Many people listen to music for hours every day, often near bedtime. We investigated whether music listening affects sleep, focusing on a rarely explored mechanism: involuntary musical imagery (earworms).
In Study 1 (N = 199, mean age = 35.9 years), individuals who frequently listen to music reported persistent nighttime earworms, which were associated with worse sleep quality. In Study 2 (N = 50, mean age = 21.2 years), we randomly assigned each participant to listen to lyrical or instrumental-only versions of popular songs before bed in a laboratory, discovering that instrumental music increased the incidence of nighttime earworms and worsened polysomnography-measured sleep quality.
In both studies, earworms were experienced during awakenings, suggesting that the sleeping brain continues to process musical melodies. Study 3 substantiated this possibility by showing a significant increase in frontal slow oscillation activity, a marker of sleep-dependent memory consolidation. Thus, some types of music can disrupt nighttime sleep by inducing long-lasting earworms that are perpetuated by spontaneous memory-reactivation processes