Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


This Is Your Brain

baby-sleep-headphones

(Photo: Photobank gallery/Shutterstock)

The Sounds of Your Sleep

• February 19, 2014 • 10:00 AM

(Photo: Photobank gallery/Shutterstock)

Do you know anyone who actually falls asleep to pre-recorded crickets or rain drops? Sleep studies can’t even agree on the proper lullaby.

Snoring may be the definitive sound of sleeping, but what are the sounds of falling asleep? We sing lullabies to children, there are whole channels devoted to somnolent sounds, and more than a few confess to falling asleep to shows on their televisions or films on their computers. Whether certain sounds can promote sleep is, of course, the focus of a confessional Reddit thread, but also its own genre of sleep studies.

The science is a mixed bag, not only inconclusive about the ability of music to facilitate sleep, but also suggestive that the right music can promote wakefulness. In one study published in the Journal of Music Therapy in 2003, 20 university students were allowed to listen to music of their choosing as researchers compared them to a control group who fell asleep without music. Under normal conditions, the silent control group had a longer sleep latency, meaning it took them more time to fall asleep than the group listening to music, but when both groups were instructed to fall asleep quickly, the sleep latency was reversed, with the musical group falling asleep more slowly.

We each make our own lullabies for sleep: whether it’s the sound of the ceiling fan above our heads or the cars on the highway outside our window, characters from a television program or actors in a film.

In another study that same year, this one focused on older women and published in the Journal of Community Health Nursing, Dr. Jean Johnson found that music not only decreased sleep latency, but also reduced the number of sleep interruptions. Participants again chose their own soundtracks: mostly classical, but some sacred and new age. Not quite the ambient noise or natural wonders on repeat that you might expect from the channels purporting to be soporifics.

But then again, one person’s alarm clock is another person’s muse for sleep. For years, I couldn’t get to bed without a soundtrack, but a very specific one. The routine of brushing my teeth and making tea was always followed by one of Glenn Gould’s radio documentaries from The Solitude Trilogy. A curious soundscape, the three fugues blend human voices, hymns, popular songs, symphonies, and all sorts of sound effects.

The Idea of North, the first of what Gould called his “contrapuntal” radio programs for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, was dedicated to the North of Canada. The prologue opens with the voice of a woman who proclaims: “I was fascinated by the country as such.” She continues until a man’s voice interrupts: “I don’t go, let me say this again, I don’t go for this northmanship at all.”

The human characters multiply, talking over one another about animals and snowy landscapes, their vocations and their adventures; the voices rise and fall, blending into one another until, after a few minutes, the director speaks: “This is Glenn Gould.” He offers a vague explanation of this curious collage of ideas, and then his voice gives way to the sound of train engines and bells. After an hour, the whole thing ends with a meditation on some words from William James about war, read aloud over the last movement of Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5.

It’s beautiful and strange, haunting, yet comforting. There’s nothing like it, except for the other two contrapuntals Gould made: The Latecomers, about life in Newfoundland, and The Quiet in the Land, about life in a Mennonite community in Manitoba. Together, the trilogy is about isolation and community, loneliness and society. I started listening to them during college when I felt the specific kind of homesickness that I now understand to be characteristic of finding one’s own home in the world.

Somehow, Gould’s masterpieces went from wakeful companions, things I studied in the college music library, to sleep-inducing friends. I just couldn’t get to bed without hearing the sound of the train in The Idea of North or experiencing the inexplicable delight of Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” in The Quiet in the Land. I’d start playing one on my computer, and then close my eyes imagining all of the characters and settings. The trilogy played over the sounds of busy streets and noisy neighbors, filling my ears with what became an increasingly familiar cast of voices and sound effects, musical samples and philosophical ideas. They are each about an hour long, and usually I’d be asleep by the end of whichever one I started.

The Solitude Trilogy is about withdrawal, but also engagement; each is a portrait of some kind of war, whether between nature and society or faith and technology or the artist with chaos. Night after night, I would find myself allied with one side of the war, driven to sleep by meditative fatigue. The more I listened, the more familiar the programs became and the faster I fell asleep, until finally it seemed like I could conjure for myself the hymn of the Mennonites in The Quiet of the Land or the lapping of the ocean in The Latecomers; after a few years, I could fall asleep imagining them without ever pressing play.

That is, I think, why so many, even though I could never dream of it, fall asleep to old episodes of Law & Order on Netflix or the midnight syndicated reruns of Seinfeld. We each make our own lullabies for sleep: whether it’s the sound of the ceiling fan above our heads or the cars on the highway outside our window, characters from a television program or actors in a film. I can’t say that I actually know anyone who falls asleep to waterfalls or raindrops, the very sounds marketed as soporifics, but I do know many whose sleep is timed to sonatas and symphonies. Our lullabies are our own, which I think is evidenced by even the mixed bag of sleep studies: What matters most is finding the soundtrack that works for you.

Casey N. Cep
Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She has written for the New Republic, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Paris Review. Follow her on Twitter @cncep.

More From Casey N. Cep

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


November 19 • 12:08 PM

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it’s not in the rainbow and sing-along way you’d hope for. We just don’t trust outsiders’ judgments.


November 19 • 12:00 PM

As the Russian Hercules, Vladimir Putin Tames the Cretan Bull

We can better understand Russia’s president, including his foreign policy in Crimea, by looking at how he uses art, opera, and holiday pageantry to assert his connection to the Tsars.


November 19 • 10:00 AM

A Murder Remembered

In her new book, Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis, Alexis Coe takes a humanistic look at a forgotten 1892 crime.


November 19 • 8:00 AM

The End to Race-Based Lockdowns in California Prisons

The legacy of “tough on crime” legislation has historically allowed correctional authorities to conceal and pursue politics that would be illegal anywhere else. Could that finally be changing?



November 19 • 6:00 AM

Like a Broken Record

From beer milers to long-distance crawlers, the unending appeal of being No. 1.


November 19 • 4:00 AM

High School Music Groups Grapple With Gender Gap

New research finds consistently higher numbers of girls compared to boys in high school bands, orchestras, and choirs.


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.