Science-Backed Ways To Find Your Ideal Relaxing Bedtime Playlist
I walk into my kitchen to prepare lunch, mind racing with all that's waiting for me back at my desk. Thoughts of unread emails and not-yet-done to-do's weigh heavily as I pick up my phone and turn on an easy, soft tune. Within the minute, my heart rate slows, my pace relaxes, and I'm chopping tomatoes to the slow and steady beat of the song. What was I worried about again?
Music, clearly, has a significant effect on the brain. It can evoke memory, shift attention, and—as my midday kitchen experience shows—alter mood and emotional states1 in a very short period of time. It's one of the more powerful wellness tools we have at our disposal, and perhaps one of the most underutilized.
Daniel Bowling, Ph.D., a neuroscientist who researches acoustics at Stanford, thinks that most of us can be a bit more purposeful with the music we listen to and when. "If you are someone who enjoys music, take its therapeutic potential seriously, just like you would with meditation or reading a book," he suggests.
A number of new companies—including Spiritune, a phone app that plays tones tailored to mental health, which Bowling is the neuroscience adviser for—are now seeking to help people attend to their emotions using the science of sound. Of all the ways we can use music to influence our mood, Spiritune's founder Jamie Pabst notes that many of the app's users are pulling it out to help them relax for bedtime.
Take your personal preferences into account.
Music preferences are largely personal, and a song that appeals to one person might be totally off-putting to the next. This is in part because of the memories that music can evoke, explains Greg McAllister, a senior sound experience manager at Sonos who helps craft the company's sleep stations for Sonos Radio.
"Everybody has their own personal experience of sound and music. These things are quite nostalgic and subconscious," says McAllister. "If you hear a piece of music or a certain sound, it might just remind you of a point in time. Since we've lived different experiences, we're going to find different things pleasing."
He adds that we also might crave different tunes from one night to the next, depending on the day we've had. This means that there isn't one song or series of songs that will appeal to everyone, all the time, and we should first consider the type of music we enjoy when crafting our personal bedtime soundtracks.
Look for smooth, even tones.
With that being said, Bowling notes that there are some rhythms and musical features that hold universal appeal. He gives Mozart and Beethoven as examples—something about their music has resonated with humans around the world for centuries. Through his research untangling the evolutionary basis of our music and sound preferences, Bowling thinks it's largely thanks to the way certain musical tones mimic human vocals.
Since our ancestors have long been attuned to the sound of other humans speaking, music that matches up to our human intonations is subconsciously appealing. "When we talk, all the vowel sounds that we make have this quality of being tonal," Bowling explains. "These tones are what music is, essentially."
He says we can use these parallels to our advantage by seeking music that sounds like the emotional experience we're trying to have. If you want to relax for bed, for example, think of how the voice of someone who is tired would sound: soft, steady, and straightforward. McAllister adds that smooth music with notes that gradually rise and then fall again can also register as reassuring and soothing.
Lose the lyrics.
Again, music choice is personal. But Bowling and McAllister both note that songs with lyrics will likely be too distracting for most people's bedtime routines. "It's resource-intensive to process language," Bowling explains, adding that lyrics will light up different parts of the brain than tones alone. Research has found that catchy choruses that get stuck in our heads can be especially disruptive to sleep. You're probably better off listening to something instrumental instead, especially right before bedtime.
Let your music meet you where you are.
According to the Iso Principle in music therapy2, if you're looking to evoke a certain mood, it's beneficial to first play music that matches the mood you're currently in. So if you're anxious after a long day, you'd want to put on a song that mimics that feeling (tight, short notes with dramatic rises and falls) and then slowly transition into calmer and calmer tracks. "It's like holding somebody's hand," Bowling explains. Apps like Spiritune, which chooses music based on your current and desired emotional state, do this automatically—but those with an extensive music library can also try it themselves at home.
The bottom line.
We all have those songs that make us cry immediately or pump us up on the spot—a clear demonstration of the power of music to shift emotions. We can use this to our advantage by strategically playing music that sounds like how we'd like to feel throughout the day. Come bedtime, that will probably be soft, slow, smooth, and melodic instrumentals perfect for drifting off to dreamland.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.