When the “sleep and meditation” service Calm launched its app seven years ago, the company was largely focused on the meditation half of its offerings. A few years ago, though, says Michael Acton Smith, co-founder and co-CEO of Calm, it began to see a sharp spike in traffic every evening between 10:30 and 11 p.m. Bedtime.
“People had been using white noise or Netflix or podcasts to help them sleep. Now they were using our meditations,” Smith concluded, and so the company began commissioning what it calls “stories” — breathy, soothing, grown-up bedtime tales with a feather bed of tinkling music beneath the murmured words. The stories, sometimes read by velvet-throated thespians such as Matthew McConaughey and Stephen Fry, still didn’t satisfy the demand of Calm’s bleary-eyed followers, who (quietly) clamored for just the musical beds, unencumbered by voices, words or other triggers of our daily grind.
Today, the “sleep” tab on Calm features exclusive hourlong compositions from alt-rock instrumental stars Moby and Sigur Rós, among soporific New Age-y playlists like “Chasing Wonder,” “Healing Piano” and “Sleep Like a Baby.” All told, its tracks have been streamed more than 200 million times. Calm is currently valued at $1 billion, and, says Smith, “sleep” has become the most popular part of the app.
With more than 52 million downloads, Calm is the leader among a number of like-minded wellness apps, themselves just a sliver of the booming sleep-aid industry, which is expected to be worth more than $100 billion in 2023 (think everything from CPAP machines to Ambien to weighted blankets). We’re living through a bull market for the anxiety economy, and when sleep won’t take, many of us turn to some form of white noise, hoping that the bleeps and bloops and lapping waves blot out our inner chatter.
Streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music have been a godsend to insomniacs who turn to music to help them doze; their infinite loops of tranquilizing sound baths mean no more being jostled from slumber by the end of a CD (or quietly panicking that the disc is halfway over and you’ve been grinding your teeth for 20 minutes). The “sleep” category on Spotify has dozens of popular playlists to choose from, with heavy-lidded titles such as “Peaceful Piano” (5.4 million followers) and “Nightstorms” (not be confused with “Night Rain”).
Most of the tracks comprising such playlists are ambient to the extreme, the kind of burbling sonic woo-woo that might accompany your full-moon detoxification at an Ojai spa. For those restless souls who may be seeking something more closely resembling music qua music, but still with the lulling repetition needed to help the Sandman enter, we asked our music writers to share their most cherished audio benzos, the songs and soundtracks they use to drift away after a late night of concert-going and then some. Their selections lean toward the branch of instrumental art music known as minimalism, but nerdy or not, they’re certified sleep-worthy and, unlike the real benzos, have no known side effects.
From ‘Deep Focus’ to ‘Deep Sleep’
I’ve spent much of the last three years exhausted. I had always been a sensitive sleeper and a “night owl” — late nights studying in undergrad and years of pounding the pavement going to concerts. And yet I still found it startling when that propensity for burning the midnight oil shifted to full-blown insomnia.
I tried what felt like every remedy. Peppermint tea. Counting — not sheep but things around the room. Reading. Aromatherapy. Progressive muscle relaxation. Guided meditation. Some helped. Some didn’t.
Sleep studies ruled out apnea, and I refused to go back to Ambien after waking up in my apartment covered in apple sauce and McDonald’s wrappers and the sound of my car running outside.
What has helped in my journey to scoring the ever-elusive eight hours of sleep has been the sounds of ocean waves. The gentle spilling of water on an hours-long loop — courtesy of Calmsound’s “Sleep Waves” — has tremendously upgraded my sleep health. Along with a regimen of melatonin and an essential dose of cannabis indica (Granddaddy Purple and Blackberry Kush helps the sleep train pull into the station more quickly).
