Musical Repose

If music be the food of sleep, play on. With apologies to Shakespeare, of course, who would imagine that the great music we so avidly listen to in concert halls could be prescribed by doctors for insomnia? There’s a new science out there, called Arts on Prescription. The U.K. currently offers this for people with mental health problems. Music plays an important part in the therapy; additionally, it also helps people relax and sleep soundly. The prescription can last three weeks to three months, after which presumably, listening to soothing music becomes a habit and no prescription is required.

Music dosages? ‘Six longitudinal music sleep studies using the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index’. It is enough to make you toss and turn in your bed. Nevertheless, the role of music in inducing better quality sleep has been established clearly, and for that we don’t need a doctor’s prescription or a visit to the chemist. Besides, it is the only drug which is good if it becomes addictive.

But it can’t be every kind of music. Certainly not heavy metal. Or big band jazz or for that matter, many pieces of classical music. Imagine trying to sleep listening to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture with its cannon shots, or Holst’s ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’ from The Planets. Sleep experts (it is a lucrative profession, by the way) tell us that the tempo of the music makes a difference; the best is music with a rhythm of 60 beats per minute. As we fall asleep, our heartbeat slows down to about that level.

William Congreve said this rather well:

‘Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast

To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.’

The most relaxing song ever created is ‘Weightless’ by a group called Marconi Union. According to research by Dr. David Lewis-Hodgson of Mindlab International, the song resulted in a 65 per cent reduction in participants’ overall anxiety and a 35 per cent reduction in their usual resting heart rate. The song was actually ‘constructed’ to do this: the group worked with sound therapists (another career option) and arranged harmonies, rhythms and bass lines to help slow down a listener’s heart rate, reduce blood pressure and lower levels of stress hormone cortisol.

As a genre though, classical music works best. A survey of 600 people conducted by a research group showed that as many as 32 per cent of participants chose classical music as the best relaxant. Apparently, the right kind of music works on something called HRV (Heart Rate Variability) which measures how efficiently a person’s heart rate adapts to the changing demands of a working day.

Bach wrote The Well-Tempered Clavier in which he said the 24 preludes and fugues were, “for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning, and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study.” From this complex composition, the Prelude No.1, with its simple beauty consisting of broken chords is wonderful to sleep by. But the piece of music considered the very best in this field is ‘Wiegenlied’ by Brahms. Not surprising because the translated title is ‘Cradle Song’ so it is a lullaby which goes: “Guten Abend, gut nacht!/ Mit Rosen bedacht,/Mit Näglein Besteckt/Schlupf unter die Deck…”

A close second is Bach’s ‘Air on a G String’ from his Orchestral Suite No. 3, followed closely by Chopin’s Nocturne No. 2 (You cannot do better than the Rubinstein recording) and Rubinstein playing the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’. Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ (a description of moonlight) and his ‘Reverie’ round up the list.

Debussy might be a master of creating a dreamlike atmosphere, but since you hear the music played by piano, we don’t hear the original song’s disquieting lyrics, “Our love is a dream, but in my reverie/I can see that this love was meant for me/Only a poor fool never schooled in the whirlpool/Of romance could be so cruel as you are to me…” Luckily, we can ignore the sadness and go happily to sleep.

Speak of sleep and you think of dreams. While writing this, it struck me with a sudden jolt of pain that I have never had a dream with music in it. But a study in psychomusicology made me feel better: they found only six per cent of participants remembered dreams with music. And the ones who have musical dreams are more likely to be professional musicians or those who listen to it for extended periods. These lucky few use their dreams creatively. In fact, Paul McCartney of the Beatles and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones said they dreamt full songs which they quickly wrote down and used. Even Beethoven and Stravinsky dreamed up bits of music which they were able to use in their compositions.

So this is what I’m going to do. Spend a whole Sunday listening to a variety of composers, then just before turning in, put on ‘Air on a G String’. Hopefully, I will dream musical dreams, and even if no great composition emerges from them, at least I will wake up with a song in my heart.


By Anil Dharker. This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the April 2021 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.