Looking to catch some quality zzz’s? Let’s talk music!

The Bottom Line

  • It is estimated that 1 in 2 Canadian adults struggle with falling or staying asleep.
  • Poor sleep quality can negatively impact mental health, cognitive health, and physical health.
  • Music-based strategies are generally considered safe and may enhance sleep quality, as well as several components of sleep, such as sleep duration and efficiency.
  • If you are struggling to get a good night’s sleep, consider a music-based strategy. Consult with your health care team before getting started, and lean on free online resources for access to a selection of music options.   

“Sleep is the best meditation."

 – His Holiness the Dalai Lama

One, two, three, four…one hundred. Have you ever spent a night counting sheep with the hopes of finally falling asleep? Do you sometimes get that much yearned for shut-eye but still wake up feeling unsatisfied or not well-rested? Are you finding it hard to stay awake during hours that people do not typically spend sleeping?

If you answered “yes” to one or more of these questions, know that you are not alone. Amongst Canadian adults, it is estimated that 1 in 2 face difficulties falling or staying asleep, 1 in 5 do not report that their sleep is refreshing, and 1 in 3 have a hard time staying awake during waking hours (1). Not getting good quality sleep can be detrimental to our health and well-being. Take, for example, older adults. In this population, poor sleep quality has the potential to increase the risk of developing anxiety, depression, suicidal behaviours, cognitive issues, physical impairments, heart disease, diabetes, and immune disorders (2-6).

Drug-based strategies, including those that alter mood, thinking, and behaviour, are often the first-line of treatment for sleep-related issues (2;7-9). Despite the heavy use of “sleeping pills,” due to the safety implications associated with their use, non-drug treatment options—such as yoga and light therapy—are also available and under further exploration (2;7;9-13). Here, safety refers to the increased risk of illness/injury and death, as well as considerations around medication tolerance and the potential for becoming dependent on medication (2;9). One common side effect of “sleeping pills” that especially impacts older adults is disorientation (7).

Knowing the importance of sleep and the need for complementary or alternative non-drug treatment options, let’s examine music as a possible strategy. You heard that right, music, something that we turn on in times celebration, when we need comfort, and for the purpose healing. But can music help improve sleep quality in older adults? A recent systematic review provides some answers (2).

What the research tells us

The review looked at studies that had participants generally just listening to music around bedtime/night time, although some engaged in music making as well. The music used varied, but a few examples include meditative music, western music (e.g., modern jazz and classical), and Chinese music (e.g., classical). Participants were compared to those not using music-based strategies or medications, but instead engaging in other activities—such as maintaining a sleep log or receiving sleep promotion or sleep hygiene education sessions.

The review found that overall, sleep quality in older adults may be enhanced through the use of music-based strategies. Additionally, other components of sleep that may see improvements include sleep latency, sleep duration, sleep efficiency, and daytime dysfunction. Breaking down some of the lesser known terms, sleep latency refers to the time it takes to go from being fully awake to fully asleep, sleep efficiency is the percentage of sleep time attained while in bed, and daytime dysfunction relates to one’s perception of experiencing troubles with staying awake while completing daytime activities (e.g., driving) and maintaining enough enthusiasm to complete tasks. Although music-based strategies are generally considered to be safe, the majority of the studies included in the review did not investigate safety. The only study that assessed safety reported no side effects or instances of discomfort.

With music emerging as a potentially promising non-drug strategy, it should be noted that many of the results presented in the review were based on a small number of studies. As such, more large high quality studies are needed to further explore the benefits and any adverse effects, as well as the optimal prescription for music-based strategies (e.g., type, duration, etc.) (2).

If you are interested in trying out a music-based treatment to help with your sleep, consult your health care team for tips on how to incorporate and execute this strategy. A variety of free music made to intentionally relax you is available online through platforms like YouTube to help you get started. Try out various songs/sounds/musical mixes and see what works for you. Be sure to pay attention to potential safety hazards such as headphones, opting for speakers instead, and volume control.

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  1. Government of Canada. Are Canadian adults getting enough sleep? [Internet] 2019. [cited September 2021]. Available from https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/publications/healthy-living/canadian-adults-getting-enough-sleep-infographic.html
  2. Wang C, Li G, Zheng L, et al. Effects of music intervention on sleep quality of older adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Complement Ther Med. 2021; 59:102719. doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2021.102719.
  3. Campanini MZ, Mesas AE, Carnicero-Carreno JA, et al. Duration and quality of sleep and risk of physical function impairment and disability in older adults: Results from the ENRICA and ELSA cohorts. Aging Dis. 2019; 10(3):557-569. doi: 10.14336/AD.2018.0611. 
  4. Nadorff MR, Drapeau CW, Pigeon WR. Psychiatric illness and sleep in older adults: Comorbidity and opportunities for intervention. Sleep Med Clin. 2018; 13(1):81-91. doi: 10.1016/j.jsmc.2017.09.008.
  5. Krause AJ, Simon EB, Mander BA, et al. The sleep-deprived human brain. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2017; 18(7):404-418. doi: 10.1038/nrn.2017.55.
  6. Gulia KK, Kumar VM. Sleep disorders in the elderly: A growing challenge. Psychogeriatrics. 2018; 18(3):155-165. doi: 10.1111/psyg.12319.
  7. Woolcott JC, Richardson KJ, Wiens MO, et al. Meta-analysis of the impact of 9 medication classes on falls in elderly persons. Arch Intern Med. 2009; 169(21):1952-60. doi: 10.1001/archinternmed.2009.357.
  8. Abad VC, Guilleminault G. Pharmacological treatment of sleep disorders and its relationship with neuroplasticity. Curr Top Behav Neurosci. 2015; 25:503-553. doi: 10.1007/7854_2014_365.
  9. Riemann D, Nissen C, Palagini L, et al. The neurobiology, investigation, and treatment of chronic insomnia. Lancet Neurol. 2015; 14(5):547-558. doi: 10.1016/S1474-4422(15)00021-6.
  10. Wang Q, Chair SY, Wong EML, et al. The effects of music intervention on sleep quality in community-dwelling elderly. J Altern Complement Med. 2016; 22(7):576-584. doi: 10.1089/acm.2015.0304.
  11. Chen ML, Lin LC, Wu SC, et al. The effectiveness of acupressure in improving the quality of sleep of institutionalized residents. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 1999; 54(8):M389-394. doi: 10.1093/gerona/54.8.m389.
  12. Lyketsos CG, Lindell Veiel L, et al. A randomized, controlled trial of bright light therapy for agitated behaviors in dementia patients residing in long-term care. Int J Geriatr Psychiatry. 1999; 14(7):520-525.
  13. Hariprasad VR, Sivakumar PT, Koparde V, et al. Effects of yoga intervention on sleep and quality-of-life in elderly: A randomized controlled trial. Indian J Psychiatry. 2013; 55:364-368. doi: 10.4103/0019-5545.116310. 

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (info@mcmasteroptimalaging.org).

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.