New Study Suggests Listening To 'Earworm' Songs Near Bedtime Can Be Disruptive To Sleep

New Study Suggests Listening To 'Earworm' Songs Near Bedtime Can Be Disruptive To Sleep

Most people listen to music throughout the day and especially near bedtime to unwind. Can this, however, interfere with your sleep? According to a new study, it may actually be disruptive to your sleep!

When sleep researcher Michael Scullin, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University, realized he was waking up in the middle of the night with a song stuck in his head, he saw an opportunity to investigate how music, and especially stuck songs, might affect sleep patterns.

Scullin's recent study investigated the relationship between music listening and sleep, focusing on a rarely studied mechanism: involuntary musical imagery, or "earworms," which occur when a song or tune replays in a person's mind over and over.

These commonly occur while awake, but Scullin discovered that they could also occur while endeavoring to sleep.

"Our brains continue to process music even when none is playing, including apparently while we are asleep," Scullin said. "Everyone knows that music listening feels good. Adolescents and young adults routinely listen to music near bedtime. But sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. The more you listen to music, the more likely you are to catch an earworm that won't go away at bedtime. When that happens, chances are your sleep is going to suffer."

A survey and a laboratory experiment were used in the study. The survey included 209 participants who completed a series of surveys on sleep quality, music listening habits, and earworm frequency, including how often they experienced an earworm while trying to fall asleep, waking up in the middle of the night, and immediately upon waking up in the morning.

In the experimental study, 50 people were brought into Baylor's Scullin's Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory, where the researchers attempted to induce earworms to see how they affected sleep quality.

Polysomnography, the gold standard measurement for sleep, was used to record the participants' brain waves, heart rate, breathing, and other parameters while they slept.

"Before bedtime, we played three popular and catchy songs -- Taylor Swift's 'Shake It Off,' Carly Rae Jepsen's 'Call Me Maybe' and Journey's 'Don't Stop Believin'," Scullin said. "We randomly assigned participants to listen to the original versions of those songs or the de-lyricized instrumental versions of the songs. Participants responded whether and when they experienced an earworm. Then we analyzed whether that impacted their nighttime sleep physiology. People who caught an earworm had greater difficulty falling asleep, more nighttime awakenings, and spent more time in light stages of sleep."

The study found that individuals with greater music listening habits experienced persistent earworms and decreased sleep quality. These results are contrary to the idea of music as a hypnotic that might help sleep.

Before bedtime, listening to quiet music is commonly recommended by health organizations, and this recommendation is largely based on self-reported studies. On the other hand, Scullin has objectively demonstrated that the sleeping brain continues to process music for several hours even after the music has stopped.

Knowing that earworms disrupt sleep, Scullin suggests first attempting to moderate music listening or taking periodic breaks if bothered by earworms. Music timing is also important; try to avoid listening to it before going to bed.

Another method for getting rid of an earworm is to engage in cognitive activity—completely concentrating on a task, problem, or activity helps to distract your brain from earworms.

Scullin's previous study, partially funded by a National Institutes of Health grant and the Sleep Research Society Foundation, identified that taking five minutes before bed to write down upcoming tasks helped "offload" those worrying thoughts about the future resulted in faster sleep.

The study was published in Psychological Science.

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