost treatment with no side effects that would be a good, non-pharmacological intervention,” she said. Between 25%-35% of the Spanish population suffers from transient insomnia (lasting for a few nights), and over four million people suffer from chronic insomnia, according to SEN data.

Earlier studies have already noted how music benefits people with sleep problems, says Fernández, and how it’s better than doing nothing or listening to audiobooks and white noise. She acknowledges the scant research on the subject since the studies were only conducted recently.

Proven but limited benefits

In 2021, a meta-analysis published in Behavioral Sleep Medicine found that music intervention helped patients in coronary and intensive care units, and improved the sleep of older adults. The study found that it was most effective after the first three weeks and when exposure lasted less than 30 minutes. The benefits were not extraordinary, but it improved sleep quality, efficacy and sleep onset latency (the time it takes for a person to fall asleep).

Another study published the same year in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that 40%-70% of the elderly have trouble sleeping, and over 40% have insomnia. Music therapy improved sleep quality in older adults who lived at home when they listened to it 30 to 60 minutes before going to bed. The study attributed this effect to music’s ability to lower blood pressure and heart and breathing rates, which reduces anxiety and stress.

Ana Fernández says sound has a masking effect. Some insomniacs are extremely sensitive to external stimuli, leading to sleep interruption, which can be prevented by using music to mask noise. According to Fernández, some lesser understood effects of music include psychological relaxation and the capability to diminish meandering thoughts and intrusive ideas during the night.

Drugs put us to sleep, but they do it badly
Sergi Jordá, lead researcher on the Lullabyte project for Pompeu Fabra University

However, some scientific studies don’t agree that the music-sleep relationship is all good. Two years ago, a Baylor University (Texas) study published in Psychological Science found that listening to music near bedtime could cause earworms — when you can’t get a song out of your head — and could even happen while a person was asleep. The study found that people with earworms were six times more likely to have poor sleep quality.

Sleep disorders are often treated with benzodiazepines and the similar class of Z-drugs like zolpidem, which have many side effects ranging from daytime drowsiness to memory loss. “The drugs put us to sleep, but they do it badly,” said Sergi Jordá, because they induce an unnatural, less restorative sleep. The aim of the Lullabyte project is to find alternatives with significant benefits so people don’t need to use drugs for a good night’s sleep.

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