Study indicates that some instrumental music is more likely to cause earworms and disrupt sleep quality compared with lyrical music.
A recent study from Baylor University found that the relationship between music listening and sleep with the involuntary musical imagery, or “earworms,” when a song plays in a person’s mind can affect their sleep patterns.
“Our brains continue to process music even when none is playing, including apparently while we are asleep,” said Michael Scullin, PhD, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University, in a press release. “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.”
Those who experience earworms regularly in the night, defined as 1 or more time per week, were found to be more likely to have poor sleep quality versus those who rarely experience earworms. Interestingly, the findings indicate that some instrumental music is more likely to cause earworms and disrupt sleep quality compared with lyrical music, according to the study authors.
The study involved a survey of 209 participants who answered a series of questions on sleep quality, music listening habits, and earworm frequency. It also included an experimental study of 50 participants at the Scullin’s Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory at Baylor, in which the researchers attempted to induce earworms to determine how it affected sleep quality. This part of the study included a polysomnography, which tracks the participants’ brain waves, heart rate, breathing, and more 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 in the press release. “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.”
Additionally, EEG readings, or records of electrical activity in the brain, were quantitatively evaluated to analzye physiological markers of sleep-dependent memory consolidation. In memory consolidation, temporary memories are reactivated during sleep and transformed into a more long-term form, according to the study authors.
“We thought that people would have earworms at bedtime when they were trying to fall asleep, but we certainly didn’t know that people would report regularly waking up from sleep with an earworm. But we saw that in both the survey and experimental study,” Scullin said in the press release.
The results show that individuals with a sleep earworm showed more slow oscillations during sleep, which is a marker of memory reactivation. The findings also showed an increase in slow oscillations was dominant over the region corresponding to the primary auditory cortex, which is implicated in earworm processing when people are awake.
“Almost everyone thought music improves their sleep, but we found those who listened to more music slept worse,” Scullin said in the press release. “What was really surprising was that instrumental music led to worse sleep quality- instrumental music leads to about twice as many earworms.”
The study also found that individuals with greater music listening habits experienced persistent earworms and decreased sleep quality, with these results in contrast to the notion that music may help sleep. Although health organizations have recommended listening to quiet music instead, Scullin countered this with his measures that show that the sleeping brain continues to process music for several hours, even after the music stops.
“If you commonly pair listening to music while being in bed, then you’ll have that association where being in that context might trigger an earworm even when you’re not listening to music, such as when you’re trying to fall asleep,” Scullin said in the press release.
Music listening near bedtime disruptive to sleep, Baylor Study Finds. Baylor University. Published June 9, 2021. Accessed June 11, 2021. https://www.baylor.edu/mediacommunications/news.php?action=story&story=223743