Music That Helps You Sleep: Minimalist Composer Max Richter, Pop Phenom Ed Sheeran & Your Favorites

I admit it now, I was once an avid listener of the soothing new age music of Enya. At the time, in my musical circles, this was not cool, and at the time I cared about such things. So Enya was my guilty secret. I didn’t need to work that hard to hide my affection. I only listened to Enya at night, as I lay in bed alone and drifted off. I used my Enya cassette tapes (yes tapes), you see, to put myself to sleep.

I’ve had other sleep favorites. Beethoven, Mozart, Bach… interpretations of Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach by synthesizer wizard Wendy Carlos…. It may seem disparaging to say that a certain composer’s music lulls one to sleep, but I think it’s just the opposite. So does composer and musician Max Richter, who has created an eight-hour piece called “Sleep” that is “meant to be slept through,” says Richter. (There’s also a one hour version that’s more readily available for purchase.) Its gentle waves of strings, voice, piano, and synths are like a musical Lethe one floats on into oblivion.


Richter has performed the piece with other musicians, just recently overnight on a September 27th BBC Radio 3 broadcast, “the longest live broadcast,” writes The New Yorker, “of a single piece of music in the station’s history.” The small audience in attendance mostly stayed awake. One member reportedly hallucinated. The composition consists of thirty-one themed movements (Hear “Dream 3 (in the midst of my life)” above). Lovers of modern minimalist composers like Philip Glass and William Basinski will notice similar uses of drone notes and repetition in “Sleep.” You may even hear a touch of Enya….

Richter’s is the perfect music to accompany me into dreamland; even those movements that include a vocalist use the voice as a wordless, ethereal instrument, as so many ambient musicians do. I’ve come across more than a few favorite ambient and minimalist composers late at night, when Spotify begins recommending sleep playlists. “Sleep,” it turns out, “is one of Spotify’s most popular categories,” according to Billboard. However, the “world’s favorite choice when choosing music to unwind” may surprise you: red-headed English singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran.

I’m not personally a fan of his music, but even if I were, I can’t imagine listening to it as I settle down to sleep. Nonetheless, millions of people stream Sheeran’s songs on repeat at bedtime, along with other pop artists like Ellie Goulding, John Legend, Sam Smith, and Rihanna. To each their own, I guess. Hear a playlist of the most-streamed “sleep” music on Spotify above. (If you don’t have Spotify’s free software, download it here.) If none of these tunes do it for you, consider giving iTunes’ 27th most popular podcast, Sleep With Me, a chance. Or, let us know in the comments below what music, if any, helps calm your nerves and soothe your tired brain as you climb into bed after a long day.

Related Content:

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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  • Barb Drummond says:

    I slept through Richter’s broadcast at home, as did many other people. I woke up a few times, but each time I felt like I was in the company of many others. It was a real communal event. I woke up feeling great, though a bit tired.

  • k says:

    I need to listen to post-rock to fall asleep, mostly Mogwai, Explosions in the sky, If these trees could talk, or Sigur Ros. It’s weird to sleep if it’s silent…

  • David says:

    …O.K., O.K., the following is the ULTIMATE magical musical elixir for going to sleep: take Enya’s album “Watermark” (the one that has “Orinoco Flow” on it, though the following formula does not involve that song), then program the CD (or make a playlist) to play the following numbers in *exactly* this order: #3 “On Your Shore”, #8 “Evening Falls”, #5 “Exile”, #11 “Na Laetha Geal M’oige”. I discovered this formula years ago by trial and error. If this sequence of eerily calming songs doesn’t ease you into sleep, then you must need some *very* serious narcotics. (Oh, and, Josh Jones, you are absolutely right about Enya; *never* be ashamed of loving her music. She may be the only musician slotted as “New Age” whose music is not insipid tripe; in any case, she’s quite brilliant in her own way.)…

  • Georg says:

    I tried to follow, but fall asleep too. I recorded the set and hope to see forward, there will be a lifeperformance here jn Berlin

  • Georg says:

    I will give it a try

  • Francois says:

    Moby Lets You Download 4 Hours of Ambient Music to Help You Sleep, Meditate, Do Yoga & Not Panic

    http://www.openculture.com/2015/10/music-to-put-you-to-sleep.html

    This is not “downloadable” but requires a Youtube converter and most of them are loaded with tricky spy wear.

  • Francois says:

    What good is this? I can’t download and and it will not work with a Youtube converter.

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