For most of the 21st century, sleep has been the elephant in the room as far as medical science is concerned. While the benefits of a good night’s sleep have been known for decades, doctors and other medical professionals have been reluctant to see sleep as a legitimate part of a comprehensive medical treatment, and many doctors themselves regularly work in a sleep-deprived state, despite evidence showing that sleep deprivation causes more car accidents than drug and alcohol use combined.
Many musicians treat sleep in the same way. While we know that getting good sleep is important, we’d gladly trade a few hours of sleep for a few hours of extra practice time, or a few hours of hanging out after a gig. But if you’ve ever thought that it’s worthwhile to trade sleep for practicing, it turns out you’re only making things worse.
What you lose when you lose sleep
While there are some people who claim they can get by on four hours of sleep every night, research shows us that a typical healthy adult needs anywhere from five to 10 hours of nightly sleep in order to function at their peak. We also know that after just five to 10 days of sleep deprivation, people start to experience a number of symptoms including “cognitive decline, altered mood, poorer motor skills, decreased motivation, and lack of initiative.”
To make things worse, people who are sleep deprived often don’t realize how much their lack of sleep is affecting them, as they lack the ability to properly assess their level of impairment. In short, it turns out that many of us are probably suffering from sleep deprivation without even realizing it. The only cure is to set a regular sleep schedule, as “sleep debt,” or missed hours of sleep, can only be made up through “extended periods of deep sleep.”
So if you’re out on the road and you’re staying up all night to drive to the next gig, those hours of sleep you’re losing could not only affect your performance the next night, but all of your performances to come until you’ve made up your sleep debt.
The importance of "sleeping on it"
Many of us have used the cliché of “sleeping on it” when we have an important decision to make and, as it turns out, there’s actually a lot of truth to this expression. One of the main benefits of sleep is that it helps consolidate our memories. “During sleep, recent memories, such as those of that day, are transferred to the higher cortical centers where they are consolidated into long-term memories,” Dr. Robert S. Rosenberg explained to Medical Daily.
Robert Stickgold, cognitive neuroscientist and director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at Harvard Medical School, sees sleep as not only a key memory-making tool, but also as an essential process for stimulating creative thinking. Not only are people able to remember more from the day before after a good night’s sleep, he says, but they’re also able to come up with more of what he calls “creative intrusions.”
“You can gain these insights, when you didn’t even know there was an insight to find, just by sleeping on it,” he says in his TED talk on sleep, memory, and dreams. So while you may not actually be able to make a decision in your sleep, a good night’s sleep will help you remember more from the day before, and also help you identify new connections between those memories – a key skill for creative functioning and decision-making.
Learning while you sleep
All of this research shows that sleep clearly has its benefits, which begs the question: Can you actually learn while you’re asleep? The answer is yes and no.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, “sleep learning tapes” that promised to help people learn a new language or acquire some other new skill enjoyed a moment of popularity (there are even stories of drummers listening to metronomes playing polyrhythms while they slept to improve their drumming), but these methods have largely been disproven. What sleep does do, however, is help us make sense of what we’ve already learned – and this, it turns out, is where the real benefit for musicians lies.
“I discovered that sometimes if I worked on a piece and put it away, went to bed, and got some rest, I had it better learned than if I stayed up all night cramming,” opera singer Brad Cresswell tells the Radiolab podcast. It’s no coincidence that many musicians have had this exact same experience. The explanation, according to Dr. Giulio Tononi, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist who holds the David P. White Chair in Sleep Medicine, is that your brain performs a type of “sorting out process” while you’re asleep.
Dr. Tononi says that during sleep, there are waves of electrical activity called “slow oscillations” that essentially turn down the background noise in your brain. So say, for example, that you spent two hours practicing your instrument during the day, but you also performed a bunch of other activities, like talking to friends, watching a movie, and so on. If you concentrated more on practicing your instrument than anything else that day, that practice time is what will remain after those slow oscillations have cleaned up the background noise in your brain. This, according to Dr. Tononi, is why someone like Cresswell is better off getting a full night’s sleep than staying up late and practicing.
Musicians are known for being night owls, but if you’re serious about your craft, getting to bed earlier (or sleeping in later) could make a huge difference to your musical abilities. Without giving your brain enough time to consolidate memories, make connections, and clean up unnecessary information, you’re not allowing your brain to do all of the work it needs to do in order to truly learn something. This is on top of the decreased functioning that a chronic lack of sleep causes.
So next time you’re thinking about pulling an all-nighter in the studio or trading sleep for driving time while you’re on tour, remember how much better of a musician you’ll be with a good night’s sleep behind you.
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Casey van Wensem is a freelance composer, musician, and writer living in Kelowna, B.C., Canada. You can hear his musical work at birdscompanionmusic.com and read his written work at caseyvanwensemwriting.com.