According to musicologist Nolan Gasser, we are hardwired to respond to music. Whether it’s a song to rev us up during a hard workout or a playlist to set a moody, seductive ambiance at home, music touches the deepest level of our brain.
Just as songs resonate in our minds and with our emotions, they also affect our body’s physiological responses, including those to help us slow down for sleep. And there’s science behind which types of music are best. Research has found that songs with around 60 beats per minute, with no sudden changes in tempo or volume, are most conducive to relaxation. The hypothesis is that our heartbeat syncs up with that 60 beats per minute tempo, which is a healthy resting heart rate conducive to sleep.
As our heart rate calms, changes in the parasympathetic nervous system, our body’s natural relaxation response, also occur. Our breathing slows, and blood pressure decreases. With a quieted nervous system, production of the stress hormone cortisol decreases, levels of the “feel-good” hormone dopamine increase, and sleep-friendly hormones, including serotonin and oxytocin, are released.
Listening to music is a universal path to dissolving those thoughts and worries that keep us awake and help us fall asleep. And who couldn’t use a little relaxation-response activation right about now.
But what is the most relaxing song, and why? Let’s dig into the effects of music on the brain and body and then look at some of the most relaxing songs ever made.
How can music affect your mind and body?
As noted above, music has a profound impact on our minds and bodies, and it can be a powerful tool for relaxation. Here are some ways in which music can help relax the mind and body:
- Reducing stress: Music can lower stress levels by triggering physiological responses. It can slow down the heart rate, lower blood pressure, and decrease the production of stress hormones like cortisol.
- Eliciting emotional responses: Music has the power to evoke emotions and tap into our deepest feelings. Listening to calming and soothing melodies can create a sense of tranquility, comfort, and emotional release, helping to alleviate anxiety and tension.
- Distraction that encourages focus: Engaging with music can divert our attention away from stressful or intrusive thoughts. It provides a pleasant and absorbing distraction that redirects our focus, allowing us to relax and find a sense of mental clarity.
- Stimulating the relaxation response: Listening to relaxing music can stimulate the relaxation response in the body, which is the opposite of the stress response. It promotes a state of calmness, reduces muscle tension, and induces a feeling of overall relaxation.
- Supports mindfulness and meditation: Music can be an integral part of mindfulness and meditation practices. Gentle and soothing melodies can create a serene and meditative atmosphere, helping to quiet the mind, enhance self-awareness, and promote a state of relaxation.
- Engaging associative memory: Certain songs or pieces of music may have personal or nostalgic associations that bring back positive memories or a sense of comfort. Reconnecting with these memories can have a soothing effect on the mind and body.
What makes a song relaxing?
Several factors contribute to making a song relaxing. Here are eight key elements that often characterize a relaxing song:
- Tempo: Relaxing songs typically have a slower tempo. Slower-paced music can help slow down our heart rate, breathing, and overall physiological responses, inducing a sense of calmness and relaxation.
- Melody: Relaxing songs often feature simple and soothing melodies. These melodies tend to be gentle, smooth, and melodically predictable, allowing the listener to easily follow along and find comfort in the musical patterns.
- Harmony: The harmony in relaxing songs is often uncomplicated and harmonically stable. Chords and progressions that create a sense of resolution and stability can contribute to a relaxing atmosphere.
- Instrumentation: The choice of instruments and their timbre can significantly impact the relaxing quality of a song. Soft and gentle instrumentation, such as acoustic guitar, piano, strings, or ambient electronic sounds, is commonly used in relaxing music.
- Dynamics: Relaxing songs generally have a softer dynamic range, with fewer sudden changes in volume. Smooth transitions between soft and moderate volumes help maintain a sense of tranquility and avoid any jarring or abrupt shifts that might disrupt relaxation.
- Rhythm: Relaxing songs often have a steady and regular rhythm without complex syncopation or heavy percussive elements. A gentle and consistent rhythm can help establish a soothing and grounding feel.
- Lyrics (if applicable): If a relaxing song includes lyrics, the content is often comforting, positive, or introspective. The lyrics may touch on themes such as love, peace, nature, or personal reflection, contributing to a sense of relaxation and emotional connection.
- Ambiance and atmosphere: The overall ambiance and atmosphere of a song play a crucial role in creating a relaxing experience. Soft reverberation, spaciousness, and ambient sounds can enhance the sense of calmness and relaxation.
It’s worth noting that different people have varying preferences when it comes to relaxing music. What one person finds relaxing, another might not. It’s essential to explore different genres, styles, and artists to find the music that resonates with your personal sense of relaxation.
