Nearly 75% of music makers have experienced negative emotions such as stress, anxiety and/or depression in relation to their music creation. This is a troubling statistic rarely discussed that needs our attention. Sleep expert Sara Mednick and musician Lisa Mednick explore the relation between the science of sleep and the process of music making: the bad, the ugly, but also a lot of the good.
I was lucky enough to catch a show by the legendary poet, sorcerer, rocker Patti Smith in Hudson, New York in 2003. The most memorable moment of the show was actually the final bit of wisdom she tossed out to the crowd before her last song. She said “FLOSS! Take care of your teeth! Nobody tells you that when you are young, and all of us who have survived through everything else are left without any teeth.” (this is an approximation of her exact speech). And she’s right; musicians, like everyone else, should take care of their teeth and every other aspect of their physical and mental health. And she is also right that nobody ever tells them that likely because a conscientious, prudent, health enthusiast is not the image we have or want of our rock stars. “Better to burn out, than fade away,” is the rock ethos built up by the media, music industry, fans, and musicians themselves.
A brutal roll call of young, dead musicians is a testament to our commitment to the mythology of a misspent youth. DIE YOUNG STAY PRETTY is as real now as it was in the NYC punk scene of the 1970s.
Unsurprisingly, a recent survey by Record Union showed that 73 percent of music makers have experienced negative emotions such as stress, anxiety and/or depression in relation to their music creation. But, more importantly, they also found that musicians want to prioritize their mental health more, so Emőke at Record Union asked me to write a piece about sleep. As a sleep researcher, I have a lot I can say about the importance of sleep for mental and physical health. But what do I know about music makers? So, I asked my sister Lisa Mednick Powell, a life-long musician and poet, to collaborate with me on the topic of how sleep fits into the broader story of music making. [Lisa’s thoughts are marked in italics – Ed.].
Lisa also happens to be the person who bought me Patti Smith’s album ‘Horses’ when I was 10, and she’s just about the coolest person I know. Our conversations led us to the thesis that sleep affects musicians in three main areas of life:
1) Sleep and circadian rhythm are critical for creativity,
2) Sleep and circadian rhythms may help form an early predilection to a musical vocation,
3) Sleep deprivation can sometimes help – and sometimes hurt – the artist.
First, we hear from Lisa about the intertwined and unconventional relationship between a musician’s life and her sleep.
You can find many musicians wide awake during hours when the rest of the world is asleep. If you are a musician, you work mostly at night and you must be awake to do your work. So there you are – awake at night. Of course, there is the audience. They are also (one hopes) awake and listening or dancing. But then they go home and to bed. What happens to the musician after the show? Well, she doesn’t usually brush her teeth (and floss) and go straight to sleep. Sometimes she has to drive for a few hours. Sometimes she is hungry. So she eats pizza on the bus, because that’s what’s available. Sometimes she stays up for a party.
Driving often requires the use of stimulants, and then, when you get to your destination, you need something else to help you sleep…
When you are traveling with a band, your time is not your own. You have this itinerary and you have to stick with it, or else you might get left behind. If you are supposed to be in the lobby of the hotel at 8 for a six-hour drive, then you just have to be there. Some people can sleep in the van, others can’t. Either way, you don’t get to pick your sleeping schedule.
Sleep troubles don’t always mean we suffer silently – or alone. I have been on the tour bus and heard the screaming night terrors of a bandmate struggling with some unseen demon who joined him in his bunk. I am guessing that this is not restful sleep. I believe these problems affect the waking life as well. Coleridge describes these terrors in his poem “The Pains of Sleep:”
So two nights passed: the night’s dismay
Saddened and stunned the coming day.
Sleep, the wide blessing, seemed to me
Distemper’s worst calamity.
The third night, when my own loud scream
Had waked me from the fiendish dream…1
Along with clean air and water, nutrient-rich food, and shelter, sleep is essential for human survival. Although medical science and basic research can explain everything related to the first four needs and how they function in our bodies, until very recently, sleep was completely disregarded by science and medicine. This blind-spot about something that every living thing does for one-third of their lives is dangerous and sometimes lethal. 70 million Americans live with a sleep disorder and 40 million people are not properly diagnosed or treated2.
Sleep disturbance is one of the first signs that something isn’t right with your body and/or mind. And chronically poor sleep has been shown to be highly associated with mortality, hypertension and cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity, anxiety and depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, attention and memory deficits3. So, all this to say, sleep needs our attention.
