Waking to Music (Not a Beeping Alarm) Can Help You Feel More Alert

Waking to Music (Not a Beeping Alarm) Can Help You Feel More Alert
  • Australian researchers say the type of alarm you use may affect how easily you wake up.
  • More harsh tones may leave you feeling groggy.
  • More melodic alarms may help you wake up more alert.
  • This research could potentially help people in many professions, such as emergency responders and airline pilots.
  • It could also help the average person who needs to wake up quickly and be alert.

Are you one of those people who just can’t seem to get going when you first wake up?

According to a group of Australian researchers, your morning malaise may be related to the type of alarm you’re using.

In fact, their research indicates that if you’re using a more jarring, harsh tone to wake yourself, it may actually work against you, leaving you feeling groggy.

A more melodic alarm, however, may help you feel more alert.

What the study found

The study, which was published in the journal PLoS One, involved 50 people.

Each person was given a questionnaire that they could complete anonymously at home.

The respondents were asked about the type of sound they preferred to wake with, how they felt about that sound, and how alert or groggy they felt after waking up.

Lead author Stuart McFarlane, a doctoral researcher at RMIT University, said his team found that alarm sounds people deemed to be “melodic” were linked with people feeling like they had an easier time becoming awake and alert.

McFarlane explained that what makes a tone be perceived as melodic is the presence of at least two notes, time, and the sequence in which the notes are sounded in relation to each other.

A melody is perceived as an “articulate entity or musical phrase,” he said.

An example he gave of a melodic alarm tone is the introduction to Madonna’s song “Borderline.”

This is in contrast to an alarm that repeats a single note, like a traditional alarm clock, or an alarm that’s tuned in to a talk radio station.

McFarlane theorized that perhaps the rise and fall of notes in a more melodic alarm helps to focus our brain’s attention.

A more monotonous “beep beep beep” alarm might raise anxiety and promote confusion.

What we can take away from this study

McFarlane said, “If we can counteract the symptoms of sleep inertia by any measure through the alarm sounds we use, it would be a great benefit to many.”

Sleep inertia is the grogginess that we tend to feel when waking up.

It can temporarily impair our ability to think, remember, and react.

While it normally lasts about 30 minutes, it’s sometimes been reported to last as long as 2 to 4 hours, noted McFarlane.

Research dealing with sleep inertia has important implications for people like emergency responders, airline pilots, and NASA astronauts, who must be able to function well after waking up.

It could also help the average person who needs to wake up quickly and be alert.

With further research, McFarlane envisions that we might be able to design alarm sounds that could be utilized in a variety of industries and for the general public.

At the very least, he says, we can create best practice guidelines for alarm sound design that helps reduce sleep inertia.

Jennifer Doering, PhD, RN, associate dean for academic affairs and associate professor, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee College of Nursing, however, cautioned that the study did have several design flaws.

For example, it involved only a small sample of people, the authors didn’t screen for sleep disorders, and there were no controls.

This makes it more difficult to draw any conclusions about what it really means, she explained.

Tips for waking up refreshed

While it’s a bit premature to make any firm recommendations regarding alarm tones, Dr. Timothy I. Morgenthaler, a pulmonologist and sleep medicine specialist at the Mayo Clinic, said there are several other things you can do to ensure that you’re waking up as refreshed as possible.

  • Get enough sleep. “There is no substitute for enough sleep,” said Morgenthaler.
  • Keep a regular sleep and wake schedule. Our bodies do best with a consistent schedule that’s in sync with our circadian rhythms.
  • Avoid alcohol at bedtime. Evening alcohol consumption has been associated with poor-quality, fragmented sleep.
  • Be more active during the day. Regular exercise can improve sleep quality and duration. It can also help regulate the sleep-wake cycle and make it easier to fall asleep.

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