Music Therapy For Sleep Disorders

  • HOR KEAN HANG  Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery, Shanghai Medical College of Fudan University
  • Marie Emilie Maeland MSci Biological Sciences: Cell biology, University College London
  • Ellen Rogers MSc in Advanced Biological Sciences, University of Exeter

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Music, moods and maybe medicine?

Have you ever noticed how our emotions are easily influenced by music, such as the music in movies or games? Imagine yourself playing your favourite video game, when you suddenly come across a boss fight. As you prepare to face the enormous creature, the music slowly gets faster and louder and with it comes the loud heavy drums and guitar riffs that make your adrenaline rush and your heart race. Now imagine yourself playing a farming simulator, where the melodies are slower and softer and are accompanied by the sound of birds chirping and a soft breeze rustling the trees. How do you feel now, compared to during the boss fight? 

If we are so easily influenced by sounds and melodies, could there be a possibility that they can be used to improve our quality of life? Indeed, the potential of using music as a form of therapy for sleep disorders has been widely discussed. The use of music for therapeutic purposes, also known as music therapy, is  a type of psychological intervention which uses music as a medium to support individuals who are affected by illnesses or chronic conditions such as psychological disorders, pain, and sleep disorders.

What are sleep disorders?

Sleep disorders are a group of conditions which disrupt your normal sleeping patterns and negatively affect your daily activities and quality of life. According to The International Classification of Sleep Disorders – Third Edition (ICSD-3), these disorders can be grouped into six categories: 

  • Insomnia, when an individual is having trouble falling or staying asleep. 
  • Sleep-related breathing disorders, where an individual has difficulties controlling their breathing whilst they are asleep, either due to an obstruction in the airway or poor lung ventilation 
  • Central disorders of hypersomnolence, which are characterised by excessive daytime sleepiness despite an individual having no problems with sleeping at night.1 
  • Circadian rhythm sleep-wake disorders, where an individual’s sleep timing does not match their circadian rhythm. This can be due to factors such as jet lag or an irregular sleep-wake rhythm.2 
  • Parasomnia, whereby an individual experiences unwanted behaviours during sleep or partial arousal from sleep. An example is sleepwalking.3
  • Sleep related movement disorders, a group of disorders where individuals experience abnormal movements during sleep, causing sleeping difficulties and poor sleep.4 

Insufficient sleep not only affects our mental health, but our physical health as well. Individuals who do not have enough rest are more at risk of developing a variety of health problems, such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and even depression.5 Therefore, sleep disorders can be detrimental to one’s health if left unmanaged. 

Treating sleep disorders with sounds

Treating sleep issues with sounds sounds contradictory, doesn't it? Many of us were taught to sleep in dark and quiet places.  Furthermore, we use sounds, like those made by an alarm clock, to wake us up. However, some studies have shown that sounds such as music can actually improve sleep quality.6 Some rhythms, especially slow and repetitive ones, can provide a sense of comfort and familiarity, creating a sedating effect. However, there are a few things that we need to take into consideration to optimise the use of music therapy to improve our sleep.

Choosing the right sounds

There are millions of songs on the market today and it is believed that if we compile them into a playlist, we can listen to them without repetition for a lifetime. Thanks to streaming platforms such as Apple Music, Spotify and YouTube, we have access to a constantly growing pool of music. With that many selections, choosing the right music for sleep can be overwhelming. 

You may ask - are there criteria that should be followed when selecting music for music therapy? The simple answer is no. However, based on research, experts suggest sounds with slow tempo and rhythm, symmetry, and without any abrupt changes will be most therapeutic.7 Besides this, however, it seems that individuals who choose their own music tend to have better outcomes. A possible explanation is that choosing our own sounds provides a sense of familiarity. The brain is very efficient in detecting any unfamiliar sounds, and it becomes hyper-alert whenever it detects unpredictable patterns - which is precisely why we have difficulties sleeping in new places. 

What you choose to play before bedtime is not that important, whether you are playing Taylor Swift’s newest album or Queen’s classic hits - as long as it makes you get a good night’s sleep.