Sleep’s sister is our internal biological clock that tells us when it’s time to be awake and when it’s time to go to bed. This circadian rhythm, from the Latin circa meaning around, and dia meaning a day, governs the functioning of every cell in every animal and plant on earth. Our daily rhythm dictates the hours in the day that we will feel most alert and keeps time by a complicated set of inputs from genetics, bright blueish light, and common behaviors, such as eating and exercise. In the morning, we need the blueish morning sunlight to stimulate our arousal system and inhibit melatonin, the circadian hormone. In contrast, in the evening, the light we are exposed to should mimic a sunset or candle flame, (i.e., no blue light) in order to signal release of melatonin and sleep onset4. This explains why LED screens that emit blue light are so harmful to health, as they suppress melatonin and prevent snoozetime.
This might affect the audience as well, but it is worth noting that musicians are usually bathed in blue and purple stage lights while performing. No wonder we need to wind down after work!
People who have jobs that keep them at odds with the traditional circadian schedule, such as night-shift workers, are at greater risk of drowsiness and falling asleep on the job and have higher rates of many chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer5.
Considering the lifestyle of a musician, sleep disturbance may be quite common. Unfortunately, it is often ignored and left untreated.
I think about the term sleep disturbance and wonder if it means just that a person does not get the normal prescribed amount of sleep. Or does it mean that during the time when one should be sleeping one is continually awakened by people nearby yelling or bright lights that don’t get switched off or dogs that howl in the night…
Sleep, and dreaming specifically, is highly related to the creative process. Many anecdotes from famous discoveries involve the dream world. Paul McCartney thought of the song ‘Yesterday’ in a dream; Fredrich Kekule dreamed up the structure of the benzene ring, which won him the Nobel Prize; Salvador Dali used the surreal nature of dreamtime to inform his artwork. Work from my sleep lab has shown that naps containing more of the dreaming stage of sleep, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, increased creativity by 40%, compared with naps without REM and time awake in quiet rest6. (On a side note, this was a collaboration between my lab and our dad, Sarnoff Mednick, a research psychologist who, along with Lisa’s mom Martha Mednick and his brother Edward Mednick, devised a creativity measure called the remote associates test in the 1960s. The Mednicks have a long-running interest in creativity.
Makes me wonder why Sarnoff and Martha were so shocked when I became an artist, but I digress…
Actually REM sleep is likely the optimal state for creative meandering. Because the pattern of brain activity includes brain areas involved with emotion and memory (amygdala, and hippocampus), attention and motivation (anterior cingulate), while conspicuously silent are brain areas devoted to inhibition, judgement, and rational decision making (frontal cortex)7. This characterization of a highly emotional and intensely exuberant Id wreaking havoc through the brain, without the proverbial adult-in-the-room, is a pretty apt description of the quality of dreams. REM dreams pull from seemingly unrelated, highly evocative memories, that together don’t usually make a lot of sense, and yet somehow, they do. If you think about the creative mind-set, it’s one that is able to put ideas together in an original and interesting way, to be playful and think outside the box. So, it’s no wonder that dream time is the right time for sprouting new tunes or lyrics.
I have written lots of songs in dreams. Then I wake up and cannot remember them. I always tell myself that if I can’t remember something I wrote, then no one else will. And if you don’t have a hook, why finish the song? But, every now and then, something will stick. For example, when I lived in Austin, I had a dream that my friend Townes Van Zandt was singing to me a song that had some certain lyrics – just one couplet – and of course there might have been more to it, but that was the part I remembered. So the next time I saw Townes, I asked him if he had a song that went like that. “Nope” he said, “that’s yours.” I have yet to finish the song but I keep it in my heart all the time. Some songs take a long time to finish. One of the songs on my latest album took 30 years to finish.
The creative moment for a musician requires consideration for both the state of the brain and the state of the environment. Along with REM sleep, the waking brain also needs to stay open to the muse, which may mean keeping slightly out of touch with the daily grind of reality.
People walk on the edge of reality to keep open the “doors of perception” (William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)8. You are dormant while waiting for ideas to come in. Coleridge was often on the edge of reality. I can see why people use drugs to get to that state, to slow down, perhaps to invite that state of mind. A person can use narcotics to screen out the world. It doesn’t always work but it can put one in a state of calm reception. It is worthwhile to be receptive to one’s own thoughts while the world cannot intrude. Some artists can, with no “help from their friends,” tune out the world and focus only on their work. Most artists (especially musicians) really need solitude to create.
