Sunset’s Guide to Sounds for Sleep


Sunset Healthcare Solutions has committed itself to improving sleep health for sleep apnea and COPD sufferers for over a decade. Our CPAP masks are designed to give patients from all backgrounds an affordable, high quality option for sleep.

Yet, it can still be hard for all of us to get a good night’s rest. One of our favorite methods to wind down—and lay down—is the use of music. But, what kind of tunes help us relax and sleep—and why?

Let’s start with the very basics: noise.

Sound Machines

In the 1800s, botanist Robert Brown observed microscopic particles suspended in water, and noted their random, continuous, yet rhythmic motion. Today, scientists refer to this movement as Brownian motion. This motion directly corresponds to what scientists then termed brown noise, which has a correlating sound signal: random, continuous frequencies.

Though it sounds esoteric, anyone who has used a sound machine is likely familiar with brown noise. Its low, relaxing frequencies often resemble rumbling thunder or a heavy rainfall, and tend to minimize street sounds.

White noise was introduced with Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph, and many equate its noise frequency with the snow screen on an old TV. Another popular sleep sound, pink noise, is slightly higher than brown noise and contains sounds heard in nature.

Noise machines are generally effective as masking tools, but they also provide a steady frequency for the brain to focus on. It’s often a welcome antidote to the endless stream of thoughts we mull over at night!

Science of Sound

Of course, cultures have applied sonic salves to reap physiological benefits for centuries.

Greek physicians worked with vibration to induce sleep in patients, and Egyptian doctors called music “physic for the soul.” Western scientists began researching the effects of music on blood pressure, as well as heart, respiratory, and pulse rates around the late 19th century.

On a more popular level, 20th century experimental musicians like Pauline Oliveros and Annea Lockwood took interest in music’s effects on the body, working with analog synthesizers and found sounds, consulting kinesiologists, and experimenting with sustained tones to induce relaxation and focus.

As recently as 2011, the British Academy of Sound Therapy collaborated with instrumental group Marconi Union to produce a song specifically designed to help sleep. “Weightless” has been proven to lower blood pressure with a percussive pulse that matches and slows the heartbeat, and it was voted the most relaxing song of all time by a panel of listeners!

Mood Music

However, the origin of music written to relax—or “mood music”—is generally traced to a French composer named Erik Satie. In the 1800s, he began writing what he playfully termed “furniture music,” which he intended to blend into the noises of the environment.

Satie saw it as a melodic backdrop for dinner parties—but, also, as music that would fill awkward silences, neutralize street noises and mute the clinking of silverware.

Many will recognize the minimal and drifting nature of “Gymnopedie No. 1,” even if the title isn’t immediately familiar. Contemporary listeners commonly queue up Satie’s three “Gymenopedies” to create a contemplative space for relaxing or winding down.

Satie’s inclination to take popular music from the forefront to the background was pioneering, and went on to influence a diverse range of artists. In addition to making space for silence within his compositions, Satie’s use repetition can be heard in his song “42 Vexations” (which also quasi-humorously requested musicians repeat 840 times).

In the late 1960s, minimalist musicians like Terry Riley and Philip Glass echoed this technique by employing tape loops—snippets of sound spliced together to produce cyclical musical sounds—and synthesized patterns. Riley even held all-night concerts, where enthusiastic attendees brought along their hammocks and sleeping bags.

Mass Market Relaxation

Of course—when anyone talks about background music, one word inevitably comes to mind. Muzak made its presence known in the 1950s, with tunes designed to relax listeners during elevator rides and in corporate environments, or at hip parties, as the company slogan said, “to fill the deadly silences.”

Muzak piped in soothing strains that were simple, deliberately under-arranged and, by the 1960s and 70s, ubiquitous. Its offshoots include exotica and Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music. During the launch of Apollo 11, astronauts even listened to Muzak to calm their nerves and relax as they propelled toward the moon at seven miles per second!

Two listeners sleep in lounge chairs in a 1960s Muzak ad. (public domain)
In addition to quieting the mind, Muzak claimed to increase productivity and even induce happiness in listeners. The corporation enjoyed a healthy run, continuing all the way into the late 1990s.

Ambient Music

Though generally scorned after its heyday, Muzak caught the attention of one artist who helped usher in a new era of relaxation sounds, or sleep music. In 1978, musician Brian Eno released his album, “Music for Airports,” and officially coined the musical term “ambient.”

Like Muzak, Eno said, ambient music “must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” But, unlike Muzak, it wouldn’t enforce one mood in particular.

Ambient music is now a sprawling music genre nearly synonymous with relaxation and sleep music. With its seamless nature, characterized by a focus on atmospherics and expansive environments—washes of sound, slow pace, and emphasis on exotic tones—it’s quite often go-to music at the end of the day.

A World of Noise

Today, publicly shared “sleep playlists” on music streaming platforms like Spotify make it clear what listeners find most relaxing for sleep. Soft, instrumental music, like calm jazz, ambient music or reverb-laden dream pop prevail. However, so do more structured selections, such as pop hits from Ed Sheeran, or Adele.

It’s clear that many sounds work for many different sleepers!

We thought we’d share some serene songs and sounds to help you relax, get your best sleep, and maintain optimal health.

Please feel free to share our playlist with others!

For other tools to maintain sleep hygiene, for CPAP masks, oxygen and respiratory gear, please check us out at www.Sunsethcs.com or reach out to one of our sales experts at 800-578-6738.