My Sonos is programmed with 10 hours of various water sounds — soft, rolling waves; thunderous rainstorms; steady sprinkles against a windowpane — that can pour out of my bedroom speakers at the touch of a button. Ambient noise playlists — “Deep Focus,” “Deep Sleep,” “Atmospheric Calm,” “White Noise” (all on Spotify) — also get heavy rotation in my house. And not just for sleeping. I turn to these sounds when my thoughts are colliding in my head; when blocked in my writing; or when the day has overwhelmed me. I even press play on “Sleep Waves” when my pets are feeling stressed.
— Gerrick D. Kennedy
Between foreground and background
In bed alone there is no escape from your woes, especially if you’re a light sleeper. “Why did you go? Don’t you know I need you?” sing the Everly Brothers in the ballad “Sleepless Nights,” of those racing, desperate hours.
In “Sleep Comes Down,” the Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler describes that same moment: “It’s raining in my head/But no tears come down/And I’m dreaming of you/Until sleep comes around.” British pop heartthrob Zayn describes nights spent “roaming and strolling all of these streets / Burning my eyes red — not slept for weeks.” “Everybody’s living or they’re dead,” sings Dustin Payseur of Beach Fossils in “Sleep Apnea.” “And I’m still in my bed / And I don’t have a clue.”
Welcome to the club. Everything is wrong when the Zs evade you. For light sleepers, those and other lyrically focused songs are strictly forbidden. The human voice is the great disrupter. So are abrupt structural shifts and dynamic tension-release songs that start quiet but get loud.
This light sleeper has found that when the snores don’t come, the solution is peaceful instrumental electronic music, much of it of the German techno variety: the minimal electronic team Burger/Ink’s album “Las Vegas”; the multivolume Kompakt Records series called “Pop Ambient”; the peaceful concept album “Empire State Building” by Khan and Walker; and the collected work of Reinhard Voigt, who is one half of Burger/Ink and performs solo as Gas.
What connects these works is a devotion to the sonic space that exists in the blissful realm between foreground and background music.
The aim is to enter the zone similar to the one Icelandic musician Björk roams on “Headphones.” “Genius to fall asleep to your tape last night — so warm,” she sings, capturing the sensation of disappearing within music: “Sounds go through the muscles, these abstract wordless movements.”
Her headphones saved her life, she concludes: “Your tape, it lulled me to sleep, to sleep, to sleep…"
— Randall Roberts
I wanna be sedated
First, I want to say this: Stay the hell away from benzos. A few years ago, a doctor prescribed me a small, nightly dose of Valium to help me sleep during a bout of depression that resolved in a few weeks. He kept writing me more Valium prescriptions, for years, until one day, a different doctor said I’d become a benzo junkie and needed to kick them, which was expensive, painful and took months. I still have occasional insomnia, possibly because of my benzo abuse. But also: Trump.
When I wanna be sedated, I don’t play “I Wanna Be Sedated.” My antidote to sleeplessness is minimalism: repetitive, slow, ding-ding-dong boring to most people. But by throttling the amount of data your brain receives, you can also throttle racing thoughts. I have only about six albums on my iPhone — you win, streaming — and one is trumpeter Jon Hassell and producer Brian Eno’s “Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics” from 1980, one of the supreme ambient albums. Hassell plays sparingly and holds notes until they evaporate. His trumpet soothes like a weighted blanket, and the slightly funky rhythm tracks decelerate an anxious heartbeat. Hassell’s album is tranquilizing — like benzos but nonaddictive.
— Rob Tannenbaum
Baby’s first New Age music
When your children are very young, you want them to sleep so that you too can sleep. Then they get a bit older, and you want them to sleep so that you can stay up. But when my two sons were 5 and 6 — reliable sleepers once they nodded off, though the trip there could be loooong — my wife and I reverted to that earlier state. Suddenly, thanks to an album we’d discovered about “four little people” named Eeny, Meeny, Miney and Mo, we’d be arguing over who got to put the boys to bed one minute, then promptly falling asleep on their bedroom floor the next.