Next, let’s consider, how sleep and circadian rhythms may influence the development and lifestyle of a musician. Creative people tend to be more often night owls, as their circadian rhythms are reported to be set a few hours later then non-creatives. This means their internal clock wants to wake up later in the day and go to sleep later in the night9. Interestingly, compared with morning larks, night owls will sleep into the late morning, a time when REM and dreaming dominate sleep, making them more in touch with that free-associative brain state. However, it also may make them more vulnerable to depression, as people with depression have excessive REM sleep, which has been related to their negative bias in thinking7. The reason for this is not known, but considering the brain areas that are active/inactive during REM sleep, we have a high amygdala and low prefrontal cortex, which can lead to deep-diving into the emotional swimming pool. Differences in circadian rhythm between people may be biologically-driven (genetic), as these predilections for late nights usually start to show themselves in adolescence, but sometimes even earlier.
“Sonic space” is a term I coined as a result of living in a tiny house with my husband, who is also a musician. If one of us is practicing, the other person can’t. There is just no room in the airspace. Both of us play large acoustic instruments – double bass and piano – so it is not an option to just go outside and work on a song… But we now have built another shed so I will soon have my own sonic space.
As a kid I stayed up past bedtime, reading by flashlight and later on listening to music… memories are fuzzy… I also remember waking up before it got light out and coloring with crayons before I could see the colors… all of that time I was alone and not afraid of the dark. I was too young to realize it of course, but I was taking advantage of the solitude and the rare chance to control my own time. For an artist, that is crucial – to be able to have control over how you spend your hours. Even at the age of six, believe it or not, I think I knew that. I am sure that is one reason why creative people train themselves (or maybe they’re wired) to be awake and alive while the world – the authorities! – sleep. I mean you can work sort of “outside the radar” I suppose. Otherwise, everyone else is directing your thoughts and activities…at least that is how it can feel if you’d rather be left alone with your dreams and actually create something worth having spent your time on!
Integrating these musicians’ anecdotes and scientific ideas together, it’s possible that the genetic predetermination that keeps some kids awake, in solitude, may naturally encourage these kids to find something to do by themselves while everyone is sleeping, art, for example. Of course, if you have been up late at night you are unlikely to be bounding out of bed at dawn to attend early morning activities such as sports practice. Do these morning/evening preferences potentially contribute to the early partitioning of children into cliques and types, jocks vs artsy-fartsy kids? It’s a fascinating idea that our biology may in part influence the particular muse we are drawn to as children, which may potentially drive our future career choice and social networks.
There is also another factor perhaps to consider which is that sporty kids – that is kids who partake in team sports and who like to compete – are conformists. If you are a nonconformist you will go the other way, and that won’t be popular with most parents. I think parents probably prefer knowing that their kids are doing something regimented and orderly at a certain time of day with other kids who are all doing the same thing and wearing uniforms – instead of bushwhacking their way through the dangerous wilds of the imagination… But I don’t know because I did not have children.
Misalignment between an individual’s natural circadian clock (i.e., morning lark vs night owl) and society’s structures (i.e, school start times, bedtimes and rise times, 9-5 job times) can be harmful to well-being. This is because it puts you in a state of perpetual jet-lag in which the world around you is operating on a clock that is shifted from your own. Scientists call this effect “social jet-lag” as it causes much the same set of symptoms including poorer health, worse mood, and increased sleepiness and fatigue10. Each hour of social jet lag also is associated with an 11-percent increase in the likelihood of heart disease11. This is true for children who are night owls. They tend to be more depressed and have mood problems, which may be related to the fact that they are not getting the same quality or quantity of sleep, due to early school start times. To quote Tennessee Williams from ‘The Glass Menagerie’, “Every time you come in yelling that God damn “Rise and Shine!” “Rise and Shine!” I say to myself, “How lucky dead people are!”12
I am wondering if the “night owl” characteristic is learned or bred in the bone. Like, did I develop the habit of staying up late to avoid other people?? It could be that someone who is in high school, and who is a creative type of person, might exhaust themselves trying to keep up with homework, AND whatever other project they might like (or feel compelled) to work on. OR they become depressed because they do not get the time to freely delve into the reservoirs of their imaginations and create a work of fancy… because their time and energy are used up by school AND they might be underachievers (or whatever we are called now) because they have brains to spare, but use most of their time trying to shoe-horn the required schoolwork and curricular demands into their lives. And that does not even address the plight of kids who have to work two jobs before or after school to help keep their parents’ household running!!
