The relationship between music and dreams is one that has long baffled scientists. From Schumann to Mozart, musical apocrypha abounds with tales of famous works that originally appeared to their creators in a dream. On the blogroll for NPR’s All Songs Considered, co-host and composer Robin Hilton writes, “Music appears and takes many forms in my dreams. I’m frequently hooking up with my favorite bands for jam sessions. I once played guitar and sang with The Beatles.”
The anecdotes get even stranger among practitioners of lucid dreaming (that is, induced self-aware dreaming where the dreamer knows they’re asleep and can manipulate their environment ala Neo in The Matrix). Many swear by the use of binaural music, often favored for meditation, as a tool to induce lucidity. Others even allege composing music during lucid dreams, such as this piece by Pete Casale.
But the scientific accuracy of these concepts is not well known, and few studies have attempted to explore them. One of the only such studies is a 2005 survey by researchers at the University of Florence’s Sleep Lab, which found that those who practiced music professionally and from a young age were twice as likely to encounter music in their dreams as those who did not.
So, to understand the effect of music on dreams with anything approaching scientific accuracy, we have to pull back a little and look at the sleep-related effects of sound itself.
Sound and Sleep: What We Know
Whether it’s a white noise generator, a fan, or an iPod, people all around the world use sound to promote better sleep, and just as many suffer troubled sleep as a result of traffic or noisy neighbors. Unfortunately, the facts on the ground are slim. Why do some sounds promote sleep, while others prevent it? What effect do different kinds of sounds have on different stages of sleep — and what about their effect on dreams?
Here’s what we know for a fact:
Disruptive sounds interfere with sleep.
It’s an evolutionary mechanism almost self-explanatory in nature: when that panther snaps a twig two feet from your head, it’s advantageous for you to wake up.
But in the modern world, where noises happen as a side-effect of other people going about their lives, waking up because of environmental sounds is a bother at best, and a serious health problem at worst. A 2012 study funded by the Finnish Ministry of Social Affairs and Health found a positive link between anxiety, insomnia, and geographic areas high in traffic-related noise. A similar study by the World Health Organization found that unwanted environmental noise not only adversely affected sleep, but also increased the risk for cardiovascular disease, caused cognitive impairment in children, and shortened the lifespan of the average Western European citizen by a few hours every year.
On the other hand, certain sounds promote sleep.
By establishing a baseline level of ambient noise, your brain is then forced to filter out anything below that threshold. A pin-drop in absolute silence might wake you up, but a pin-drop while the air conditioner is running probably won’t.
Where White Noise Fails
Unfortunately, though, not all sleepers are built alike: some people are biologically more predisposed to noise-related disruptions during sleep, a phenomenon which Harvard neurologist Jeffrey Ellenbogen captured in a 2010 study. Ellenbogen and team brought participants into an audio-equipped sleep-lab, then bombarded them with various environmental sounds at increasing volume while watching an EEG readout for brain-wave responses. What they found was a correlation between a kind of brainwave spike they called a “spindle” and a person’s susceptibility to noise-disruption. Broadly speaking: the more spindles a person’s brain generates during sleep, the less disturbed they are by surrounding noise.
Even worse, for some people, white or pink noise can produce the opposite of its intended effect, and may actually amplify environmental sounds, a not-entirely-understood principle called stochastic resonance. That means if you’re unlucky enough to draw the short straw twice—low spindle-count and high stochastic resonance—then you’re probably a chronic light sleeper, and a white noise machine not only won’t help you, but may actually make your sleep worse.
The Healing Power of Music
The good news is, where white and pink noise generators may fail, music may help plug the gap in two ways.
The first is by helping you get to sleep faster. Research suggests that rather than listen to music while attempting to sleep, it can be more beneficial to play 30-45 minutes of “sedative music” before sleeping. This has the effect of serving as a stress-relief and relaxation tool, and being more relaxed makes it easier to fall asleep.
The second way is by improving the quality of your sleep: the science shows that those who underwent that kind of music therapy showed an increase in REM-time.
REM (or “rapid eye movement”) is the period of sleep in which all the good stuff happens: rest, regeneration, memory reassignment, and dreaming. To put it simply, REM is the part of sleep that actually matters, and getting strong, stable REM sleep is crucial to a person’s ability to wake up feeling rested.
Listening to relaxing music before bed increases the likelihood of increased REM time, which means more numerous dreams, better rest, and stronger overall health.
For maximum effect on how music influences your dreams, scientists recommend music which contains the following attributes:
- A beat of between 50-60 bpm, which corresponds with the average resting heart-rate
- No lyrics
- Low bass tones
- Simple, trance-like melody
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, according to British Academy of Sound Therapy, this is supposedly the most statistically relaxing song in existence.
Ann Mulderig is a self-proclaimed health nut who loves writing about fitness, healthy eating, and good health in general. When she’s not writing, she’s spending time in the mountains or baking new recipes in the kitchen. You can follow her on Twitter at @annmulderig.