If you set an alarm each night before turning out the lights, take note: Waking up feeling refreshed and alert could be as simple as changing the tone on your alarm clock, according to research published in the journal PLOS One.
“Considering that sound has been employed as an awakening stimulus for many decades, and the capacity for modern technology to play custom alarm compositions, it seemed appropriate to investigate this area further,” says Stuart McFarlane, PhD, researcher at RMIT University in Australia.
The 2020 study asked participants about their preferred alarm tones, their feelings about hearing that sound upon waking and their perceived levels of morning grogginess (called sleep inertia) and discovered those who woke to melodic tones had lower levels of sleep inertia.
Sleep inertia can last for 30 minutes — but has been reported to last up to 4 hours, according to McFarlane — and is associated with decreased performance, reduced vigilance and a strong desire to crawl back under the covers.
McFarlane suspects the up-and-down transitions between notes in melodic songs may encourage alertness compared to single-note, repetitive sounds like the harsh beep-beep-beep ubiquitous on alarm clocks.
WHAT IS THE BEST TONE?
The researchers also tested the impact of different musical genres on sleep inertia and found no impact; it was melodic content, not genre, that led to decreased morning grogginess. McFarlane notes that pop tunes, country songs and heavy-metal ballads could all increase alertness as long as the song has a strong melody.
“If you wanted to try different alarm sounds, aim for a composition that is relatively upbeat and faster paced,” he adds. “Go through your own personal collection of music and make a list of songs that have a melody which you can easily hum, sing along with and recite. It does not have to be exclusively a piece with vocals either; many melodic compositions are instrumental.”
READ MORE: The Perfect Playlist, According to Science
McFarlane has switched his alarm clock to play ‘Borderline’ by Madonna. He admits the song is outside his typical playlist but believes it is a good example of the effect of melodies on morning grogginess.
BEWARE OF THE SNOOZE
Once the alarm goes off, avoid the temptation to hit the snooze button. Attempting to get nine more minutes of sleep can impair cognitive functions all day long, making it harder to concentrate and make decisions, according to researchers at the University of Surrey.
“Repeatedly hitting the snooze button decreases both the quality and quantity of sleep,” explains Dr. Chad Ruoff, an internal medicine physician in sleep and obesity medicine at Kaiser Permanente. “The best thing you can do for good sleep health is to set an alarm … for the time you have to get up and just get up.”
Just make sure to program the alarm to skip the harsh tones.
“The ‘harsh alarms’ that are still used today as waking sounds are what we have become accustomed to…” McFarlane says. “This research … moves us closer to understanding how sound can be used to improve human performance upon awakening.”
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