Most individuals listen to music throughout the day, especially around their bedtime. Is it possible, though, that this could affect your sleep? When sleep researcher Michael Scullin, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University, found he was waking up in the middle of the night with a song in his head, he identified an opportunity to investigate how music might alter sleep habits.
Scullin’s latest research, published in Psychological Science, looked at the link between music and sleep, concentrating on a little-known phenomenon called involuntary musical imagery, or “earworms,” which occurs when a song or melody repeats itself in a person’s head. These most usually occur when awake, although Scullin discovered that they can also occur when trying to sleep.
“Our brains continue to process music even when none is playing, including apparently while we are asleep,” Scullin said. “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. 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.”
People who get earworms frequently at night—one or more times per week—are six times more likely to have poor sleep quality than those who only get earworms once in a while. Surprisingly, the study discovered that instrumental music is more likely than lyrical music to cause earworms and disturb sleep quality.
The study involved a survey as well as a laboratory experiment. 209 people took part in the study, which included questions on sleep quality, music listening habits, and earworm frequency, such as how often they got an earworm when attempting to go asleep, waking up in the middle of the night, and just after waking up in the morning.
In the study, 50 people were taken into Baylor’s Scullin Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory, where the researchers sought to generate earworms to see how they altered sleep quality. Polysomnography, a thorough test and the gold standard for sleep assessment, was utilized to capture the participants’ brain waves, heart rate, respiration, and other factors as they slept.
“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,'” Scullin said. “We randomly assigned participants to listen to the original versions of those songs or the de-lyricized instrumental versions of the songs. Participants responded whether and when they experienced an earworm. Then we analyzed 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.”
EEG recordings (records of electrical activity in the brain) from the experimental investigation were also evaluated statistically to look for physiological indicators of sleep-dependent memory consolidation. Temporary memories are spontaneously reactived during sleep and changed into a more long-term form, which is known as memory consolidation.
“We thought that people would have earworms at bedtime when they were trying to fall asleep, but we certainly didn’t know that people would report regularly waking up from sleep with an earworm. But we saw that in both the survey and experimental study,” he said.
Participants with a sleep earworm showed greater slow oscillations in their sleep, which is a sign of memory reactivation. Slow oscillations increased significantly in the area corresponding to the main auditory cortex, which is involved in earworm processing in awake people.
“Almost everyone thought music improves their sleep, but we found those who listened to more music slept worse,” Scullin said. “What was really surprising was that instrumental music led to worse sleep quality—instrumental music leads to about twice as many earworms.”
The researchers discovered that people who listened to more music before bed had more earworms and had poorer sleep quality. These findings contradict the notion that music may be used as a hypnotic to aid sleep. Before going to bed, several health groups advocate listening to soft music—recommendations based mostly on self-reported research.
“If you commonly pair listening to music while being in bed, then you’ll have that association where being in that context might trigger an earworm even when you’re not listening to music, such as when you’re trying to fall asleep,” he said.
Engaging in cognitive work—fully focused on a subject, topic, or activity helps to divert your brain from earworms—is another technique to get rid of an earworm. Scullin recommends spending five to ten minutes towards night writing up a to-do list and putting thoughts to paper, rather than indulging in a taxing activity or anything that will interrupt your sleep, such as watching TV or playing video games.