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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.

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