Listening to this type of music may improve your work performance

Bedtime is an ever-important ritual for all of us. Everyone has a nighttime schedule, and for many of us, if that routine is interrupted we’re in for a night of tossing and turning. Chances are, your routine probably doesn’t include listening to music while drifting away to dreamland, but according to a new study, you may seriously want to consider making Beethoven or Chopin part of your bedroom ambiance. 

Researchers from Baylor University asked a group of college students to listen to classical music while they were taught a lesson. Then, half the participants listened to the same songs while they slept, while the other half only heard white noise as they snoozed. The following day, the students who heard classical music as they slept performed much better on a test.

It’s long been understood that our brains replay, categorize, and store the previous day’s events and memories as we sleep. Still, though, these findings leave little room for interpretation or debate. Targeted memory reactivation (TMR), or listening to the same piece of music while studying and sleeping, helps the brain take learned information and facts from “temporary storage” in one temporal area and move those memories into “permanent storage.”

It’s a common human phenomenon when it comes to memories. Long dormant past events, moments, and experiences suddenly bubble to the conscious surface upon smelling a distinct odor, hearing a song, or seeing a specific image. External stimuli can jumpstart our memories, and this research represents a way to use that as a learning leg up.

Now, the benefits of that one day and night of studying and sleeping while hearing Beethoven or Chopin didn’t last in the long-term. When students were followed up with nine months later, pretty much everybody (from both experimental groups) didn’t do so well on a similar test. But, we all know it takes time to learn and master any skill or subject. More research is ultimately needed before a conclusive determination can be made, but it’s certainly plausible to theorize that more TMR study-sleep sessions would have resulted in better long-term results.

While this research was conducted with college students being taught microeconomics, its overall findings can be applied to any area of life. Trying to learn a new language or skill? It may help to listen to some classical music while studying and then play the same song back (at a comfortable noise level) as you sleep or catch a nap. 

“All educators want to teach students how to integrate concepts, not just memorize details, but that’s notoriously difficult to do,” says Michael K. Scullin, Ph.D., director of Baylor’s sleep lab and assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience, in a university release. “What we found was that by experimentally priming these concepts during sleep, we increased performance on integration questions by 18% on the test the next day. What student wouldn’t want a boost or two to their letter grade? The effects were particularly enhanced in participants who showed heightened frontal lobe activity in the brain during slow-wave sleep, which is deep sleep.”

In all, 50 college students between the ages of 18-33 took part in the research. Each student spent two nights at the Baylor sleep lab; the first was just to get used to the overall environment and screen for any personal sleep disorders, and the second was for EEG observation following an online, computer-interactive lesson on microeconomics. 

During that lesson, Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Piano Sonata, the first part of Vivaldi’s “Spring” Violin Concerto, and Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 9, No. 2, were all played in the background. That night, half the participants heard the same songs as they slept, and the other group only heard white noise. Across both groups, however, researchers waited until participants were in a deep sleep before playing either the music or the white noise for a total of 15 minutes.

“Deep slow-wave sleep won’t last super long before shifting back to light sleep, so we couldn’t play them endlessly,” Scullin explains. “If we played it during light sleep, the music probably would have awoken participants. The first slow-wave cycle is the deepest and longest.”

Moreover, the study’s authors don’t think all types of music would produce the same learning benefits. They chose classical music for a reason.

“We ruled out jazz because it’s too sporadic and would probably cause people to wake,” Scullin says. “We ruled out popular music because lyrical music disrupts initial studying. You can’t read words and sing lyrics — just try it. We also ruled out ocean waves and ambient music because it’s very easy to ignore. You’re going to have a heck of a time forming a strong association between some learning material and a bland song or ambient noise.”

“That left us with classical music, which many students already listen to while studying,” he concludes. “The songs can be very distinctive and therefore pair well with learning material.”

All in all, the participants who heard classical music again as they slept were more than twice as likely than the control group to pass the next day’s test.

The full study can be found here, published in Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.

John Anderer is a frequent contributor to Ladders News.