Menus Subscribe Search

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

August 22 • 6:17 AM

The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.


August 22 • 6:00 AM

Long Live Short Novels

Christopher Beha’s Arts & Entertainments comes in at less than 300 pages long, which—along with a plot centered on a sex-tape scandal—makes it a uniquely efficient pleasure.


August 22 • 4:00 AM

Why ‘Nature Versus Nurture’ Often Doesn’t Matter

Sometimes it just doesn’t make any sense to try to separate the social and the biological.


August 21 • 4:00 PM

Julie Chen Explains Why She Underwent Westernizing Surgery

The CBS news anchor and television personality’s story proves that cosmetic surgeries aren’t always vanity projects, even if they’re usually portrayed that way.


August 21 • 2:37 PM

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There’s heightened functional connectivity between the brain’s emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.


August 21 • 2:00 PM

Cracking Down on the Use of Restraints in Schools

Federal investigators found that children at two Virginia schools were being regularly pinned down or isolated and that their education was suffering as a result.


August 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, School Principal?

Noah Davis talks to Evan Glazer about why kids aren’t getting smarter and what his school’s doing in order to change that.



August 21 • 10:00 AM

Why My Neighbors Still Use Dial-Up Internet

It’s not because they want to. It’s because they have no other choice.


August 21 • 8:15 AM

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.


August 21 • 8:00 AM

To Fight the Obesity Epidemic Americans Will Have to First Recognize That They’re Obese

There is a void in the medical community’s understanding of how families see themselves and understand their weight.


August 21 • 6:33 AM

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.


August 21 • 6:00 AM

The Fox News Effect

Whatever you think of its approach, Fox News has created a more conservative Congress and a more polarized electorate, according to a series of recent studies.


August 21 • 4:00 AM

Do Children Help Care for the Family Pet?

Or does mom do it all?


August 20 • 4:00 PM

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Private programs might do a better job of watching our kids than state-run programs, but they’re not accessible to everyone.


August 20 • 2:00 PM

Oil and Gas Companies Are Illegally Using Diesel Fuel in Hundreds of Fracking Operations

An analysis by an environmental group finds hundreds of cases in which drillers used diesel fuel without obtaining permits and sometimes altered records disclosing they had done so.


August 20 • 12:00 PM

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?


August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


August 20 • 8:40 AM

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.


August 20 • 8:00 AM

What the Cost of Raising a Child in America Tells Us About Income Inequality

You’ll spend nearly a quarter of a million dollars to raise a kid in the United States, or about five times the annual median income.


August 20 • 6:00 AM

In Praise of ‘American Greed’

While it remains semi-hidden on CNBC and can’t claim the car chases of Cops, American Greed—now with eight seasons in the books—has proven itself a worthy endeavor.


August 20 • 4:00 AM

Of Course I Behaved Like a Jerk, I Was Just Watching ‘Jersey Shore’

Researchers find watching certain types of reality TV can make viewers more aggressive.


August 20 • 2:00 AM

Concluding Remarks About Housing Affordability and Supply Restricitions

Demand, not supply, plays the dominant role in explaining the housing affordability crisis. The wages are just too damn low.


August 19 • 4:00 PM

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws That Corporations Allow?

There’s a telling detail in a recent story about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.


Follow us


The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There's heightened functional connectivity between the brain's emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

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