dog with headphones | sound for sleep
Read time: 8 min

Key points

  • Binaural beats help trigger the relaxing theta waves associated with meditation and sleep.
  • Pink noise can improve slow-wave sleep, which is crucial for physical recovery and memory consolidation.
  • ASMR can help ease you from alertness to the relaxation state needed before falling asleep.

You’ve tried a million sleep hacks—unplugging your phone, wearing blue light glasses, taking melatonin—and nothing seems to be working. But there’s one trick you may not have tried yet: harnessing the power of sound. 

It should come as no shock that sound can affect the quality of your sleep. We mostly hear about this as a negative—like how loud traffic outside your window at night can keep you from getting a good night’s rest. But the good news is that the right type of sound can actually improve your sleep, according to some promising new research. Here’s how specific frequencies of sound can help you get your Z’s. 

The science of sound and sleep 

The body isn’t designed to snap from alertness into sleep—it needs to pass through a relaxation stage in between. “There are multiple hormones that need to be produced and get to appropriate levels to help induce sleep. These include melatonin, serotonin, and cortisol,” says Dr. Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist and diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine. This sleep onset process typically takes about 20 minutes. 

Sound can help aid that relaxation stage, and it can even help boost sleep quality. In a small 2019 study among German women (ages 19-35) published in Nature, participants consistently reported better naptime sleep quality when listening to music before dozing versus when listening to an audio recording about mineral deposits (so it seems that boring yourself to sleep is not as effective). Listening to music before a nap also reduced the amount of time the participants spent in the sleep-wake transition, increasing the amount of time they spent in slow-wave sleep (the deeply restorative kind).

Not all sound is created equal when it comes to sleep aids. A wave of new research has specifically focused on repetitive, relaxing soundscapes including binaural beats, pink noise, and ASMR. 

Binaural beats

Binaural beats is a technique that involves listening to two sounds of slightly different frequencies, one in each ear, using a pair of headphones. Instead of processing the two sounds separately, your brain interprets them as a single frequency. Dr. Breus describes it as tuning your brain the way you would an instrument. 

What does this have to do with sleep? The tone your brain processes is the difference between the two frequencies. So, to get technical, if you heard a 300-hertz tone in your right ear and a 295-hertz tone in your left ear, your brain would process that as a single 5-hertz tone. That’s a very low-frequency sound—one you can’t even hear—which may help slow your brain waves. 

Different wave frequencies in the brain are associated with different stages of alertness. 

Delta waves: 0.5 to 4.0 hertz. These slow waves are characteristic of deep meditation and sleep. Theta waves: 4 to 8 hertz. These waves are present during twilight states when you’re deeply relaxed or dozing. Alpha waves: 8 to 12 hertz. These waves are associated with being calm and relaxed but awake. Beta waves: 12 to 35 hertz. These fast waves power cognitive thinking. They’re associated with focus and anxiety. Gamma waves: 35 hertz and above. The fastest brain waves are associated with complex cognitive processing.

Research shows that hearing a low-frequency sound via binaural beats can trigger a slowdown in brain waves. In other words, listening to a binaural beat of 5 hertz will help trigger the relaxing theta waves associated with meditation and sleep. “Binaural beats are extremely relaxing when I’m trying to wind down,” says Katherine C., a fourth-year student at The College of New Jersey in Ewing. “I have anxiety and find it hard to soothe myself/calm down in the evening. Binaural beats help to clear my mind before bed.”

Implementing this into your bedtime routine is as easy as grabbing a pair of headphones. “It’s hard to provide an exact frequency or timing [that’s best for sleep],” says Dr. Breus. “My general recommendation would be to listen to binaural beats for 30 minutes, about 30 minutes before lights out, in a dark room with headphones.” 

Where to find binaural beats:

Binaural beats: Spotify
Binaural sleep meditation: YouTube

Pink noise

You’ve probably heard of white noise—a low-volume, staticky noise that can help you sleep better by masking loud sounds like a roommate closing a door while you’re snoozing. Like white noise, pink noise contains all the frequencies the human ear can hear but sounds deeper and more even. Pink noise is most often associated with nature sounds, like rolling thunder or falling rain. “Simulating environments like the inside of a sailing ship or a thunderstorm help me fall asleep,” says James G., a first-year graduate student at Utah State University in Logan. “I enjoy using sound simulators like myNoise® to create soundscapes. They help me sleep, and having a small amount of external input makes my mind feel quieter.”

Recent research suggests pink noise can help improve slow-wave sleep—aka the deep sleep that’s associated with physical recovery and the consolidation of memories, Dr. Breus explains. A 2017 study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that listening to pink noise helped increase slow-wave activity (and boost sleep-dependent memory) in older adults. Research on pink noise is still emerging, but what we know so far is promising.  

Where to find pink noise:

Pink noise playlist: Spotify
10 hours of pink noise: YouTube
Pink Noise app: Apple®
Pink Noise app: Android™

ASMR

If you’re not familiar, autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is the “tingling” and euphoria some people describe feeling after watching videos or hearing soundtracks of people doing simple, often repetitive, calming acts. Think brushing your hair, petting a kitten, or flipping through the pages of a book. People who experience the good vibes report a tingling sensation that starts at the scalp and spreads throughout the body, according to the National Sleep Foundation. 

There’s not much research on how ASMR may affect sleep, but since it can help trigger that relaxation stage between alertness and dreamland, it could be a powerful tool—and research does show that people are using it to fall asleep. Eighty-one percent of people surveyed in a 2015 study conducted by researchers in the United Kingdom reported using ASMR media before falling asleep at night. “I find certain types of ASMR videos relaxing,” says Anna S., a fourth-year student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. “They’re stimulating enough to keep my mind/thoughts from keeping me awake, but not so much that I feel like I have to stay awake to watch them.”

Where to find ASMR-inducing videos:

Chynaunique ASMR: YouTube
Sleep with Silk: ASMR Triggers podcast: Blubrry
Peaceful Cuisine: YouTube

Sleep issues can be tricky to solve (and can have major health consequences if they become chronic). If you’re dealing with chronic insomnia and lifestyle hacks like binaural beats or meditation aren’t working, you may want to talk to your health care provider about other solutions.

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Article sources

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National Sleep Foundation. (2020, July 28). What is white noise? SleepFoundation.org. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/bedroom-environment/hear/what-white-noise

Padmanabhan, R., Hildreth, A. J., & Laws, D. (2005). A prospective, randomised, controlled study examining binaural beat audio and pre‐operative anxiety in patients undergoing general anaesthesia for day case surgery. Anaesthesia, 60(9), 874–877. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2044.2005.04287.x

Papalambros, N. A., Santostasi, G., Malkani, R. G., Braun, R., et al. (2017). Acoustic enhancement of sleep slow oscillations and concomitant memory improvement in older adults. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11, 109. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00109

Poerio, G. (2016). Could insomnia be relieved with a YouTube video? The relaxation and calm of ASMR. In F. Callard, K. Staines, & J. Wilkes (Eds.), The restless compendium: Interdisciplinary investigations of rest and its opposites. Palgrave Macmillan.