The album is one in a series of “Guided Meditations for Children” collections by Michelle Roberton-Jones, about whom I knew nothing before a streaming service offered up her work in response to a search for some of those terms. Today, half a decade later, I still don’t know much about Roberton-Jones, beyond the fact that she’s based in the U.K., as her website says, and “received an Angel visitation” (!) in December 2000 “while severely ill in hospital.” Apparently that event inspired her to make these records, which set her recitations of stories about those four tiny creatures — their tea parties and their midnight dances and their magic paintbrushes — against tinkly slow-motion synth-scapes that feel like baby’s first New Age music.
Does this sound awful? I’d have thought so had I been told about it. Yet with its gentle textures and almost imperceptible chord changes, Roberton-Jones’ stuff is amazingly soothing; her nanny-ish accent works to put you at such ease that you can feel your body relaxing with every firm but sympathetic syllable. There’s a distinct unhurriedness to “Guided Meditations for Children” that made my wife and me each want to be the one to savor that unwinding experience (as opposed to an episode of “House of Cards”) after another busy day.
As a critic, I’m usually trying to listen as actively as I can — to figure out what’s going on in a song and why I’m responding to it as I am. Yet success for Roberton-Jones is to have her listener stop paying attention, at least as we commonly understand that act. Indeed, who knows what my or my sons’ brains were doing after we powered down but before Eeny and Co. finished their adventures?
— Mikael Wood
A nightmare becomes a meditation
The story of William Basinski’s “Disintegration Loops” is inextricably tied to the most nightmarish day of the 21st century.
In 2001 the composer, trying to archive a series of melancholy, repetitive compositions from the ’80s, realized that the act of playing the dusty, decaying tapes led to their destruction. The musical results were interesting and unexpected, and he let them play out to their demise.
Shortly after the New York composer finished, however, planes struck the World Trade Center, and the tapes became an artifact of the devastated emotions from that time and place (especially when accompanied with footage of the eerie aftermath in the Manhattan skyline, taken from Basinski’s roof). Art, like everything else, can collapse and vanish.
Nearly two decades later, the loops still have a lulling, meditative quality. (They received a loving and comprehensive 2012 reissue on the experimental label Temporary Residence. But honestly, getting up and flipping vinyl jolts the experience, so maybe stream it first.) For all the shock of their origin story, these compositions have a hypnotic way of bending time. Not much happens as far as melody or dynamics — the changes in tone and mood are slow and sometimes imperceptible. But put one on in a dark room and an hour passes in an instant. The dissolution of the music mirrors the mind drifting away into sleep. How strange that music so bound with trauma could end up bringing so much peace and rest. Lord knows we need it now.
— August Brown
Bach to Sleep
When my eldest son was a toddler, and I was on the prowl for music to use at bedtime, I picked up a reissue of violinist-conductor Yehudi Menuhin’s early-1960s recording of Bach’s Violin Concertos and Orchestral Suites at the Bath International Music Festival in England.
This became a particular favorite, so much so that it became, and remains, known in our family as “the nap music,” which we spun both at night and during afternoon nap sessions. This also landed on the heels of the introduction of the term “the Mozart effect” in 1991, in which music researchers were heavily promoting the idea that listening to classical music, especially in youth, helps improve the brain’s functioning.
If Mozart was good for kids, I figured by extension, Bach — the grand architect of classical music, whose compositions always struck me as masterworks of both the mathematics and artistry of music — might be even better. Whether ultimately there’s any physiological benefit to indoctrinating kids with classical music didn’t really concern me; on an instinctual level I knew it was good for the soul, and my son, Alec, and then his little brother, Harrison, who came along a couple of years later, responded positively.
My sense was the structural integrity of Bach, Mozart and some of the other classical music masters couldn’t help but fuel beneficial development of neural pathways. Plus, I loved it. Ever since, if I find my own mind racing when it’s time to hit the pillow, I turn to this recording to help shut off the chaos of the day and enter a more peaceful inner space. Anytime I hear the opening motif of the A Minor violin concerto, which starts this collection, I instantly feel settled, and can regain some sense that all is right with the world.
— Randy Lewis