Putting these ideas together, the artist may develop from a myriad of biological and environmental factors. First, she may have a genetic predilection for being more alert in the wee hours, which is also when sonic space is in abundance, setting the right context for opening doors of perception. Being a night owl, she may spend more time in dreamy REM sleep, a creative space if there ever was one. But, sleeping late might mean that she misses out on early morning activities, which may have social consequences as well as engender the outsider mystique. Furthermore, too much time in REM sleep may bias her towards more negative thinking and depression. This picture may suggest that her path leads to the non-conformist artsy type; but artists come in all colors. As such, a conformist, night owl may find herself fighting with her artistic instincts, and instead she may force herself to take part in activities that don’t allow for sonic space and imagination. Either way, there is an emotional cost. The night owl artist can be depressed and moody due to sleep deprivation or too much REM sleep, and the conformist may feel hopeless because she is not following her muse. Thinking practically, these considerations raise important questions. What are the optimal conditions for raising a budding artist? How can the adult artist honor her or his own preferences in order to open the right doors at the right times? How can the industry of art and music be more supportive of the healthy growth of artists?
Any discussion about the real-world impact of sleep can’t avoid mentioning what happens when we don’t get enough. Sleep deprivation has been shown to cause significant impairment in alertness, vigilance, attention, perception, emotional processing and memory13. Sleepiness increases the risk for job-related accidents and injury14, and sustained wakefulness has been recognized as a serious health concern15. It is will come as no surprise that musicians are somewhat lacking in this basic need.
Well, especially on the road, you can really exhaust yourself and not realize it. It is common to suffer from lack of sleep when you’re on a tour. It is not self-imposed in that you will have to play late, stay up sometimes to talk to people and unwind, and then sleep only a few hours and then get up and be ready to go early in the morning. (For the lucky few who travel by bus this is not an issue since the drivers usually sleep during the day and the band can sleep in bunks during the overnight drive or any time they want…)
One of the oft-quoted studies on sleep deprivation and performance compares sleeplessness to alcohol consumption16. Studies have shown that motorists who get only six hours of sleep are more likely to cause a crash than are those with a blood alcohol level of 0.05. With each additional hour of sleep deprivation, we are ordering another cocktail. After 24 hours of sleep deprivation, the impairment is equivalent to a blood alcohol content of .10, which is well past the legal limit in every state. Also, these studies warn us that the effects increase with each additional night of insufficient sleep. “It’s just as bad as having five drinks and getting in the car,” says Mark Hammer, spokesperson for New York’s Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research17. And similar to the slurred claim of the inebriated “I’m OK to drive”, sleepy people overestimate their abilities dramatically, which explains the statistics on the road. More than 100,000 highway crashes per year, causing 71,000 injuries and 1,500 deaths, are at least in part due to sleep deprivation18.
A musician can perform sleep-deprived. If someone is an expert at what they do, they can probably do it in their sleep, as they say. Take driving as an example, usually an experienced driver can be safe enough on an uneventful, straightaway. But if there’s an unexpected circumstance, such as a sharp curve in the road or a patch of ice, the ability to regain control of the wheel comes too slowly and you careen off the road. It’s similar with music. We musicians practice and drill and learn how to play even when we are not in the mood. We have layers of resources at our disposal if we are sleepy or if we are ill. But if there is a distraction, or if your mind goes blank it is hard, when you haven’t slept enough, to get back on track in the middle of a song if you mess up. Same when you have a high fever. The back-up systems can be harder to access. But most of the time you make sure that it doesn’t affect your performance. You just push through somehow, sometimes with a little help from your chemical friends.
This anecdote is reflected in research on insufficient sleep, reporting that it may not necessarily impair the highly trained skills, e.g., playing the same song you have played a million times. Instead, sleeplessness appears to shut down the brain’s frontal lobe functions the most, which leads to a decreased ability to assess subtle or fast changes in the environment and flexibly switch to a different tack. Our reactions are sluggish and unable to adapt to the multitude of complex inputs happening at any one time. Research with the military, a severely sleep deprived lot, shows that sharp shooters lacking adequate sleep are extremely accurate with hitting bullseyes, but if the intel changes, they will be unable to update their judgement and might wind up putting a mark on an innocent person instead of an enemy.
