Art and Science of Curating Music for Sleep
When it comes to DIY sleep hacks, putting on some relaxing sleep music is one of the best—it’s quick and easy, affordable, and there are no unwanted side effects. However, not just any music will do; there’s both an art and a science to choosing the most effective music for falling asleep. For health and wellness companies looking for all the business benefits of adding sleep music to their apps, it’s important to understand the principles and challenges involved in selecting the ideal sleep music.
Eric “Stens” Stensvaag, Director of Curation, and Arturo Lovazzano, Senior Curation Operations Manager, discussed their philosophy and process around sleep music curation at Feed.fm.
Joli: Stens and Arturo, thanks so much for taking the time to share some thoughts with me on the topic of curating sleep music for health and wellness apps.
How would you describe the overarching philosophy of sleep music curation?
Stens: With music for sleep, we’re focused on meeting the app user wherever they’re at, in terms of both their physical environment and mental state, and facilitating an efficient musically guided journey. The goal is to escort them via music from a state of wakefulness—or even anxiety—to a relaxed state, and then through the induction of sleep, into sleep maintenance during the night.
Arturo: We’re guided by a number of scientific principles about sleep music gained through psychoacoustic research, but also try to remain sensitive and responsive to the artistic principles involved and the role of intuition. Sleep music isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of endeavor; there will always be a variety of human responses to acoustic stimuli. So we try to work within certain musical parameters while at the same time remaining flexible.
Joli: What are the parameters that guide you in selecting sleep music?
Arturo: We like to stay with lower frequencies in general—lower frequencies are good for reducing anxiety. High frequencies are counter-productive, as they can be stimulating, exciting, or even agitating.
We look for music that has no lyrics and limited rhythmic elements, nothing to distract or stimulate the listener. The tracks should be longer than average: ten minutes or more is great. The idea is to have as few disruptions as possible. We also look for music that is free of strong musical attacks and decays; we want music that is steady and calm, with no surprises.
Stens: Melody and harmony are elements of social communication—in nature, most sounds won’t be pitched or tonal, with the primary exception of animal sounds (birds, bugs, and mammals). Therefore, our brains have evolved to respond to melody and harmony in terms of what they communicate or express. Any melody and harmony in sleep music should be minimal, or completely absent, to avoid activating the listener’s brain.
In music, the things that require a lot of energy to produce also express high energy: for example, high pitches, extreme dynamics, and interval leaps. We perceive this energy and respond to it, and this can be very stimulating. For this reason, the best sleep music avoids these energy-intensive musical elements.
What we’ve learned is that there are distinct requirements for music for sleep induction as opposed to music for sleep maintenance. The music for sleep induction really has to do the heavy lifting in terms of meeting the individual where they’re at and guiding them through possibly several stages to a point where they’re ready to fall asleep. Music for sleep maintenance is relatively straightforward, and may consist of very consistent, simple calm music, or perhaps pink noise.
Joli: Can you say some more about the idea of meeting the listener where they’re at?
Stens: This takes into consideration that not everyone is going to be ready to start off with sleep induction music and go right to sleep. Some people will still be wired from the day; other people may be feeling anxious or stressed.
In music therapy, the “iso principle” consists of matching the intensity and type of music to the patient’s mood, and then slowly transforming the music to gradually move the patient toward the desired state. We can work with our business partners to implement a version of this principle in an app, by providing carefully chosen transitional music to meet users where they are in terms of mood, and then gradually help them wind down and relax, so they’re in the right place to effectively use sleep music to fall asleep.
For example, while music for sleep generally has no rhythm, we might choose transitional music with a gentle rhythm to meet the listener where they currently are, performing a sort of “anchoring.” As the listener relaxes, the rhythm diminishes and eventually disappears.
Arturo: In addition to considering the listener’s internal mood…some people may be using an app in a quiet, peaceful environment, while others may live in a noisy apartment building, or their bedroom may get a lot of street noise. The user’s external environment is a consideration too. A loud, stressful external environment would be another use case for starting off with pre–sleep induction music to help bring the listener into a calmer, more receptive state.
That brings up another function of sleep music, which is to mask intrusive sounds in the sleeping environment. This is an important component of both sleep induction music and sleep maintenance music. Pink noise can be useful for maintaining sleep as it creates a consistent soundscape that reduces the impact of sounds that might be jarring, like sirens or horns honking.
Joli: To get into the weeds just a little, could you explain what pink noise is, and how it differs from white noise and brown noise?
Stens: Pink noise mimics natural sound more than white noise does. White noise has an artificial quality, like television static. Pink noise, on the other hand, is more similar to the quality of sound in our day-to-day environment.
Arturo: With white noise, all frequencies are at the same volume. With pink noise, the lower frequencies are at a higher volume, and the higher frequencies are at a lower volume. In brown noise, the low frequencies are at an even higher volume than in pink noise.
Joli: That’s very helpful information. This has been an excellent education on sleep music curation—thank you, Arturo and Stens!
Listen to a selection of Feed.fm sleep music here:
Feed.fm can help you get sleep music onto your app quickly and easily, including licensing, music curation, and SDK streaming integration.
Please reach out to us if you're interested in speaking with one of Feed.fm’s expert music curators about sleep music for your health and wellness app.