The most relaxing song
Of course music preferences are personal. But according to a team of neuroscientists from Mindlab International, the number one most relaxing song in the world is “Weightless,” commissioned by the British Academy of Sound Therapy, whose mission is to improve health and well-being using therapeutic sound, and written by British ambient band Marconi Union. To create the song, the trio collaborated with sound therapists to arrive at a precise combination of harmonies, rhythms, tempos, and baselines to encourage relaxation at a deep level.
Researchers at Mindlab found that listening to the 8-minute version of “Weightless” reduced stress and anxiety levels by 65 percent, and “produced a greater state of relaxation than any other music tested to date.” A one-hour extended version of the song was also created for those who need more than eight minutes to fall asleep.
According to the lead neuroscientist, “‘Weightless’ was so effective, many [study participants] became drowsy, and I would advise against driving while listening to the song because it could be dangerous.”
20 of the most relaxing songs
“Weightless” is not the only relaxing song, however. Other types of music that have shown to promote sleep run the gamut from classical, to Coldplay, to Brian Eno, and Ed Sheeran — quite a diverse bunch! Other favorites of study participants included jazz, house, and instrumental songs.
Here are 20 songs that are often found to be relaxing:
- “Weightless” by Marconi Union
- “Clair de Lune” by Claude Debussy
- “Spiegel im Spiegel” by Arvo Pärt
- “Gymnopédie No. 1” by Erik Satie
- “Watermark” by Enya
- “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber
- “Moonlight Sonata” by Ludwig van Beethoven
- “Ave Maria” by Franz Schubert
- “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin
- “Canon in D” by Johann Pachelbel
- “Imagine” by John Lennon
- “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen
- “Fields of Gold” by Sting
- “The Sound of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel
- “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong
- “Yesterday” by The Beatles
- “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper
- “Hotel California” by Eagles
- “Blackbird” by The Beatles
- “Over the Rainbow” by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole
Remember, this is just a subjective list, and there are many other songs that could be considered relaxing.
What makes these songs relaxing?
Each of the songs on the list can be considered relaxing for various reasons, including their soothing melodies, calming instrumentation.
“Weightless” by Marconi Union
This ambient track is specifically designed to induce a state of relaxation, featuring slow, flowing textures and a gentle rhythm.
“Clair de Lune” by Claude Debussy
This classical piano piece has a tranquil and dreamlike quality, with its delicate melody and soft dynamics.
“Spiegel im Spiegel” by Arvo Pärt
This minimalist composition for piano and violin consists of sustained, repetitive patterns that create a sense of serenity and stillness.
“Gymnopédie No. 1” by Erik Satie
With its simple and delicate piano melody, this piece has a slow tempo and a tranquil atmosphere, ideal for relaxation.
“Watermark” by Enya
Enya’s ethereal vocals and atmospheric instrumentation create a peaceful and soothing ambiance that invites relaxation.
“Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber
This emotionally rich orchestral piece has a slow tempo, expressive melodies, and a somber tone that can elicit a sense of tranquility.
“Moonlight Sonata” by Ludwig van Beethoven
The first movement of this piano sonata features a soft and melancholic melody, evoking a sense of introspection and calm.
“Ave Maria” by Franz Schubert
This classical vocal piece is often performed in a serene and contemplative manner, with its beautiful melody and peaceful aura.
“Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin
This iconic rock ballad has a mellow and introspective vibe, combining gentle acoustic guitar passages and emotive vocals.
“Canon in D” by Johann Pachelbel
This well-known classical composition is characterized by its soothing, repeating chord progression and melodic structure.
“Imagine” by John Lennon
With its uplifting and hopeful lyrics, soft piano accompaniment, and Lennon’s soothing vocals, this song encourages relaxation and peace.
“Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen
Cohen’s emotive vocals and the song’s poignant lyrics, combined with a calming musical arrangement, create a peaceful and introspective mood.
“Fields of Gold” by Sting
This gentle ballad features soothing vocals, acoustic guitar, and poetic lyrics that evoke a sense of tranquility and nostalgia.
“The Sound of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel
With its soft harmonies, introspective lyrics, and delicate guitar work, this song has a calming and reflective quality.
“What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong
Armstrong’s warm and soothing voice, coupled with the optimistic lyrics, creates a peaceful and uplifting atmosphere.
“Yesterday” by The Beatles
This timeless ballad, with its gentle melody and introspective lyrics, has a soothing and nostalgic quality.
“Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper
Lauper’s tender vocals, combined with the song’s sentimental lyrics and mellow instrumentation, make it a relaxing and comforting choice.
“Hotel California” by Eagles
This iconic rock ballad features a laid-back rhythm, mellow guitar solos, and a serene atmosphere that can induce a sense of relaxation.
“Blackbird” by The Beatles
With its delicate acoustic guitar picking and gentle vocals, this song has a calming and intimate quality.
“Over the Rainbow” by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole
Kamakawiwo’ole’s soothing rendition of this classic song, accompanied by the ukulele, creates a peaceful and heartfelt atmosphere.
These songs often possess qualities such as slow tempo, soft instrumentation, emotive melodies, and evocative lyrics that contribute to their reputation as relaxing compositions.
What kinds of music are good for relaxation?
Various genres and styles of music can be suitable for relaxation, depending on individual preferences. Here are some genres and styles that are commonly associated with relaxation:
Classical: Classical music, including compositions by composers like Debussy, Bach, or Mozart, often features soothing melodies, gentle dynamics, and harmonies that can induce a state of calmness.
Ambient: Ambient music is designed to create a serene and atmospheric environment. It typically consists of slow-moving, textural sounds and ethereal melodies that promote relaxation and a sense of tranquility.
New Age: New Age music incorporates elements of various genres, such as classical, electronic, and world music. It often focuses on creating a soothing and meditative atmosphere, utilizing soft instrumentation, gentle rhythms, and nature-inspired themes.
Instrumental: Instrumental music, especially without lyrics, can be conducive to relaxation. It allows listeners to immerse themselves in the calming sounds of instruments like piano, guitar, flute, or violin without the distraction of vocals.
Nature sounds: Nature-inspired music or recordings of natural sounds, such as waves, rain, or bird songs, can create a peaceful ambiance and help connect with a sense of tranquility and the outdoors.
Meditation and relaxation music: Music specifically composed for meditation, relaxation, or guided imagery often incorporates elements such as ambient textures, slow tempos, and repetitive patterns to induce a state of deep relaxation.
Jazz and bossa nova: Smooth jazz or bossa nova music, with its mellow and laid-back rhythms, can create a soothing atmosphere that promotes relaxation.
World music: Some world music genres, like Indian classical music, Native American flute, or traditional Japanese music, can feature tranquil melodies and gentle rhythms that evoke a sense of calmness.
It’s important to keep in mind that these are only general recommendations and everyone’s preferences may differ. It can be helpful to try out various genres and artists to discover the music that speaks to you and helps you unwind. You might also consider making your own customized playlists or checking out curated relaxation playlists on streaming services to discover new relaxing music.
Can music help you fall asleep?
Yes, music can indeed help you fall asleep. It has been recognized as a helpful tool for promoting relaxation and aiding in the sleep process. Here’s how music can assist with sleep:
- Promoting relaxation: Listening to calming and soothing music can help relax the mind and body, reducing stress and anxiety that might interfere with falling asleep. Slow tempo, gentle melodies, and soft instrumentation can create a tranquil environment conducive to sleep.
- Distracting from external stimuli: Music acts as a pleasant distraction from external noises or thoughts that might keep you awake. By focusing on the soothing sounds of music, you can shift your attention away from distractions and enter a more peaceful state of mind.
- Establishing a bedtime routine: Clearing up your sleep hygiene has many benefits. Incorporating music into your bedtime routine can signal to your brain that it’s time to wind down and prepare for sleep. Consistently listening to calming music before bed can create a conditioned response that helps cue your body and mind for sleep.
- Masking background noise: If you’re in a noisy environment or find it difficult to fall asleep due to external sounds, playing soft and gentle music can help mask those noises. The music acts as a background sound that can drown out disruptions and create a more serene sleep environment.
- Calming racing thoughts: If your mind tends to be busy with racing thoughts or worries when trying to fall asleep, listening to relaxing music can help calm the mind and redirect your focus away from intrusive thoughts, allowing you to drift into a more peaceful state.
It’s important to choose music that you find personally relaxing and enjoyable. Experiment with different genres, artists, or instrumental tracks to discover what works best for you. Additionally, using sleep-specific playlists or ambient soundscapes designed for sleep can enhance the effectiveness of music as a sleep aid.
Using music to relax
Now that you know the most relaxing song available, you can try listening to different parts of it to see what works best for you. You can also make your own playlist of relaxing songs to listen to before bed, while you work, or when you’re feeling anxious. Everyone is different, so play around with different tunes and musical styles to find the most relaxing songs for you.