Written by Bill Leebens

What was that movie— where if you fell asleep, you died?

Getting home after a long flight is similar: if you return during daylight hours, you CANNOT go to sleep, or your sleep schedule will be screwed up for the rest of your life. Or something like that.

That was my situation upon my return from Munich— trying to stay awake until my usual bedtime, despite having been up for 40 hours or so, with my tinnitus having ratcheted up to a pulsing, swishing sound like a cheap dishwasher. And then as bedtime approached—hell, 8:30 is close enough!—I found that I was so wired that sleep seemed unlikely.

My faithful canine companions echoed my mood: Buster, the 80-pound mutt who is my spirit animal, grumbled unhappily. Grayson, the manic 16-pound schnauzer, twitched and spun around as though 100 squirrels were skittering past the sliding glass door.

What to do? Doth music hath charms to soothe the savage breast? Or at least an old grump and his dogs??

When my kids were babies,  Enya CDs would usually put them to sleep. I suspected that those discs would now do nothing but annoy me—assuming I could find them. For decades, Eno’s Music for Airports has worked for me, intermixed with a random Gymnopedie or two from Satie. Wonder how the dogs would react?

Well…you can see Buster snoozing atop the page. Grayson followed suit, and the three of us hit the hay shortly thereafter.



Back in the early ’80’s, a book called Super-Learning popularized the dictums of Dr. Georgi Lozanov, who theorized that learning and memory were both enhanced when baroque music was played during the teaching process.  It was a popular and pretty intuitive concept: baroque music generally has a tempo of around 60 beats per minute (bpm), similar to the heartbeat of a well-trained athlete (not me, in other words). The idea was that the autonomic nervous system would mimic the music’s tempo, producing a relaxation response which creates a time-stretching effect, enhancing mental absorption and retention.

Both fitness trainers and DJs consciously increase or decrease  the bpm of the music used, in order to warm up the crowd, maximize frenzy, then wind them down. Again: intuitive. But is the response effect a physiological reality, or merely a projection? Can you dial heartbeats up and down with music?

Oddly enough, there’s no clear-cut answer. Google “music beats per minute physiology” and you’ll see dozens of articles, ranging from how-to advisories for DJs listing the bpm of popular songs (according to this article, most hit pop songs fall into the 120-130 bpm range) to serious studies tracking the body’s response to varied tempi during studying and during physical exertion. Just flipping through several such studies reveals a surprising divergence in clinical findings. Most studies like this one dispute or dispel the notion that the heartbeat reacts to match the tempo of music, but many agree that music of almost any tempo—whether it’s 40 bpm or 140—reduces blood pressure, especially the diastolic.

Huh. Personally, when I hear 140 bpm thrash metal, I don’t feel as though my blood pressure is getting lower—quite the contrary. I did notice that the subjects of the studies tend to be between 18 and 27; perhaps they’ve developmentally adapted to such stuff.

And for me and my dogs? I know that Satie produces slowed respiration in all of us, and an increased feeling of relaxation. I don’t continuously monitor my heart rate or blood pressure, so I can’t tell you what happens to those markers during Gymnopedies.

Call me a lousy scientist, but I don’t really care what the exact mechanism is: it helps me wind down.

And it does seem to soothe those savage, albeit tiny, breasts.

Satie does the job for Grayson. Ignore the white socks.

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