In the midst of a pandemic, sleep has never been more important—or more elusive. Studies have shown that a full night’s sleep is one of the best defenses in protecting your immune system. But since the spread of COVID-19 began, people around the world are going to bed later and sleeping worse; tales of terrifying and vivid dreams have flooded social media.
To combat sleeplessness, people are turning to all sorts of techniques, including anti-insomnia medication, aromatherapies, electronic curfews, sleep coaches and meditation. But another unlikely sedative has also seen a spike in usage around bedtime: music. While sleep music used to be confined to the fringes of culture—whether at avant-garde all-night concerts or New Age meditation sessions—the field has crept into the mainstream over the past decade. Ambient artists are collaborating with music therapists; apps are churning out hours of new content; sleep streams have surged in popularity on YouTube and Spotify.
And since the impacts of the coronavirus have upped the anxiety of daily life, artists’ streams and wellness app downloads have soared, forming bedtime habits that could prove lasting. At the same time, scientists are diving deeper: in September 2019, the National Institute of Health awarded $20 million to research projects around music therapy and neuroscience. As the field expands, experts imagine a world in which scientifically-designed albums could be just as effective and commonly used as sleeping pills.
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Enhancing the edges of sleep
Sleep and music have been intertwined for centuries: a creation myth of Bach’s Goldberg Variations involves a sleepless Count. More recently, a Western fascination with sleep music reemerged in the ’60s, when experimental minimalist composers like John Cage, Terry Riley and members of the Fluxus collective began staging all-night concerts. Riley was inspired by Eastern mysticism and all-night Indian classical music events, and aimed to provoke rather than soothe: “It felt like a great alternative to the ordinary concert scene,” he said in a 1995 interview.
One of the acolytes of this scene was Robert Rich, who, as a Stanford student in 1982, staged his first “sleep concert” to about 15 dozers. His audience settled into their sleeping bags in a dorm lounge while Rich created drones with a tape echo, a digital delay and a spring reverb for 9 hours. “I was fascinated by the idea of using music for trance-inducing purposes,” he tells TIME. “The intention was not to make music to sleep more deeply, but to enhance the edges of sleep and explore one’s consciousness.”
William Basinski likewise approached sleep music through the lens of minimalist experimentation. At the time, Basinski was toying with generative music and feedback loops—music that unfolded slowly over hours. Initially, there was little interest in his work beyond his Brooklyn bubble. “I would have loved if people got more what I was doing—but it took quite a while,” he says. “But it allowed me to fall in and out of time—to get some peace, daydream.”
While Rich, Basinski and others pushed the bounds of convention, others entered the sleep music space for more practical reasons. The electronic musician Tom Middleton had created lulling ambient music as a member of Global Communication and and other bands in the ’90s, but had never seriously considered the connection between sleep and music until he developed insomnia after years of touring the globe and partying all night. “My sleep was pretty messed up, and it was impacting all parts of my life,” he said. “I wanted to train as a sleep science coach to understand it better and to see if I could hack my own sleep.”
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Science meets streaming
When Middleton studied sleep science and began working with neuroscientists, he found that the benefits of music on sleep weren’t just spiritual, but based on empirical evidence. Studies have found that relaxing music can have a direct effect on the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps the body relax and prepare for sleep. One trial in a Taiwan hospital found that older adults who listened to 45 minutes of relaxing music before bedtime fell asleep faster, slept longer, and were less prone to waking up during the night.
Barbara Else, a senior adviser with the American Music Therapy Association, has worked with victims of several disaster situations, including Hurricane Katrina, and seen how music can play a crucial role in quelling racing thoughts and establishing sleep routines. “We aren’t medicine or a cure, but we help progress towards a better sleep quality for people in pain or anxiety,” she says. “We can see respiration rate and pulse settle down. We can see blood pressure lower.”
Relying on similar research and working with neuroscientists at sleep labs, Middleton began devising music in which each element—harmony, rhythm, frequency, environmental noise—was chosen based on scientific underpinnings. “I like to see robust, rigorous evidence to support why I’m making a production decision,” he says. In 2018, he released Sleep Better, an eight-part suite that unfolds with lapping waves, chirping birds and sustained synthesizer chords designed to line up with your circadian rhythms and encourage deep REM sleep, which is thought to help facilitate memory consolidation. Nothing much happens over its 80-minute runtime—but then again, if you’re consciously listening the whole way through, you’re engaging with it wrong. “My album intentionally makes you ‘unlisten’ at a certain point,” Middleton says.
By the time Middleton released Sleep Better, a once-derided field was gaining legitimacy and sprawling in many directions. In the experimental wing, Basinski and Rich were suddenly being asked to perform sleep concerts for thousands of horizontal fans at major festivals like Le Guess Who in the Netherlands and Moogfest in North Carolina. In an era of experiential pop-ups and events, consumers were embracing the opportunity to pay $250 per ticket for the privilege of falling asleep to Max Richter’s Sleep.
