Can music relieve insomnia? | Science and technology

Music and sleep are closely related from birth. Mothers put their babies to sleep and people listen to relaxing music before bed. Some sleep disorder therapies are now experimenting with music to see if it improves their outcomes. The Pompeu Fabra University (UPF) in Barcelona is involved in a European project that seeks to learn how music affects the brain before and during sleep and to identify the most effective sleep-inducing qualities of music. The aptly named Lullabyte research project is studying the relationship between music and sleep, taking into account individual needs and characteristics and hoping to find an alternative to pharmacological treatment.

The research focused on determining how music or sound can induce sleep, but also whether it can help people sleep more soundly with a greater restorative effect, says Sergi Horda, UPF’s lead researcher on the project. “Although we spend a third of our lives sleeping, it’s curious how little we know [about sleep]Jorda said.

The Lullabyte project combines musicology and neuroscience with other disciplines such as psychology, computer science and data science. Jorda says this is the first attempt to apply a holistic, interdisciplinary perspective. Nine other institutions from Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and other countries are participating in the project, which started earlier this year and will end in 2026. The project is being funded by a €2.5 million ($2.76 million) grant from the Horizon Europe program.

The UPF researchers’ role is to study sleeping patients and figure out how to convert brain wave data into music or sound. Jordá says they will start by generating synthetic sounds, “like electronic music,” in real time. “The individual’s brain activity will determine the sounds that are generated,” he said, leading to personalized treatments.

Ana Fernández, coordinator of the sleep research group of the Spanish Society of Neurology (SEN), believes that a better understanding of this relationship can help people who have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. “It’s an inexpensive treatment with no side effects that would be a good, non-pharmacological intervention,” she said. Between 25%-35% of the Spanish population suffer from transient insomnia (lasting several nights), and over four million people suffer from chronic insomnia, according to SEN.

Earlier studies have already noted how music benefits people with sleep problems, Fernandez says, and how it’s better than doing nothing or listening to audiobooks and white noise. She acknowledges the paucity of research on the topic, as studies have only been conducted recently.

Proven but limited benefits

In 2021, a meta-analysis published in Behavioral sleep medicine found that a musical intervention helped patients in coronary and intensive care units and improved sleep in older adults. The study found it was most effective after the first three weeks and when exposure lasted less than 30 minutes. The benefits weren’t overwhelming, but they improved sleep quality, efficiency, and sleep onset latency (the time it takes a person to fall asleep).

Another study published the same year in Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that 40%-70% of older adults have sleep problems, and over 40% have insomnia. Music therapy improves sleep quality in older adults who live at home when listened to 30 to 60 minutes before bed. The study attributed this effect to music’s ability to lower blood pressure, heart rate and breathing, which reduces anxiety and stress.

Ana Fernandez says sound has a masking effect. Some insomniacs are extremely sensitive to external stimuli, leading to interrupted sleep, which can be prevented by using music to mask the noise. According to Fernandez, some less understood effects of music include psychological relaxation and the ability to reduce wandering thoughts and obsessions at night.

Drugs put us to sleep, but they do it badly

Sergi Jordá, lead researcher on the Lullabyte project for Pompeu Fabra University

However, some scientific research disagrees that the music-sleep connection is a good one. Two years ago, a Baylor University (Texas) study published in Psychological science found that listening to music before bed can cause earworms – when you can’t get a song out of your head – and it can even happen while a person is sleeping. The study found that people with earworms were six times more likely to have poor sleep quality.

Sleep disorders are often treated with benzodiazepines and a similar class of Z-drugs such as zolpidem, which have many side effects ranging from daytime sleepiness to memory loss. “Medications put us to sleep, but they do it poorly,” Sergi Horda said, because they induce unnatural, less restorative sleep. The goal of the Lullabyte project is to find alternatives with significant benefits so that people do not need to use drugs to get a good night’s sleep.

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