Tun­ing in to un­con­ven­tional lul­la­bies

Where lul­la­bies come in the form of crick­ets, flutes, and vac­uum clean­ers teas­ing us to sleep


There are a lot of un­usual things that go on at night: the throng of con­cert­go­ers spread­ing their sleep­ing bags on the ground, lis­ten­ing to mu­sic that lulls them to sleep; the 700,000 or so fol­low­ers tun­ing in to sleep playlists on their mo­bile phones; and folks dream­ing sweetly with ear­phones plugged in, lis­ten­ing to some­thing as ubiq­ui­tous as the whirring of a box fan.

For decades, mys­tics, neu­rol­o­gists, and mu­si­cians have probed into the lim­i­nal zones con­nect­ing sound and sleep. Dur­ing the Middle Ear Mus­cle Ac­tiv­ity (MEMA), which ac­com­pa­nies the Rapid Eye Move­ment (REM) states, the tym­panic ten­sor mus­cles of the eardrum twitch in re­sponse to ac­tual sounds that the sleeper hears. The sounds leave their ghostly mark on dreams, in­vad­ing them in the form fre­quency, am­pli­tude, and wave­length. “The dream­ing mind has [a] way of in­cor­po­rat­ing the out­side in­ter­fer­ence into the sto­ry­line of the dream,” cer­ti­fied dream an­a­lyst Lauri Loewen­berg tells the Huff­in­g­ton Post.

R.I.P. Hay­man—real-life sand­man and once the guinea pig of th­ese stud­ies—launched the idea of an all-night sleep con­cert. He played wave-pat­terned sounds from flutes, harps, crack­ling fire, and Jo­hann Bach’s Gold­berg vari­a­tions to an au­di­ence that dozed off. One of Hay­man’s pre­de­ces­sors, mu­si­cian Max Richter, launched his eight-hour al­bum “Sleep” in 2015, an oeu­vre in­formed by how low-wave fre­quency sounds can in­duce slow-wave phases of sleep where learn­ing and mem­ory ap­par­ently oc­cur.

The In­ter­net has then given rise to a num­ber of playlists sup­ply­ing sleep acous­tics on loop. There are 2.8 mil­lion sleep-themed playlists on the net and grow­ing, some of which in­volve sounds of ra­dio static, boil­ing wa­ter, and singing birds. The box fan sound in par­tic­u­lar has be­come a stag­ger­ing hit. Dig­i­tal com­pa­nies have since pro­duced back­ground noise apps de­voted to putting more peo­ple to sleep.

It isn’t the vol­ume, but the sud­den change or the in­con­sis­tency of the sounds that star­tle us awake, and steady, repet­i­tive, and low-fre­quency back­ground noises drown out th­ese in­tru­sive ex­ter­nal sounds, con­se­quently di­min­ish­ing brain wave com­plex­ity and in­duc­ing a more sta­ble state of sleep­ing. It takes ba­sic sci­ence to ex­plain how the steady drone can mask ex­ter­nal noises.

There are those, of course, who of­fer their own the­o­ries on how wash­ing ma­chines can be a night­time lul­laby. Thomas Moore, cre­ator of the app “White Noise,” sim­ply says that peo­ple are most re­laxed when they hear sounds as­so­ci­ated with their child­hood. So whether it’s rain, clas­si­cal mu­sic, or the whir of a house­hold ap­pa­ra­tus, there re­ally is no limit to what sounds can ferry us through those elu­sive hyp­n­a­gogic streams.


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