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The best classical music for sleep

We guide you through the pieces of music that will help relax the mind, calm the nerves and send you off to sleep

Which music is best for sleeping?

Amy Beach: Berceuse from Three Compositions

A pianist as well as a composer, Amy Beach was a master of chamber music – shown here in this sumptuous lullaby written for violin and piano. It’s one of her lesser-known chamber works, but provides light relief at the end of a long day. The continual return of the lullaby theme is comforting and reassuring, as is the use of tonic and dominant harmonies.

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There’s nothing untoward going on here: no loud dynamics, jarring shifts in tonality or moments of harmonic tension. The piano and violin softly talk to one another, with the theme passed between them. The violin is muted to maintain the soft dynamics.

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Eric Whitacre: Sleep

Eric Whitacre’s choral music is renowned for its crunchy chord clusters, serene weightlessness and impressionistic word painting – all of which provide the cure for racing thoughts and end-of-the-day anxiety.

If you’re still awake by the end of the song, its final two lines should send you off peacefully. ‘As I surrender unto sleep, As I surrender unto sleep.’ Manifest sleep, and it shall come.

The piece was initially composed as a setting for Robert Frost’s poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, but after a legal to-and-fro with the Frost estate, the poem was no longer allowed to be use. Charles Anthony Silvestri set new text to Whitacre’s score. ‘This was an enormous task,’ says Whitacre. ‘I was asking him to not only write a poem that had the exact structure of the Frost, but that would even incorporate key words from “Stopping”, like “sleep”. Tony wrote an absolutely exquisite poem, finding a completely different (but equally beautiful) message in the music I had already written.’

If, when trying to nod off, you find lyrics distracting, try this. Whitacre rehearsed a wordless version of ‘Sleep’ and it’s pretty captivating.

Sleep without words. We ran through this as a sound check while recording the @spitfireaudio sample library.

Posted by Eric Whitacre on Wednesday, June 5, 2019

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Caroline Shaw: Plan & Elevation: IV. The Orangery

All five movements of Caroline Shaw’s string quartet Plan and Elevation feature an individual ground bass line, but it’s the fourth movement whose soft broken chord bass line has a gentle rocking motion to help you nod off. The harmonics played on the solo line over the top have an ethereal quality which adds to the effect.

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John Luther Adams: Become Ocean

We’ve all tried those hourlong soundscapes on apps like Headspace or Calm, so why not try the musical equivalent? One of the most important pieces of music to engage in climate change and environmental activismBecome Ocean submerges the listener in its rising sea levels. The piano rumbles, the waves of sound rise and fall, and the strings shimmer. It’s utterly transportive and will envelop you in its vast musical landscape as you float off into sleep.

We spoke to John Luther Adams in 2014 about his environmental activism and experience of writing Become Ocean

In 2018, we named Become Ocean as one of the 20 pieces of music that defined the last century. 

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Max Richter: Sleep

Never has a piece of music ‘matched the brief’ so well. Max Richter wrote the 8.5-hour work in consultation with neuroscientist David Eagleman as a piece to be played overnight to sleeping audiences. It is the ultimate immersive experience – a piece created to be listened to throughout the night. ‘I wrote Sleep as an invitation to pause our busy lives for a moment – a lullaby for a frenetic world’ says Max Richter.

The hypnotically slow-paced movements glide between one another offering a gentle segue to sleep. If you wake up in the middle of the night, it’ll softly lull you back again.

Plus, it’s COVID-friendly. We recently named it as one of the best socially distanced pieces of classical music, because audience members are invited to spread out on single beds and sleep through the performance.

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JS Bach: Goldberg Variations

Legend has it that the Goldberg Variations were originally written by Bach as a lullaby. Johann Gottlied Goldberg, one of Bach’s pupils and the favourite musician of the Russian diplomat Count Kaiserling, supposedly asked Bach to write a piece for Kaiserling to help him sleep.

Sure, the historical evidence behind this story may be dubious, but the point still stands: Bach’s Goldberg Variations are a brilliant set of pieces to help you nod off. They are light, graceful and have interweaving melodies across both hands which build and grow as you enter a deep sleep.

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Brahms: Wiegenlied

Brahms’s ‘Wiegenlied’ – ‘lullaby’ or ‘cradle song’ – is a song for voice and piano dedicated to Brahms’s friend Bertha Faber on the birth of her son. There’s a hidden romantic thread throughout the song as well, with a countermelody included in tribute to Bertha, whom Brahms had been in love with in his youth.

The song has a lilting melody, which ends with an uplifting message in its lyrics: ‘Tomorrow morning, if God wills, you will wake once again’.

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Gurney: Sleep

One of Gurney’s Five Elizabethan Songs, ‘Sleep’ explores Gurney’s desire to escape into his dreams. The text addresses sleep directly, yearning for it: ‘Come, Sleep, and with thy sweet deceiving, Lock me in delight awhile’. The back-and-forth quaver pattern in the accompanying piano creates a continualrocking motion, before ending on a contented major chord, as though the singer – and you, the listener – has fallen asleep. A moment of rest for all involved.

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