Earlier this week Spotify released the top twenty songs its users fall asleep to, with the soft stylings of Ed Sheeran taking the top spot (naturally).
Since falling asleep is kind of rough these days (thanks, smart phones), we were curious whether Sheeran—and music generally—may be a secret hack for better shuteye. So we decided to investigate.
Our grand finding? The jury is still out on whether music is beneficial for those restless nights.
Not surprisingly, several studies have explored the connection between music and sleep. A study from 2012 found that listening to music before bed could be used as treatment for insomnia in patients suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The music used in the study included slow melodies consisting of pianos, violins, and bells.
Another study found that listening to classical music improved sleep quality in students with sleep problems, moreso than listening to an audiobook or nothing at all.
However, other studies have found that playing music before bed can increase heart rate and arousal, leading to more wakefulness. Also, research has shown that doing anything in bed that is not sleep or sex may negatively condition your brain toward wakefulness.
In light of these mixed findings, we turned to an expert, Michael Bonnet—a research professor of neurology at Wright State Boonshoft School of Medicine who has spent decades researching sleep—to solve the riddle.
Turns out the effect of music on sleep may depend on the person listening and whether that person's brain is accustomed to hearing melodies while falling asleep.
"People generally complain that unusual noises during the night are disruptive," said Bonnet. For example, he says, white noise machines can be helpful because they mask unusual noises (creaky floors, neighbors, city sounds). Predictable music can work much the same way, masking background noise, helping an individual sleep. However, Bonnet warned, "if you are used to sleeping in a quiet room, any music might be disruptive for a while."
"Many people have trouble sleeping if they travel to the big city," Bonnet said, with "urban traffic and other noise all night. While urban dwellers have trouble sleeping if they go to the country. They have adapted to the city noise and are disturbed by the unusual quiet."
In other words, we tend to sleep best when we're surrounded by the usual.
If you do listen to music—or want to try it out—make sure it's not disruptive. Avoid Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, Bonnet said, or music you might have a strong emotional reaction to (either positively or negatively). Go neutral.
What that says about Sheeran's music, we're not sure.
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.