The opinions in this article are solely my own and do not reflect the views and opinions of Brigham and Women’s Hospital or Harvard Medical School.
There’s nothing more refreshing than a good night of sleep, so why is our relationship with sleep so complicated?
Musicians face unique challenges when it comes to sleep: late-night gigs and frequent travel during tours can disrupt your body’s ability to get high-quality sleep. This happens due to the disruption of your circadian rhythm1. You can think of your circadian rhythm as your internal body clock. Your internal clock controls the timing of many processes in your body, including the window of time when you are able to get the most restful sleep. When you try to sleep outside this window, you are less likely to get 7-9 hours, which is the ideal recommended amount for adults (teens and children need even more!)2. You are also more likely to have trouble falling asleep and/or staying asleep, which can lead to symptoms of insomnia like daytime sleepiness3.
Going to bed early one night and late the next night can disrupt your circadian rhythm4; so can travel5. When you travel across time zones, you can immediately reset your watch to the new local time, but your internal clock does not reset immediately. It may take a few days for your internal clock to sync to the new time zone6. If you are on tour and in a new time zone every few days, then it can be difficult for your internal clock to keep up with the local time. The symptoms of jet lag you experience are due to this disruption of your internal clock and should improve as your internal clock syncs to local time.
In addition to insomnia-like symptoms, lack of sleep can affect your ability to learn or refine a skill. The brain rehearses many skills, such as motor sequences, during sleep. Several studies have shown that participants who learned a simple keyboard sequence during the day performed the sequence quicker and more accurately the next day if they were allowed a full night of sleep compared to participants who did not sleep7. This finding is particularly important for musicians who are trying to learn a new instrument or master a new song.
Sleep – particularly rapid eye movement (REM) sleep – may also be the secret to creativity. During sleep each night, we cycle through several stages of sleep, including non-REM and REM. REM is the stage of sleep associated with dreaming. Although we cycle through various stages of non-REM and REM sleep approximately every 90 minutes throughout the night, most of our REM sleep occurs during the latter part of the night. Studies have shown that REM sleep enhances creative thinking8. Individuals who do not get 7-9 hours of sleep per night may experience less time in REM sleep, which may have an impact on creativity.
Lack of sleep can also impact other aspects of health. Less than 7 hours of sleep per night is associated with weight gain and cardiovascular disease9. Lack of sleep can make you more susceptible to the common cold and other illness10. Along with a healthy diet and regular exercise, adequate sleep is critical to your overall well-being.
Given the lifestyle challenges that musicians face, what can you do to improve your sleep? Here are a few tips and suggestions!
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6Revell VL, Eastman CI. How to trick mother nature into letting you fly around or stay up all night. J Biol Rhythms. 2005 Aug;20(4):353-65.
7Walker MP, Brakefield T, Seidman J, Morgan A, Hobson JA, Stickgold R. Sleep and the time course of motor skill learning. Learn Mem. 2003 Jul-Aug;10(4):275-84.
8Cai DJ, Mednick SA, Harrison EM, Kanady JC, Mednick SC. REM, not incubation, improves creativity by priming associative networks. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009 Jun 23;106(25):10130-4.
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10Prather AA, Janicki-Deverts D, Hall MH, Cohen S. Behaviorally Assessed Sleep and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. Sleep. 2015 Sep 1;38(9):1353-9.
Melissa A. St. Hilaire, Ph.D. Associate Biostatistician, Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Instructor in Medicine, Division of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School