Using Sound for Help Falling Asleep

For help falling asleep, music and sounds such as white noise are highly effective.

Sleep Challenges

Is getting to sleep sometimes a struggle? Maybe you've had the experience of being kept awake by:

  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
  • A bedmate who snores
  • Insomnia
  • Unfamiliar environments when you travel or are in the hospital

If so, you know the frustration of lying helplessly awake and the stress of missing out on the restful sleep you need.

Under conditions like these that are less than ideal, what's the best way of falling into a natural sleep so you can wake to a new day feeling refreshed?


A Sound Approach

In one study of over 2,000 problem sleepers, participants reported that white noise, music, or nature sounds helped them fall asleep nearly as often as prescription drugs. Furthermore, more participants were helped by approaches using sound than by over-the-counter drugs, a consistent sleep routine, or muscle relaxation. For getting "sound sleep," sound really works!

Three Ways Sound Helps You Sleep

Audio Visual Print

When you listen to music or other sounds of your choice while lying quietly, it helps put your mind and body into a state receptive to relaxing and falling asleep. It does this in three ways:


The sound masks noises that can be annoying or disruptive. These can be noises from neighbors, traffic, machines, or a bed partner's snoring. Masking is particularly helpful for dealing with tinnitus (since ear plugs cannot block out a noise coming from inside your head and will actually make the tinnitus seem louder). By putting on white noise or music, you blanket your auditory surroundings with smooth and predictable sound, covering over the unpleasant or distracting noises that would keep you awake.


Choosing the sound puts you in control of your environment. The sense of hearing never fully shuts off, even during sleep, and providing your ears with sounds that you have chosen communicates to your mind at a deep level that your world is safe; your alert vigilance can be freely relinquished.


Certain kinds of music have a seemingly magical ability to induce a calmer state of being, reducing pain perception and relieving anxiety. Music with a steady rhythm that has a rate somewhat lower than that of your heartbeat puts your mind and body in a relaxed state conducive to slumber. Music familiar to you that has pleasant associations enhances the soothing effect.


What Sounds Work Best?

The choice of sound to fall asleep to is a very personal one. Some people like to drift off to the sound of talking voices (from radio, TV, or an audiobook), but for many people words tend to engage the mind, making sleep more elusive and less restful. Most sleep sounds that people choose are from these three categories:

You can even combine nature effects or music with white noise sleep sounds to create your own peaceful soundscape.

Sleep audio album by Liquid Mind

Listen to examples of sounds from all three categories at the free online players here. If the first sound you use doesn't quite do it for you, go ahead and experiment with other varieties or combinations. When trying out a new type of sound for sleeping, give it a trial run of at least a week, to allow your mind time to become familiar and comfortable with the new routine.

The sounds can be from a CD or MP3 player or generated by a "white noise" sound machine. Many sound machines can play music and sleep-inducing nature sounds in addition to standard white noise.


Ways to Hear Your Sound in Bed

You have your sleep sound and you have a sound player; now what's the best way to deliver the sound to your ears as you're lying in bed? Playing it through regular stereo speakers or from the sound machine unit can work just fine. But if you have a roommate or bedmate who doesn't share your bedtime listening tastes, you have other options too:

  • Headphones or earphones designed for sleeping, such as SleepPhones or Bedphones. These put the sound right at your ears, in stereo, moving with you as you change positions in bed. They're also the least audible to your bed partner. Disadvantages are that they can be awkward for sleeping, uncomfortably warm, or irritating to the ears.
  • A pillow speaker that can be used with any pillow. This is a versatile device that you can adapt to work with your own pillow, sleep habits, and listening preferences. With a two-speaker system you can get stereo sound, but the stereo effect will not be consistent as you shift positions on your pillow.
  • A pillow with a speaker built in. This can be the most comfortable choice, as the speaker is an integral part of the pillow rather than an add-on which can be lumpy or too weak to hear. But it's also the least portable option, so it's not as suitable as the others if you want a technique you can use when you travel.

Each style of listening device has its fans. All are designed to work with any unit that has a 3.5-mm earphone/headphone jack, including MP3 players, stereo amplifiers, radios, TVs, computers, and some electronic sound machines. They don't need batteries or an electrical outlet.

woman with SleepPhones sleeping peacefully beside snoring man

Note: Persistent insomnia may indicate an underlying medical condition; see your doctor.

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