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Keep calm & carry on.

The science of sleep: How relaxing music works

Sleeping baby Al Goldis/AP

It's a Saturday night and you're sitting on the main floor of a concert hall. They are playing Ravel, Debussy, Schumann, and Brahms. This should be a great night!

The lights go down, but you can still read the program notes with the glow from the lights on the concert stage. First piece: Ravel's Bolero. A classic. Everyone knows it.

About three minutes into the piece, you become entranced by the snare drum's repetitive beat. Instruments are incrementally added to the piece to build up and fill out the chords. Before you know it, the piece ends majestically!

Next up is Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune. It's a beautiful piece, but you struggle to stay focused. You read the program notes in order to stay engaged, but if you're not well-rested, you may find it hard to resist nodding off.

Why is this so? The cause might be deeply rooted in your infancy. Generations of parents have used lullabies and soft classical music to put their babies to sleep. From the beginning, infants detect and interpret the contours of sound and high pitches. A study from the University of Toronto found that when mothers talk and sing to their baby, they elevate their pitch, simplify their speech contours, expand the pitch range, and speak slowly and repetitively. Lullabies and soft classical music often has those same characteristics; a lightly orchestrated piece, smooth contours, and a slow tempo.

The University of Toronto study also discovered and analyzed the amount of emotional expressiveness of the parent's performance of the song. When a parent sings and rocks their baby to sleep, there is a connection formulating between the child and the parent. The parent wants to convey a message of safety and love. A secure foundation is created through the sounds and feels of the environment. They can't do it through words, but they can do it through expressive performance.

It's common for adults to use soft music to relax and fall asleep to, ranging from muzak in the elevator to listening to Chopin piano etudes at night. Scientists have found that music can reduce sympathetic nervous system activity; decrease anxiety, blood pressure, heart and respiratory rate; and possibly have positive effects on sleep in regards to muscle relaxation and distraction from vexing thoughts. The reason that this is highly effective for adults is because it may have been ingrained in the adult when they were an infant. It, therefore, has become a learned behavior and its effect stems back from infancy.

However, most classical music was not written with the intention of relaxing the listener. Many pieces of music were written with a story to tell or a picture to paint, such as Debussy's Golliwog's Cake Walk or Saint-Saens's Carnival of the Animals. Some pieces, such as Schubert's Ave Maria, have religious themes. Classically-trained musicians and music enthusiasts will learn the significance of these pieces and will have another level of insight when listening to these pieces. If you're not aware of the origins, historical context, or intention behind a piece of music, you can still enjoy it — but you may find your attention wandering more than if you're a seasoned classical music aficionado.

There's no shame in drifting off while you listen to classical music, but if you find yourself falling asleep when you don't mean to, learning more about the music you're hearing might help you approach these beloved standards on a new level.

Eleanor Peterson is a recent graduate from the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee. Her relaxing music of choice is Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe.

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