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Calming Music Could Improve Sleep in Older Adults, Study Finds

Older woman with headphones on peacefully dozing off to sleep

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Key Takeaways

  • Older adults have more difficulty falling and staying asleep, which can negatively affect overall quality of life.
  • A review of sleep studies revealed that calming music can positively impact older adults' quality of sleep.
  • Listening to music, adhering to a consistent sleep schedule and limiting caffeine and screen time before bed can also improve your snooze.

As we age, our sleep quality is more likely to suffer. And while the myth persists that older adults don't require as much sleep, the National Institute on Aging recommends the same seven to nine hours each night as any adult, regardless of age.

But it's also true that older adults can have a more difficult time falling or staying asleep due to pain, certain medications, or other factors. So, how can that quality snooze be achieved?

In a recent study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, a group of researchers from the National Cheng Kung University Hospital in Taiwan determined music could be a solution. After analyzing a number of studies on the topic, the group's findings show calming music can positively impact older adults' quality of sleep.

The Research

Researchers scoured five databases to examine studies on the efficacy of music therapy in adults aged 60 years or older. Their findings revealed that participants who listened to music for 30 minutes to an hour before bed experienced significantly better quality of sleep than those who did not.

An analysis of the studies' subgroups showed that participants who listened to sedative music more effectively improved their sleep quality than those that listened to rhythm-centered music. The best results were experienced after at least four weeks of listening to music before bed.

The researchers concluded that music therapy is a safe and easily administered option for older adults looking to get better sleep.

Katherine Hall, PhD

When you’re stressed, your body and mind are on high alert... All of your body's resources are sent to areas that are going to be needed for action—not very helpful when the action is getting some sleep.

— Katherine Hall, PhD

In general, relaxing music can connect with our minds and bodies by reducing anxiety, slowing breathing and heart rate and lowering blood pressure. These factors can also dissolve stress barriers to quality sleep.

"When you’re stressed, your body and mind are on high alert, it’s looking for danger and is ready to take action," says sleep psychologist Katherine Hall, PhD. "It means that all of your body's resources are sent to areas that are going to be needed for action—not very helpful when the action is getting some sleep."

So, it makes sense that music has such a positive effect at bedtime. Allana Wass, a certified sleep science coach and co-founder of sleep site Comfybeddy, likens music at bedtime to meditation, as listeners focus on the sounds from what's playing, rather than racing thoughts or noises from the outside world.

"One of the best things about sleep music is that it can work as a good barrier against external disturbances," she says. "For instance, it can block the noise from your neighbors or the cars driving down your street."

Not all music is created equally, though. The researchers at National Cheng Kung University Hospital focused on "sedative" music with a tempo in the range of 60–80 beats per minute.

"Low frequency, repetitive sounds work best for relaxation," Hall says. "The type of sleep sounds typically used vary. They can include water sounds which could include the sound of a babbling river, rain falling or waves breaking."

The amount of sleep music options available can be overwhelming, from sleep music apps, to hours-long YouTube mixes or curated playlists on Spotify. To find the one that's right for you, spend some time exploring during the day, rather than waiting until you're in bed. Then save or bookmark it so that it's easily accessibly when you're ready for sleep.

Improving Your Quality of Sleep

Chelsie Rohrscheib, PhD, sleep specialist and lead neuroscientist to at-home sleep test company Tatch, points out that poor sleep and chronic sleep loss are associated with a myriad of negative health consequences like poor immune system function, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and dementia.

"Sleep affects almost every aspect of our lives," she says. "Even one night of sleep loss can reduce concentration, affect our ability to learn and recall memories, reduce mood and make us more prone to accidents and injuries."

And our own sleep deprivation can impact more than just ourselves—a lack of sleep can lead to poor work performance and an inability to maintain relationships.

Chelsie Rohrscheib, PhD

Even one night of sleep loss can reduce concentration, affect our ability to learn and recall memories, reduce mood and make us more prone to accidents and injuries.

— Chelsie Rohrscheib, PhD

Insomnia is the number one sleep disorder in older adults, and being unable to sleep can, unfortunately, become a habit. But thankfully, some habits can also counteract this.

Listening to calming music as you drift off is just one of the many steps you can take to improve your snooze. For consistent, high-quality sleep, Rohrscheib recommends adhering to a sleep schedule that will allow you to get to bed and wake up at the same times throughout the week, regardless of weekends or holidays. And avoiding caffeine at least six hours before bed and limiting screen time at least one hour before bed will ensure you're less wired as you try to fall asleep.

It can also help, Rohrscheib says, to prepare yourself and your space, as well. A cool, dark and quiet bedroom optimizes sleep, while a bedtime ritual that includes relaxing activities like music-listening, reading or meditation can put you in the right frame of mind for sleep.

If after taking these steps you're still experiencing poor sleep quality, speak with your doctor. Testing for common sleep disorders or other health conditions that can affect sleep can lead to proper treatments and a vast improvement in overall quality of life.

What This Means For You

Listening to a calming sleep music app or playlist before bed has the potential to make falling asleep easier. Find one that works for you and pop in your headphones about 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime.

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Article Sources
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  1. National Institute on Aging. A good night's sleep. Updated November 3, 2020.

  2. Chen C, Tung H, Fang C, et al. Effect of music therapy on improving sleep quality in older adults: a systematic review and meta‐analysisJ Am Geriatr Soc. Published online April 20, 2021. doi:10.1111/jgs.17149

  3. Harvard Health. Tuning in: how music may affect your heart. Updated March 30, 2021.