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MUSIC AND THE BRAIN: On John Coltrane, Bill Evans And Sleepless Nights.

Updated: May 2, 2019

By Hrayr Attarian

Can listening to jazz, or music in general, help treat chronic insomnia? Danish researchers at Aarhus University's Center for Music in the Brain designed an experiment to answer this question.(1) Before describing their work and their findings, however, it is essential that chronic insomnia be defined, as it is not merely the inability to catch a few extra Zs. It is a prevalent disorder with both nighttime and daytime symptoms that affects close to 6% of the adult population worldwide.(2) People suffering with it are unable to get sufficient sleep, despite having ample opportunity, nor feel rested upon awakening. This should occur at least three nights a week for at least three months.(3) During the day those afflicted by insomnia have a host of symptoms including lack of energy, difficulty concentrating, memory troubles, irritability, bad mood, increase in risk of accidents and, sometimes, even high blood pressure.(3) Sufferers are unable to fall asleep even if they lay down to nap and they often state that they are unable to switch off their minds.(4) Untreated, this disorder not only leads to poor health but also significantly diminishes quality of life.(5)

Aarhus University-based scientist, and musician, Kira Vibe Jespersen lead a team of researchers from her own institution as well as from the University of Oxford in the UK and VU University and Medical Center in the Netherlands to study the role of music therapy for chronic insomnia. One of her colleagues on this project, Peter Vuust, is both a professional jazz bassist as well as neuroscientist. Jespersen, who herself is a singer, and plays both piano and guitar, has extensively published on the therapeutic role of music in a variety of sleep related ailments. For this project Jespersen randomly divided fifty-seven chronic insomnia sufferers into three groups. Group 1 was asked to listen to music for a minimum of 30 minutes before bedtime every night for three weeks. Group 2 was given prose fiction audio-books of literary classics and the third group was offered neither option.(1)

People in group 1 chose between three playlists. The jazz one consisted of selections from saxophonist John Coltrane's Ballads (Impulse! 1963) and two of pianist Bill Evans' releases, The Complete Riverside Recordings (Riverside Records, 1991) and From Left to Right (Universal Music LLC, 1970). The classical playlist consisted of Mozart compositions and while New Age music came from oboist Niels Eje.(1) It is important to note that Eje, himself has created music for therapeutic purposes for many years.(6)

All participants were assessed before starting treatment, immediately after they completed it and then again four weeks later. Sixty percent of Group 1 reported that their sleep and their quality of life had improved vs. only 16% in each of the other two groups. These benefits were sustained 28 days after the treatment.(1)

Intriguingly though, when Jespersen and her team used medical testing devices to assess objective length and continuity of sleep, they found no difference before and after music therapy. So, what does this mean? Music did not make the subjects of this investigation fall asleep faster, sleep longer or more continuously, yet it made them feel that their sleep was more restorative and refreshing and it improved their overall sense of well-being. Meanwhile, listening to audio-books did not give the same results.(1)

The implications of this study, and many like it both by Jespersen and others, is that music appreciation can have a positive impact on brain function which results in improved health. This appears to be unique to music, and does not seem to extend to other art forms, as those in group 2 enjoyed such sublime masterpieces as Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and Hans Christian Andersen's "Fairy Tales and Stories."

In conclusion, creative music, jazz or otherwise, does not necessarily help those with chronic insomnia fall asleep faster or sleep longer, but it does mitigate some of the daytime consequences of this condition. So next time, instead of tossing and turning in bed, put an album on your turntable or CD player or digital music device—it may not put you to sleep (not necessarily a bad thing!) yet it may make you feel better the next morning.

Hrayr Attarian


1 Jespersen KV, Otto M, Kringelbach M, Van Someren E, Vuust P. A randomized controlled trial of bedtime music for insomnia disorder. J Sleep Res. 2019:e12817. doi: 10.1111/jsr.12817.

2 Ohayon MM. Epidemiology of insomnia: what we know and what we still need to learn. Sleep Med Rev. 2002;6(2):97-111.

3 AASM. International Classification of Sleep Disorders 3rd Edition. Darien IL. AASM. 2014.

4 Bonnet MH, Arand DL. Hyperarousal and insomnia: state of the science. Sleep Med Rev. 2010;14(1):9-15.

5 Khan MS, Aouad R The Effects of Insomnia and Sleep Loss on Cardiovascular Disease Sleep Med Clin. 2017;12(2):167-177.

6 accessed March 15th 2019

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