That music at bedtime that’s supposed to help you fall asleep may actually have the opposite effect, new research suggests.
It turns out that “earworms,” those catchy bits of a composition that can get stuck in a person’s head can also interject themselves into a person’s dreams, affecting the ability to fall asleep and to sleep well.
“Our brains continue to process music even when none is playing, including apparently while we are asleep,” said study author Michael Scullin, a sleep researcher at Baylor University, in Houston.
“Everyone knows that music listening feels good. Adolescents and young adults routinely listen to music near bedtime. But sometimes you can have too much of a good thing,” Scullin said. “The more you listen to music, the more likely you are to catch an earworm that won’t go away at bedtime. When that happens, chances are your sleep is going to suffer.”
The survey included 209 participants. They completed a series of questionnaires on sleep quality, music-listening habits and earworm frequency. Questions include how often they experienced an earworm while trying to fall asleep, when waking in the middle of the night and upon waking in the morning.
Then, 50 of the participants came to Scullin’s Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory at Baylor, where the research team attempted to induce earworms to determine how it affected sleep quality. The researchers recorded the participants’ brain waves, heart rates, breathing and more while they slept.
The researchers also took EEG readings — records of electrical activity in the brain — to examine physiological markers of sleep-dependent memory consolidation. Memory consolidation is the process by which temporary memories are spontaneously reactivated during sleep and transformed into a more long-term form.The researchers played three catchy songs, Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” randomly assigning participants to listen to the original versions of those songs or instrumental versions of the songs.
Participants reported whether and when they experienced an earworm. Then researchers analyzed whether that impacted their sleep. People who caught an earworm had greater difficulty falling asleep, more nightly awakenings and spent more time in light stages of sleep.
The study found that individuals with greater music-listening habits experienced persistent earworms and a decline in sleep quality. These results are contrary to the idea of music as a hypnotic that might help sleep, according to the study.
The findings were published June 9 in the journal Psychological Science.
“Almost everyone thought music improves their sleep, but we found those who listened to more music slept worse,” Scullin said in a news release from the Association for Psychological Science. “What was really surprising was that instrumental music led to worse sleep quality — instrumental music leads to about twice as many earworms.”
To keep music from having a negative impact on sleep, Scullin recommends first trying to moderate music listening or taking occasional breaks if bothered by earworms. Avoid listening to music before bed.Another way to get rid of an earworm is to engage in mental activity — fully focusing on a task, problem or activity helps to distract your brain from earworms. Near bedtime, rather than engaging in a demanding activity or something that would disrupt your sleep, like watching TV or playing video games, Scullin suggests spending five to 10 minutes writing out a to-do list and putting thoughts to paper.