Listening to music close to bedtime may disrupt sleep - here's why

play article
Subscribers can listen to this article

  • People who listen to musicbefore bedtime may have difficulty getting good quality sleep
  • Instrumental music led to worse sleep quality – it made earworms twice as bad
  • Researchers say that spending five to 10 minutes writing out a to-do list or putting thoughts to paper helps to  decrease earworms

People who experience involuntary musical imagery, also known as "earworms", are more likely to have poor sleep quality than people who rarely experience earworms. 

The study published in Psychological Science compared the sleep quality of those who have earworms to those who hardly ever experience it. Earworms happen when a song or tune replays over and over in a person's mind.

Measuring quality of sleep 

The researchers divided the study into three parts. The first part consisted of a survey and laboratory experiment involving 209 participants who completed a series of surveys on sleep quality, music listening habits and earworm frequency, including how often they experienced an earworm while trying to fall asleep, waking up in the middle of the night and immediately upon waking the next morning.

In the second part of the study, 50 people with an average age of 21,2 years were randomly assigned to listen to lyrical or instrumental-only versions of popular songs before going to bed in a laboratory.

The third part of the research involved the possible significant increase in "frontal slow swinging activity", a marker of sleep-dependent memory consolidation.

How does music disturb your sleep?

The findings from the first part of the study showed that people who frequently listen to music reported persistent nighttime earworms, associated with worse sleep quality.

The results from the second part suggest that instrumental music increased the incidence of nighttime earworms and worsened polysomnography, a comprehensive test used to diagnose sleep quality. In both studies, earworms were experienced during awakenings, suggesting that the sleeping brain processes musical melodies. 

"Before bedtime, we played three popular and catchy songs: Taylor Swift's 'Shake It Off', Carly Rae Jepsen's 'Call Me Maybe' and Journey's 'Don't Stop Believin'. We randomly assigned participants to listen to the original versions of those songs or the de-lyricized instrumental versions of the songs," says study author, Dr Michael Scullin.

"Participants responded whether and when they experienced an earworm. Then we analysed whether that impacted their nighttime sleep physiology. People who caught an earworm had greater difficulty falling asleep, more nighttime awakenings, and spent more time in light stages of sleep," Scullin adds.

Focusing on a task

The results of the third part of the study show that some types of music can disrupt nighttime sleep by inducing long-lasting earworms perpetuated by spontaneous memory-reactivation processes.

"Almost everyone thought music improved their sleep, but we found those who listened to more music slept worse. What was surprising was that instrumental music led to worse sleep quality – instrumental music leads to about twice as many earworms," Schullin says.

The researchers recommend that the easiest way to get rid of an earworm is entirely focusing on a task, problem or activity that helps to distract your brain from earworms. They suggest spending five to 10 minutes writing out a to-do list and putting thoughts to paper to help navigate any distractions. 

*For more Covid-19 research, science and news, click here.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.