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Music, Wellness and Sleep

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Preston Satchwell, Recovery Advocate Coordinator & PNP Liaison 

“OK, I will have 8 hours of sleep if I can fall asleep in 10 minutes. Should I get groceries this weekend? I wonder how I did on that test. Work will be so busy tomorrow! 6 hours if I can just get some shut-eye. Maybe I should watch a movie. I need to flip this dang lumpy mattress! Oh no, I’ve only got 4 hours. Am I even gonna make it tomorrow? 2 hours left! Will I even be able to wake up?! AHHHHH!”

This is the type of internal dialogue that races through our heads on those dreadful nights with no sleep. Fortunately, there is a solution! It is something that has been present in every culture since the dawn of mankind: Music. Music has a profound effect on the brain and can be a powerful tool that leads to a healthy and restorative sleep.

Ever wonder what is really happening in your brain during those restless nights?

Underneath all our thoughts and feelings is a complex network of neurons that helps transmit information. Synchronized electrical pulses from groups of these neurons communicating with each other are what create brainwaves. Brainwave speed is measured in Hertz (cycles per second) and they are divided into groups of slow, moderate, and fast waves.

Brainwaves are subject to change depending on what we are doing and how we are feeling, and music therapy is a technique used in the PNP (PsychoNeuroPlasticity) sleep program to assist in creating this change.

Beta brainwaves (12 to 38 Hertz) are the type that typically dominate our day to day life. They are engaged during focused mental activity and associated with alertness and problem-solving. Many of us remain in this state when trying to go to sleep and find our minds consumed with thought. Alpha brainwaves (8 to 12 Hertz) are the next lowest range. They are the brain’s resting state; a state associated with relaxation and creativity, making them ideal for sleep. Many reputable studies have shown that music around 60 beats per minute is ideal because the brain synchronizes with the music, slows your heartbeat, and moves you into the alpha range.

In addition to music therapy, progressive muscle relaxation and safe place imagery are two other commonly used sleep therapy techniques.

Surprisingly enough, music already helps us do both! Think about it. Have you ever put on one of those songs that gives you goosebumps and seems to envelop your whole body in its relaxing embrace? Do you have songs that always bring back comforting and familiar memories or even imaginary worlds created by the songs themselves? This puts it into perspective just how useful music’s ability to help us reach this relaxing and creative alpha state really is. If we can stay in this state long enough, we will move into Theta brainwaves (3 to 8 Hertz) and Delta brainwaves (0.5 to 3 Hertz) These are associated with the deepest states of meditation and restorative, dreamless sleep.

What type of music is best for sleep?

The answer lies partly in the structure of the music, and partly in the listener. These days there is a growing industry of people creating music with tempos, frequencies, and keys, or “binaural beats” all designed to incubate sleep and relaxation. For some, this simple approach works. But if we don’t like the music we are listening to, this sometimes isn’t enough. Actor, musician, and insomniac Matt Berry described this in an interview regarding his troubles with sleep. “Those things are all in a key that is meant to stop you feeling negative, but it made me feel more negative because all I could see was the cynical execution. It seemed too obvious and artificial.” Many people achieve the same scientific benefits listening to music that is not purposefully engineered for sleep, but simply because it just feels right listening to it. If we listen to something we do not like then we will just be irritated and frustrated. However, sometimes certain songs that we enjoy will result in too much arousal due to the tempo or volume, so it is important that we take both structure and enjoyment into account when making our perfect playlist.

The influence of music on the brain is so strong that it changes us on both a physiological and psychological level. So why stop using music just because it is bedtime?

Music is an easily accessible “medication”, the “prescription” is in our preference, and the only “side effects” are positive. Now we can finally get that night of sleep we have been dying for, and we don’t have to do any tossing and turning to get it! Instead of that endless flurry of thoughts, we can stop at, “What will I listen to tonight?”

“Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life bringing peace, abolishing strife.”
― Kahlil Gibran