Benefits of music therapy

Music therapy certainly is not the only option to manage sleep disorders, but it does offer several benefits. Firstly, music therapy helps to relieve stress and anxiety, with research showing that music is capable of reducing anxiety levels among individuals including those with chronic illnesses.Furthermore, music therapy also aids in enhancing sleep patterns and promoting healthy sleeping habits, which in turn improves sleep quality.9

Thanks to streaming platforms, music therapy is now accessible to the general public. With a massive library of tunes to choose from, individuals can surely find something that meets their own needs.Besides that, many of these streaming platforms offer carefully crafted “sleeping” playlists that can be used to help with sleep. As a potential therapy for sleeping disorders, pharmacological interventions to regulate sleep disorders can be minimised. Medications that help with sleep disorders tend to have undesirable side effects. Hence, using music therapy can help reduce your dependence on medication and the side effects you experience.

Challenges 

Despite having so many benefits, it is relatively hard to implement music therapy on a large scale due to a few factors. Firstly, music therapy relies heavily on an individual’s participation and willingness. Furthermore, music therapy requires patience and a lot of time before its effects on sleep disorders become noticeable. Hence, some individuals may be demotivated and forfeit the therapy if the therapeutic effects are not observed within a time limit. Therefore, patient adherence can be an issue. 

Besides patient adherence, one of the biggest obstacles facing music therapy is the lack of trained professionals out there. As music therapy becomes more popular, we still lack individuals who are well-trained to implement it. As each patient’s response to the therapy will be different, these professionals are important as they are in charge of monitoring the response and making adjustments if necessary to optimise its benefits. 

Cultural and socioeconomic challenges can also make it difficult to promote music therapy. In certain cultures, playing music around bedtime can be considered rude as it may disturb others. Hence, these individuals would refrain from making noises. Moreover, it can be hard for people to adapt to a new bedtime routine, which makes music therapy for their sleep disorders harder to accept. Streaming services and music devices are accessible to most in the modern day, but there are people who are unfamiliar with it, such as the elderly, or cannot afford to access them.  In the latter case, individuals would be more inclined to use medications.

Summary

Music therapy is an intervention that can be used to treat sleeping disorders. With more and more individuals having difficulties sleeping, these disorders pose an increasing risk to public health as they increase an individual’s likelihood of developing various chronic diseases. The potential use of music therapy as a method to alleviate sleeping disorders should be explored further. However, a few things should be considered beforehand, such as the type of music selection, the benefits, the target group, and the potential challenges. Once these are all addressed, it is likely that more people would be more accepting of music therapy and we would have a new method to manage sleeping disorders. 

References

  1. Khan Z, Trotti LM. Central Disorders of Hypersomnolence. Chest [Internet]. 2015 [cited 2024 Feb 5]; 148:262–73. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4694150/.
  2. Kim MJ, Lee JH, Duffy JF. Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorders. J. Clin. Outcomes Manag. [Internet]. 2013 [cited 2024 Feb 5]; 20:513–28. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4212693/.
  3. University of Michigan Health. Parasomnia [Internet]. [Cited 2024 Feb 5]. Available from: https://www.uofmhealth.org/conditions-treatments/brain-neurological-conditions/parasomnia.
  4. Yale Medicine. Sleep-Related Movement Disorders [Internet]. [cited 2024 Feb 5]. Available from: https://www.yalemedicine.org/clinical-keywords/sleep-related-movement-disorders.
  5. Centers for Disease Control. Sleep and Chronic Disease [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2024 Feb 5]. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/chronic_disease.html.
  6. Kavurmaci M, Dayapoğlu N, Tan M. Effect of Music Therapy on Sleep Quality. Altern. Ther. Health Med [Internet]. 2020; 26:22–6. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31221932/ 
  7. Trahan T, Durrant SJ, Müllensiefen D, Williamson VJ. The music that helps people sleep and the reasons they believe it works: A mixed methods analysis of online survey reports. PLoS One [Internet]. 2018 [cited 2024 Feb 5]; 13:e0206531. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6235300/.
  8. Bradt J, Dileo C, Potvin N. Music for stress and anxiety reduction in coronary heart disease patients. Cochrane Database Syst. Rev. [Internet]. 2013; 2013:CD006577. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24374731/ 
  9. Dickson GT, Schubert E. Music on Prescription to Aid Sleep Quality: A Literature Review. Front. Psychol. 2020; 11:1695. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32849025/ 

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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HOR KEAN HANG

Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery, Shanghai Medical College of Fudan University

Kean Hang is a junior doctor with a main task in clinical work. As a junior doctor, he is passionate about sharing information regarding health and wellbeing to the general public.

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