It’s usually a composer’s worst nightmare—that their music will lull audiences to sleep.
But not Max Richter. The British composer created an entire eight-hour album around the idea of sending listeners to blissful unconsciousness, aptly titled Sleep.
Richter described the album as a “personal lullaby for a frenetic world. A manifesto for a slower pace of existence.”
He also created a condensed, one-hour companion, called From Sleep, “for daydreamers.”
Originally released in 2015 as a whopping eight-CD set, now listeners can stream the whole thing on Spotify, which is great because changing all those CDs was really negatively impacting my shut-eye.
Listen to a snippet from the album above—at your own risk! It almost put us to sleep at work—called “Dream 3 (in the Midst of My Life).” There are two other videos from Sleep on Richter’s YouTube channel, as well.
Though certain sounds will always be soothing to the human ear—birdsong, for instance, which calms our nervous systems, and of course, gentle string music—for Sleep, Richter backed his compositions up with science, consulting with neuroscientist David Eagleman to develop the works for optimal restfulness.
Hence, the tracks on Sleep correspond to the various stages of an eight-hour sleep cycle, with certain elements, such as well-timed, ethereal bass tones, facilitating “slow-wave sleep” (also called deep sleep), the most restorative phase of the sleep cycle.
String players who assisted Richter and listeners on this mellow journey included the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, Brian Snow and Clarice Jensen (cello), Caleb Burhans (viola), and Ben Russell and Yuki Numata Resnick (violin).
Most of us aren’t getting enough sleep, but studies about how music can help tend to focus on children. That may be changing, however. In 2014, an album by Marconi Union, released in collaboration with the British Academy of Sound Therapy, claimed to include “the most relaxing song ever,” which dropped heart rates by 35 percent in its (admittedly small) sample of 40 women.
Could lullabies like Richter’s help adults slow down and reset from our hectic life paces?
If you want to try to soothe yourself with music, choose a song that’s instrumental (voices tend to activate our brains*) and has a steady, slow rhythm of 60-80 BPM. If you’re not sure how many beats per minute a song has, go to songbpm.com, type in an artist/track, and find out. We tried this with Brahms, who is known for his lullaby (Wiegenlied), which clocks in at a lull-worthy (drool-worthy?) 77 BPM.
*Some voices don’t affect people’s ability to sleep, however. Spotify polled its users’ “sleep” playlists recently and found that Ed Sheeran was the most popular musician to nod off to. Congrats, Ed! Or not.
What strings music helps you sleep? Let us know. We promise to try to stay awake for it.
Anna Pulley is associate editor for Strings. Follow her on Twitter @annapulley.