Wizards, Whales and White Noise: Can they help you sleep?

Before hitting the hay, most of us will brush our teeth, don comfortable pyjamas, dim the lights and maybe even spray a little lavender on our pillows. Sounds pleasant, no? But, for those keen neuroscientists out there who read my blog, you’ll have noticed that, so far, my bedtime routine lists only four of the five senses. That’s right: in a world where we control almost every sensory aspect of our sleep, we regularly neglect audition.

Now, I’m not saying everything should be silent, quite the opposite, I’m interested in how sound can be used to calm the mind and improve sleep. Understandably, like many of our night-time habits, the sounds that help us get to sleep are entirely unique to us; there are some sounds that will help you fall asleep and others that will keep you awake. So, like many people who spend hours looking for the perfect mattress or pulling the covers on and off again until they’re the right temperature, it’s key to find a bedtime playlist that works for you.

So, first of all, why does listening to music (or whales) help one drift off? Well, as yet no one has conclusively proven how or why music helps us sleep, but there are several theories. Some have suggested it’s to do with time perception, while others propose it blocks distracting thoughts by taking up some of your brain’s capacity to process information. Either way, you don’t need a PhD to know the potential of a good 80’s power ballad or the calming affects of a soothing lullaby.


Audiobooks are great for kids. If you have ever had the chance to listen to Stephen Fry narrate JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, you’ll know the soporific quality of that man’s gentle voice (no offence to Stephen). Furthermore, you can get audiobooks in thousands of different titles and encourage your little ones to read along with the CDs.

Natural sounds

We all remember the whale music fad of the early nineties; it was a trend that reflected the cultural zeitgeist for technology and ecology. However, there is literally a cacophony of natural sounds out there from which to choose, from the rumbling of thunder to the gentle to and fro of crashing waves, just try sticking to one at a time.

Classical Music

Classical music can be very soothing and, though the research is often tentative, it has been suggested that you can make your kids even smarter by getting them to listen to a symphony or two while they’re asleep. The theory was coined ‘the Mozart effect’ and although the original paper only showed a short-lived (15 minute) improvement in spatial awareness, classical music is still a great way for getting off to sleep, as it doesn’t contain any distracting lyrics or thumping baselines.

4.    White Noise

This one might seem a bit counter-intuitive, but, like the gentle hum of a fan, white noise can genuinely help you sleep. There are even a variety of different ‘colour’ noises, such as pink noise. Jue Zhang, PhD, an associate professor at China’s Peking University, organised a sleep study examining pink noise and discovered that 75% of study participants reported more restful sleep when exposed to the sound.

5.    Silence

There’s cause for the maxim ‘silence is golden’, and that cause is parenting. Sometimes after a long day in the office and an evening at home with the kids, any more noise is simply an added assault on the senses. So, for those times when you just fancy some peace and quiet, there’s nothing wrong with turning off the telly, shutting out the lights and letting your thoughts float away.