Scoring Dreamscapes: The History of Sleep Music

Dec 17, 2015

If you're a fan of HBO programming, you've probably heard the work of composer Max Richter - he's responsible for scoring one of its dark dramas, The Leftovers. But recently, Richter released something a little more subdued: an eight-hour album called Sleep, which he calls a “lullaby for a frenetic world”. Ambitious though it may be, Richter is hardly the first composer to send people nodding off, or to try and score a dreamscape. 

Philip Sherburne is a contributing editor at Pitchfork magazine where he wrote about the history of sleep music. He joined us to teach us more about the popular genre people are nodding off to. 

"It's whatever gets you through the night, really...there is no one specific thing."

Philip first noted that sleep music covers a wide range. Playlists can include ambient music from artists like Aphex Twin alongside 'happy hardcore' - according to a Spotify study, the number one song on people's 'sleep music' playlists was "Thinking Out Loud" by Ed Sheeran, the soft pop musician. 

Away from streaming services, people are now heading to 'sleep concerts.' But, what might sound like a new idea, actually has it's roots in the 1960s, when composers like Terry Riley, La Monte Young, and Marian Zazeela hosted all night concerts that focused on long duration, ritual, and were interested in the music of non-Western cultures. 

By the 1970s, the concept of a 'sleep concert' was realized by R.I.P. Hayman. Hayman organized all night concerts (lavendar and chamomile tea included) where people were encouraged to fall alseep and later explore their dreams collectively.  

Composer Robert Rich later popularized sleep concerts in the 1980s with a focus on a sense of presence. After taking a decades long break, Rich has returned to holding sleep concerts all over the world as demand has once again risen. 

So what's at the heart of this connection between music and sleep? And why are sleep concerts gaining popularity? Philip says that part of it may be the sense of a communal experience - sleep concerts aren't something you can film on your phone. 

"You couldn't film them with your phone. You know, you had to be there and you had to give yourselves over to them."

Events like the sleep concert launch event for Max Richter's 8 hour album Sleep are now selling out, indicating renewed interest in sleep music. Additionally,  the actor-and-sometimes-musician Jeff Bridges recently released Sleeping Tapeshis addition to the genre. 

Then there's the question: how do you review a sleep album? Philip says a good measure is whether it "gets you past the gates." By that measure, Philip says Richter's album does better than the affable Bridges' - it's hard to fall asleep if you don't want to miss anything. 

And we want to know: what's your favorite 'sleep music'? Comment below, or let us know on Facebook or Twitter