Finally, lack of sleep and poor sleep can have a significant effect on our emotional state and our ability to regulate our feelings. In fact, insomnia (problems initiating or maintaining sleep that negatively affects well-being) can increase the risk of depression19. As we mentioned above, depression can be associated with too much REM sleep, but also being anxious, worried and depressed can lead to an inability to get to sleep. It is not clear which comes first but treating sleep problems has been shown to ease depressive symptoms19. Women are more prone to depression and insomnia19, this fact combined with a career in a male-dominated industry can create the perfect storm for increased risk for both problems20.
I really think depression can come about due to real problems that feel insurmountable. Once the depression starts it is impossible to make it go away. The usual problem for musicians in my class or at my level is financial insufficiency. It is hard to let the muse take over when you are worried about paying the rent or buying gas to get to the gig. One can start to feel worthless. Lack of recognition for one’s work – or even the refusal of others to recognize that what we do as musicians IS work at all (See “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits) can lead to paralyzing disappointment and depression.
But have heart, Dear Reader…
A work of art remains long after the artist has moved on, and the muse is always beckoning, just out of reach. There is comfort in both of these truths. Take, for example Keats’ Grecian Urn where the young men are forever chasing the young ladies around and around in the painted design of the vase. The ecstasy of the chase is eternal, and the beauty of the artifact is everlasting. A creative person might wake up one day feeling they have nothing left to offer; she should think about that Grecian Urn…
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all
Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know”21
Let’s wrap up with some sleep tips developed specifically by Lisa and me for the musician.
“Sleep! Nobody tells you to take care of your hippocampus!
When touring, try to resist the temptation to see the sights or visit with friends. Ask for late check out so you can sleep in if you have a day off.
This is difficult as the timing of travel is dictated by so much more than that which is in control of the manager. I always took a walk after soundcheck and before the show – where I felt safe enough to do so, that is. You usually don’t have transportation back to the hotel and clubs are often in dicey neighborhoods. So you don’t have much to work with.
If you are on tour, the best practice is to use time that will not interfere with the operation of the tour. So you should sleep in the van or the bus (get an eye mask and earplugs!!), and get a healthy snack at the gas stop. These days it is much easier to find fruit when you are on the road. I used to eat baby food: apricots and applesauce from the convenience store shelves. We have somewhat better choices now!
AMEN. Only use coffee in the morning and if you really, really need it!
Yes – write it down as soon as you wake up. If you can do that before you feed any beasts in your house or take care of any other chores you have to do. Easier done at home. But if you have a little pad and pen in your bag, you can write down those insane dreams that come to you in the van…
Yeah, I had TERRIBLE fights with my mother when she woke me up in the mornings during jr. high and high school. I could not wipe the tar from my eyes. And she took me to a shrink who advised her to buy me an alarm clock! It was not until the advent of radio alarm clocks and progressive FM radio (when George Harrison could wake me up instead of me mum!) that I could even begin to be human of a morning…
Dr. Sara C. Mednick is Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Irvine, where she directs the Sleep and Cognition (SaC) lab. Her research led to her book, Take a Nap! Change Your Life (Workman), which put forth the scientific basis for napping to improve productivity, cognition, mood, and health. Along with running a seven-bedroom sleep lab, teaching and public speaking, Dr. Mednick has engaged in several media projects, including being featured on three episodes of National Geographic’s Brain Games; creating an online course to help people enhance their sleep; and delivering a TEDx talk entitled Give it up for the Down State. She resides in San Diego, CA.
➞ Sara’s website
Lisa Mednick Powell makes art with words and music and lives in Twentynine Palms, California with her husband, bassist Kip Powell. As a keyboard player and accordioness, she has worked on stages and in studios from New York to New Orleans, and from Austin to Auckland. She has produced three critically-acclaimed albums of original songs: Artifacts of Love, Semaphore, and, most recently, Blue Book. Fred Mills of Blurt Magazine calls her new work “songwriting gold,” and Dave Cantrell of Stereo Embers writes, “Similar to the Band’s mythic epiphanies or the sand mandalas of Tibetan monks, the songs on Blue Book seem held in this sort of tension of timelessness that makes them feel both fleeting and stamped forever on your music-listening heart.” Her writings have appeared in diverse publications, and include the new book Finding the Azimuth (Cholla Needles Press). Lisa has spent her life relentlessly pounding the piano, tirelessly tapping the typewriter, and faithfully serving her muse.
➞ Lisa’s website