I have to come clean right away—there are very few nights when I have trouble sleeping. I am a working self-employed mother who squeezes a full-time job into a part-time schedule. Sometimes I’m called into work in the middle of the night and my three-year-old only recently started sleeping all night long.
On most nights, it doesn’t take long for sleep to set in. But on the nights when it does it’s horrible.
There are few things like the angst of being awake when you don’t want to be. I hate laying there tossing and turning while everyone else in the house is asleep. The world seems so cruel in those moments.
The stress of not sleeping feeds into not sleeping. And when morning comes my two guys are going to be up and ready to go regardless of how well I slept.
“Why am I awake? Why can’t I go to sleep? How long will I be awake? Is it because I ate that?” and so it goes, my anxiety mounting with each sleepless minute. The next day, I am unhappy and short tempered, eating everything in sight, guzzling coffee, and worried it will happen again.
Research repeatedly shows stress and sleep have huge impacts on our health. Too much stress and too little sleep both increase your risk for all chronic diseases, throw your hormones out of balance, cripple learning and memory, as well as put you at risk for mental disorders, including anxiety and depression.
And they play into each other. When your stress goes up, it’s hard to get a good night’s sleep. When you’re not getting good sleep everything feels more stressful.
But there are many things you can do to reduce your stress and increase your sleep quality and quantity. Just as stress and sleep can play off each other in a bad way, resolving one can lead to benefitting the other.
On those sleepless nights and stressful days, I have learned what works for me: quick anti-stress breaks several times a day, a magic blend of essential oils, a new place to sleep, a special tea, and best of all, music.
Research has shown music helps improve the quality of sleep in students and in adults with insomnia. And listening to music before encountering a stressor helps reduce the perceived amount of stress. However, it’s important to use the right kind of music.
You could find plenty of albums advertised as good playlists for sleep or relaxation, but many of them mistakenly assume all classical music is sleep-inducing or start out with a few soothing songs, but ruin it with a peppy piece a few tracks in. Or they may mix instruments and styles together in a way that unintentionally draws too much attention to the music rather than supporting the goal of sleep or relaxation.
But you can avoid that by using the steps below to create fantastic playlists for sleep and relaxation yourself. First, some basics.
Sleep music might not be what you think it is. As I mentioned earlier, not all classical music is helpful as sleep music. Keep in mind music that we term “classical” were created as entertainment.
Dramatic rhythms, changing tempos, and dissonant melody lines kept audiences on the edges of their seats. And while what thrills and scandalizes us has changed, rhythm, tempo, and melody can still elicit entertainment and surprise—the opposite of sleep.
So keep an ear towards how exciting the music you’re considering is. Find music that is soothing and simple. In this case, a little boring is good.
Keep your playlist consistent. The point of making this playlist is so the music can support you while you relax or sleep, not take your attention away from it. Keeping the pieces on the playlist as similar as possible allows your mind to wander into relaxation mode and then it’s just a few steps to sleep mode.
You can create playlists with guitar, piano, orchestra, or music from other cultures. But don’t put them all into the same playlist.
Sleep music is different from relaxation music. Some classical music can be great for relaxing—I use piano pieces composed by Debussy, Satie, and Liszt in my Classical Piano Relaxation Playlist. They help me replace my daily obsessions with beautiful and interesting melodies.
It’s great to use during my bedtime routine. I’ll listen and take a bath, read a few pages, or just listen and let my thoughts get quiet. But I change it when I’m ready to climb into bed.
When you’re ready to shift into sleep, your music needs to shift with you. You want your sleep music to be consistent, steady, even boring. I love a sustained low tone. I can feel my body shift down a gear as soon as I hear it. From there, my breathing slows, my body relaxes, and I know I’m on my way to sleep.
How to Create Playlists for Sleep and Relaxation
The following steps will help you create playlists for sleep and relaxation. These playlists will help you relax or go to sleep and stay asleep. After creating your perfect playlist, you’ll be chilled out or dreaming away in no time.
For the rest of this post, I’ll be assuming you have an account with Spotify or another media player. These allow you to have access to far more music than buying individual tracks or albums and the ability to keep your playlists consistent.
1. Figure Out What You Enjoy
No playlist is going to help you relax or sleep if you hate it. So figuring out at least one thing you enjoy will give you a jumping off point for your playlist. Jazz, classical, electronic, indigenous? Sparse or layered? Nature sounds or just music?
Use search terms in an online music program to find albums where you will get individual pieces. Using words like “relax,” “classical,” or “nature,” you can find soothing music in a wide variety of styles. Pick one and start a playlist.
2. Choose Similar Songs
Within a sleep playlist or album, there should be consistency between the songs. If you’re using sparse acoustic piano music, then the whole playlist should have sparse acoustic piano. If you like pieces with rain, choose pieces that all have rain and a consistent backup instrument.
Listen to 10-30 seconds of the piece, then listen to a few seconds from the middle of the piece to figure out if it fits your playlist. If you run out of appropriate pieces on a single album, use the “related artists” or “recommended songs” features to find more music.
3. Choose “Boring” Songs
Avoid music with dramatic percussion or a distinct melody. You could look for music with sustained and slow moving tones, a sparse melody, and repetition.
Pay attention to what happens when you listen to the music. Do you feel as if you’re “powering down” or is it blocking out other noises that are keeping you awake? Either is great depending on your needs.
4. Start Using Your Playlist
Once you get around one hour of similar, calming music, add it to your nightly routine. It may take a few nights for your mind and your body to link the music with sleep, but it will happen.
In fact, having your playlist consistently play the same songs in the same order can create an expectation and monotony that can help you in your quest for relaxation or sleep.
Through a response called entrainment, your brain and body link the activities to the music. With time, all you have to do is turn the music on and you naturally go into the state you’ve practiced.
5. Adjust As Needed
You may find mistakes—one particular piece that wakes you up or something that doesn’t fit the playlist. It’s simple to either delete that track or change its place in the playlist. Before long, you’ll forget what the end of that playlist sounds like because you’ll be so relaxed or sleeping through it.
The best thing about music is that it’s flexible. You can use your perfect playlist during occasional restless nights or every night as a part of your routine. You can take it with you and use it when you’re out of town and changing schedules and unfamiliar environments make relaxation and sleep more elusive.
More Tips For Relaxation and Sleep
- Practice pairing music with meditation or light stretching and yoga movements.
- Be aware of the effects of caffeine, sugar, and processed foods on your ability to relax and sleep.
- Download your playlists onto your phone or other electronic devices so you can put your device on airplane mode while sleeping. This will cut out the electromagnetic radiation which can disrupt sleeping patterns
Don’t want to create your own playlists for sleep and relaxation? I love using Dr. Jeffrey Thompson’s sleep albums or you can subscribe to my Piano Sleep Music or Synth Sleep Music playlists on Spotify.
Maura Marksteiner graduated with her music therapy degree from Illinois State University in 2005. She is the founder of St. Louis Birth Rhythms where she and her team help families have fulfilling, safe, and empowering births. She also provides health and wellness services for individuals and corporations. Her passion is helping families and individuals connect to their power to be healthy and happy through lifestyle choices. To contact Maura, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.