NEWS

Listening to Music Before Bed May Disrupt Sleep

Man lying in bed struggling to fall asleep

Verywell Mind / Alex Dos Diaz

Key Takeaways

  • A new study found that people who regularly listen to music are likely to report having frequent nighttime earworms and poorer sleep quality.
  • “Earworm” is the term for involuntary musical imagery.
  • Avoiding sleep prior to bed may help people have better sleep.

Have you ever had a song stuck in your head that you just can’t get out? Odds are it happens at least once a week, if not more often. But, what about when you wake up—is the song still there?

For Michael Scullin, PhD, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University, the answer has often been yes. After realizing this pattern, he decided to investigate how involuntary musical imagery—aptly known as earworms—can disrupt sleep. 

The recent study, published in the Journal of Psychological Science, reports on three trials that dive into other people’s experiences with earworms. In the initial survey, 199 people who frequently listened to music reported having regular nighttime earworms and worse sleep quality.

About the Studies

In the second study, researchers had 50 people listen to either a lyrical or instrumental song before bed. People who were in the instrumental group experienced increased nighttime earworms and worse sleep quality. Polysomnography measured the latter. The average age of participants was 35.9 in the first study and 21.2 in the second study. Participants in both studies also experienced earworms while awake. 

Lastly, researchers used electroencephalograms (EEGs) to examine physiological markers in the brain of sleep-dependent memory consolidation.

“Earworms at night have been shown to diminish sleep quality and refresh sleep,” says Alex Dimitriu, MD, double board-certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine and founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine. “Music of all types also was found to benefit mood, even though some earworms diminished sleep quality. In these studies, music before bed which resulted in earworms kept the brain more awake at night, repeating the melody and diminished overall sleep quality.” 

Alex Savy, certified sleep science coach

Listening to some popular tunes or your favorite songs isn’t likely to have a calming effect.

— Alex Savy, certified sleep science coach

The outcomes of this study are especially relevant given how common earworms are. In a 2011 study of over 12,000 Finnish internet users, 89.2% of participants reported experiencing earworms at least once a week. As for Scullin’s research, the results came as a surprise to participants. In a press release, he said almost everyone had expected music to improve sleep.

“Optimal sleep hygiene would be to not listen to anything and allow your mind and body to relax naturally as, once you fall asleep, the sound of music can interrupt the healthy sleep stages our brain and bodies need to go through,” says Lauri Leadley, a clinical sleep educator and Valley Sleep Center president.

Leadley continues, “If the music is stimulating, it can interfere with the body’s ability to create melatonin which helps with the initiation and maintenance of sleep.” 

Other 'Calming' Habits That May Be Disrupting Your Sleep

Listening to music before bed is not the only “calming” thing we do that may actually be disrupting our sleep. Here are some of the other habits sleep experts say to avoid or limit before bed. 

Late-Night Meals or Drinks

Who doesn’t love a late-night snack? Unfortunately, that evening bite may interfere with your sleep. “Eating too much before bed, though soothing, may have an effect of diminishing overall sleep quality by increasing metabolism at night,” says Dimitriu.

Similarly, alcohol may feel calming in the moment but can cause sleep disruption later in the night, says Frida Rångtell, PhD, sleep educator and science advisor at Sleep Cycle. “When used in the long-term, it can make it harder to fall asleep. So regularly taking a nightcap is usually not a good idea if you want to support good sleep habits.”

Screens In Bed 

A big no no for before bed: screens. Yes, catching up on people’s posts, the latest news, or watching your favorite show may sound relaxing. However, it can make it a lot harder to get the deep, long sleep you want.

“Using screens before bed can make your brain more alert and thus, can cause difficulties falling asleep or sleeping soundly,” says Alex Savy, a certified sleep science coach and the founder of Sleeping Ocean

Lauri Leadley, clinical sleep educator

Optimal sleep hygiene would be to not listen to anything and allow your mind and body to relax naturally as, once you fall asleep, the sound of music can interrupt the healthy sleep stages our brain and bodies need to go through.

— Lauri Leadley, clinical sleep educator

In a 2014 study, researchers found that participants reading on an iPad before bed took longer to fall asleep and spent less time in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep than those who read from a paper book.

Rångtell recommends leaving your phone in the bathroom or somewhere else out of reach to avoid instinctively using it in bed. 

Essential Oils

Savvy also says to do your research when using aromatherapy before bed. Pay attention to which options are meant for calming you down and how much you’re supposed to use. Too strong a scent may keep you awake longer. 

What This Means For You

If listening to music before bed is an ingrained part of your routine, pay attention to the type you play. “Listening to some popular tunes or your favorite songs isn’t likely to have a calming effect,” says Savy. “That’s why it’s crucial to pick sleep sounds carefully for the best outcomes. It has to be something low-beat, slow, calming, and lyric-free. While music can help you block external noises or negative thoughts, it shouldn’t be too distractive.”

 

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3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Scullin MK, Gao C, Fillmore P. Bedtime music, involuntary musical imagery, and sleep. Psychol Sci. Published online June 9, 2021. doi:10.1177/0956797621989724

  2. Liikkanen LA. Musical activities predispose to involuntary musical imagery. Psychol Music. 2012;40(2):236-256. doi:10.1177/0305735611406578

  3. Chang A-M, Aeschbach D, Duffy JF, Czeisler CA. Evening use of light-emitting eReaders negatively affects sleep, circadian timing, and next-morning alertness. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2015;112(4):1232-1237. doi:10.1073/pnas.1418490112