The sweet sound escape: Why music helps you switch off and nod off

Music is shown to be a great addition to children’s bedtime routine and may provide adults with a much-need aid to switch off and nod off.
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By Clinical Psychologist Lynn Jenkins

Some days, I seriously consider whether I should wear earmuffs as a breakfast accessory.

The sound of my screaming kids, roadworks outside, my partner badgering me with questions, all while I’m trying to make lunches and get ready for work. Argh, it sends me a little loopy.

You know the feeling, like when noise just culminates around you, grates on you, and you just want to scream, Shut upppp!

Then I hop into the car for my drive to work. I flick on Spotify and hear the dulcet tones of Eddie Vedder or someone I just nostalgically love, and SNAP – I feel instantly calm. I am in my sound booth, my happy place.

Sound. It’s a wonderful thing and can come in all shapes and sizes. But it’s how we experience and process sound that can either send us straight into insanity or into a sweet, sweet sound escape.

The science behind our senses

Let’s start with the science.

Our nervous system has been around from day dot. One of its key jobs is to interpret all the signals it’s being sent from our major ‘sense avenues,’ I.e., what we see, hear, taste and touch.

When we’re feeling our best, our nervous system feels safe, calm and balanced. In science speak, this is called our level of ‘optimal functioning’.

As our nervous system pulls information in from the world around us (via our senses), it’s always looking out for us and scanning for signs of danger. It’s trying to bring us as close as possible to a zen-like state.

Once that processing is done, our nervous system sends signals to the amygdala in our brain – the decider of whether we are safe or in danger.

If the amygdala gets the green light and decides we’re SAFE, we find ourselves in that calm zone – aaahhhhh, it feels good to be optimally functioning.

If the verdict is danger, our body shifts gear and puts us into our protection zone – Eeeeeeek! We’re UNSAFE.

This danger feeling shows up in our body as things like anxiety, stress and anger, perhaps even physical responses like that throbbing headache at the end of the day.

Why sound is so powerful

Young girl laying on the couch listening to music in big headphones

Our brains love sound. In fact, while sight is our dominant sense, hearing is our most sensitive.

The sounds we take in around us constantly vary from soft, to melodic, to loud, to extreme.

We listen to these sounds and think everyone experiences them the same way at the same time. It’s important to understand that we each hear, process and experience sound differently.

For example, as a tired mum, when it comes to hearing the sudden sound of your neighbour’s lawnmower on a Sunday morning when you’re enjoying a 30-second sleep-in – your brain might flag this sound as a danger signal, perhaps because you were enjoying the sound of the birds outside and the touch of comfy sheets.

The sound for your neighbour? Doesn’t faze them at all.

Or perhaps you have a 4-year-old who freaks out over the sound of the public toilet hand dryer or the bath plug being pulled.

You might think they’re being irrational, but their brain is on high alert and may not yet have the information it needs to know these sounds are by no means threatening.

As individuals, we collect information about the environment around us and then make sense of it based on our previous life experiences and alongside information from other senses.

How music can change our brain

White woman with strawberry blonde hair listens to music with airpods

More than just a mood booster, music can affect our brain on a deeper level.

Of the many sounds in our environment, music can be a major source of ‘safe’ messaging. It tells our brain that we’re away from harm and generally feeling good.

It can lead to a positive impact on our emotions and mood and is also a highly personal experience (me in my happy car sound booth).

When we listen to music that calms us and have an enjoyable experience, our nervous system responds positively to this. Our amygdala gets flooded with safe signals, happy memories and positive associations with the sounds we’re hearing.

We know that the level of stress hormones in our brain drops, but studies also highlight how music helps our body nod off by slowing our heart rate, reducing our blood pressure, and calming our breathing.

Also, our minds are divided into ‘conscious’ and ‘unconscious’ minds. Only 5% is our conscious mind, and a big 95% is our unconscious mind.

So, when our brain slows down, like when we’re listening to our favourite tune, we can interact more with our unconscious mind and become more relaxed.

Therapeutic modes like hypnotherapy can have such a positive effect on our well-being. They use the philosophy of sending safe messages to the brain to soothe things like stress and worry.

Why use music to nod off?

What we hear is often overlooked as the kind of sensory input that makes it difficult to fall asleep (the usual culprit is looking at all those blue light emitting screens).

Hearing loud, irritating, or intrusive sounds all day can put us on edge. Studies show that these noise’ disturbances’ impact our performance at work, interactions with others and overall well-being.

So, if our days are awash with sounds that lead to us feeling stressed and cranky, how does our favourite music help us feel calm and relaxed at the end of the day?

Remember, it’s how we process music that can make it a great way to encourage things like sleep.

In studies that looked at the effects of music on sleep, those who listened to classical music, ambient sounds (running water and whale noises), and smooth jazz had lower levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.

They also showed an increase in the good stuff, such as endorphins, in their brain.

The sounds of nature are also a known pathway to feeling calm. Whether it’s the sounds of animals, wind or running water, listening to the sounds of nature (without the racket of human noise) has also been shown to lower stress, boost our mood, and calm our bodies ahead of sleep.

For us adults, music at bedtime holds the promise of counteracting ‘psychological pre-sleep arousal’.

This is basically a science-y word for the thinking and problem solving we’re inclined to do when we should be falling asleep.

We’re less likely to think about work deadlines, bills and all the washing we’ve got to do when we’re listening to soothing sounds that send ‘safe’ signals to our brain.

As for the rest of the family, there are known benefits in playing music for infants and kids before bed.

In one study, primary school-aged children were played music before naps and bedtime for 3 consecutive weeks.

The results showed that those kids who had background music playing had a much better quality of sleep during this time.

Music is shown to be a great addition to children’s bedtime routine and may provide adults with a much-need aid to switch off and nod off.

The sweet escape

Whether it be quietly waking up to classical music, your daily running mood booster or sending your kids off to la la land with some whale sounds, integrating music into your daily life is a simple and attainable way to bring physical and mental calm.

Choosing music as a form of digital interaction over social media or other ‘digital stimulants’ optimises your ability to sleep soundly and wake up rested.

So next time you’re considering Metallica over the pan flute, take the latter and enjoy that feeling of waking up in comfy sheets – before the lawnmower buzzes you back to reality.

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