The rise of streaming also had an outsize impact. While many experimental artists have been hurt by streaming’s miniscule royalties, new digital platforms also provided easier and cheaper access to lengthy musical works. Robert Rich’s seven-hour Somnium, for example, had originally been released on DVD, the only format that could support it in 2001; now, he could sell it easily as a download on Bandcamp. Another one of his most peaceful albums, Nest, unexpectedly began racking up millions of plays on Spotify. “That was quite a surprise,” he said.
Other sleep musicians began experiencing career transformations. In the mid-’00s, Chuck Wild, who performs as Liquid Mind, started uploading his relaxation music onto Pandora and YouTube to modest returns. But his streaming numbers skyrocketed once streaming took hold around 2014. “I started looking at the numbers and my income, and went, “Holy cow, this is a way to fulfill my dream,” Wild says. Since then, he has released albums titled Deep Sleep, Peace and Mindfulness that have found success online.
The rise of wellness
As access to sleep music increased, so did awareness, thanks in part to a larger cultural shift around the ideas of “wellness” and mental health. Meditation and mindfulness were going mainstream in Western society, and entrepreneurs responded accordingly, flooding the market with new startups that sought to alleviate rising levels of anxiety. One of those, Calm, was named Apple’s 2017 app of the year, and was valued at $250 million.
Last October, the company sensed a swelling interest in sleep music and hired its first Head of Music, Courtney Phillips. Phillips, who would often fall asleep to Enya as a child, saw the creation of her role as a natural extension of a larger normalization around sleep music. “People used to hear ‘New Age’ and think of a ‘woo woo’ vibe—and imagine crystals and linen,” she says. “Now it’s just music to help you relax.”
Unsurprisingly, Spotify, the leader of the streaming world, has been at the forefront of this movement. On its genres page, an entire vertical for “sleep” is carved out alongside “hip-hop” and “rock.” There are 42 official playlists in it, three of which—Sleep, Deep Sleep and Peaceful Piano—have more than a million followers.
Curiously, many of the artists on these prominent playlists are strangely shadowy: they have only a handful of songs uploaded, and little-to-no digital presence outside their Spotify pages. Over the last few years, several news outlets have written investigations into these so-called “fake artists” and the possible reasons that Spotify would promote them as opposed to more established ones. (Spotify declined to comment for this story.)
Whatever their reasons, this development—of a multibillion-dollar app establishing its own stream of sleep content and largely bypassing the form’s pioneers—is not lost on those who have spent decades in the space. “It’s troubling to me because it can be difficult to make a living as a musician,” Wild says.
“I think that it’s a great shame,” Middleton says. “They’re missing an opportunity to create really effective content based on science.”
Easing coronavirus anxieties
While many experts warned that the lack of sleep in America was a public health crisis several years ago, the pandemic has only exacerbated matters. And as prescriptions for anti-anxiety medication and insomnia aids have spiked over the last few months, so has the demand for sleep music. A representative for YouTube said searches for “Sleep Sound,” “Nature Sound,” “nighttime routine,” and “sleep hack video” all increased starting at the end of March. Calm has seen their daily downloads double. Endel, a platform that creates sound environments using artificial intelligence, says that their app installs have increased by more than 80%.
William Basinski’s life was thrown into disarray by the pandemic: his world tour was cancelled, erasing most of his potential earnings for the year. But on streaming services, his royalties doubled from March to April, which he credits to people looking to assuage their anxiety. “Most people know that streaming isn’t that great for most underground musicians,” he says. “But I have to say, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the digital royalties.”
Earlier this year, Robert Rich was working on an album with dark elements, but changed course when he started getting inundated by requests from longtime listeners. “I was getting requests for music that was more comfortable. I set down the album I was halfway through and sat down with the intention of making something very calm,” he said. He released a serene album, Offering to the Morning Fog, in May as a name-your-price download. “There could not be a better antidote to COVID-19 than this blissful, serene soundscape,” one commenter wrote on Bandcamp.
Going forward, the science around sleep music will continue to broaden and deepen, leading to questions around whether music could rival the effectiveness of medicine. “A sleeping pill is a sedative hypnotic that influences our brain. Can we use sound to rewire the brain and make us feel drowsy? Yes,” Tom Middleton says. “The main challenge is if we can keep people in the various states of sleep, such as restorative delta wave sleep.”
But while some musicians are embracing scientific methods and collaborating with apps, others are worried the space could be commodified to the point where it’s unrecognizable. Already, you can go on YouTube and find dozens of livestreams with bland titles optimized for search results.
Given that creators like Rich and Basinski arose out of experimental fields in the first place, they’re not overly concerned about what’s happening in the mainstream. Rich says he has no intention of making albums like the phlegmatic Offering to the Morning Fog for the rest of his career, even if it might be the most profitable path. “We need to express the full dynamic range of light and dark,” he says. “Just creating relaxing pablum is probably worse than doing nothing right now.” But regardless of what direction Rich takes his career, Offering to the Morning Fog will always be available to lull you to sleep.