Nighty-Night: Bedtime Music Guaranteed to Put Kids to SLEEP
Dinner’s over. The table’s cleared and dishes are done. Now, there’s just one thing between you and an hour or two of peace. Bedtime, also known as The Witching Hour.
We all know how it’s supposed to go:
- The pajamas, diaper, or pull-up are on.
- Hands and faces are washed.
- Teeth are brushed.
- This week’s favorite story is read and re-read again.
- Cuddles are had, lullabies sung and goodnight kisses bestowed.
And that’s exactly when the stall tactics begin.
- “I’m hungry!”
- “I’m thirsty!”
- “I need to go to the bathroom!”
- “I want to stay up with you!”
Finicky sleepers are enough to push anyone to their wits’ end. But who do you call?
Dead European composers!
Seriously. Listening to classical music at bedtime is a
surefire way to get your kids relaxed and ready for a good night’s sleep.
How classical music can make your bedtime routines smoother
Music helps to calm, quiet, engage, distract and transport human beings of all ages to the drowsy state that is the gateway to a deep and restful sleep.
As a pianist, composer and PhD in music composition with four children of my own, here’s what I’ve learned through experimentation and hard experience.
When picking classical music for bedtime, the piece should have:
- A steady beat. Why? A steady beat of moderate-to-slow speed induces steady breathing of moderate-to-slow speed, a necessary pre-condition for snoozing.
- A steady harmonic rhythm, which means that the chords, or harmonies, change with a high degree of regularity. The harmonic rhythm of Johann Pachelbel’s ubiquitous Canon changes with the regularity of the seasons, creating a soporific effect that even a caffeine addict will feel. Contrast that to the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, for example, in which the jagged, explosive, unpredictable expressive mood is partially a product of a fairly irregular harmonic rhythm.
- No vocal tracks. Voices and the words they contain grab and hold our attention. In general, it’s not conducive to snoozing.
- No orchestral sections. Their greater dynamic range of loud and soft extremes in orchestral music may be too stimulating. I’ve found it’s better to stick to works for solo keyboard or chamber music. Save the 1812 Overture or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for your mornings.
A note about the ‘Mozart Effect’
Before we get into particular recommendations, I want to note that many fine, well-meaning music lovers have made small fortunes writing about “The Mozart Effect,” “The Bach Effect,” and even “The Alternative Art-Punk Emo Hardcore Effect.”
Regardless of composer or period, these advocates promise that playing certain specific classical music to children, both in utero and post-birth, produces smarter, happier and well-rounded children.
Sadly, such promises are utter nonsense.
What works best for bedtime is instrumental music with a steady beat and a steady harmonic rhythm. While this definition eliminates most Emo Hardcore music, it does include the bulk of European instrumental music composed between roughly 1700 and 1800, and much of the instrumental music written to the late 1800s.
That block of time spans the High Baroque and Classical periods, including notable composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Mozart. But it also captures work from hundreds of other worthy composers, whose music will just as easily put your children to bed.
So rest easy that if my selections don’t work for your family, you could also choose music by:
- Arcangelo Corelli
- Guiseppe Torelli
- Antonio Vivaldi
- George Frideric Handel
- J.C. Bach, C.P.E. Bach or W. F. Bach (all three Johann Sebastian’s sons)
- Georg Philipp Telemann
- Joseph Haydn
- Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (a real composer, honest)
any of their compositions will also improve your children’s SAT scores is a
conversation for another post.
10 Musical selections for better bedtimes
- Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello. A suite is a collection of dances, and Bach composed six such solo cello collections from 1717 to 1723. They form the bedrock of the cello repertoire and are the most frequently played solo works ever composed for the instrument. Listening to a solo instrument soothes the mind because of the intimacy of concentrating on a single, musical voice. Cellos have a round, sweet, and relatively low/deep sound that compounds that effect. Not sure which recording to choose? I recommend Janos Starker on Mercury.
- Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Composed in 1741, this epic keyboard work consists of a theme and 30 variations, concluded by a reprise of the theme. This is the most thematically “appropriate” piece on this list. Composed to help a former Russian ambassador to the electoral court of Saxony sleep at night, it will help your kids, too. Recommended recording: Glenn Gould’s 1982 piano recording on Sony. (Gould’s 1955 recording is too fast for bedtime.)
- Joseph Haydn’s String Quartets Op. 33. These six string quartets, composed in 1781, were published together as Opus (or “work”) 33. They’re works of great beauty, brevity, and expressive directness. Recommended recording: The Kodály Quartet on NAXOS.
- Wolfgang Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp. Composed in 1778, this is an ethereally beautiful work from Mozart’s repertoire. Recommended recording: Yehudi Menuhin conducting the English Chamber Orchestra on Virgin Classics.
- Wolfgang Mozart’s “Haydn” String Quartets. Mozart composed these six string quartets between 1782 and 1785, and dedicated them to his friend and mentor Joseph Haydn. Upon hearing these quartets, the Haydn told Mozart’s father that, “Before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name.” They should help your kids relax, too. Recommended recording: The Alexander String Quartet on Foghorn.
- Wolfgang Mozart’s Piano Trios. Mozart composed five mature trios for piano, violin and cello between 1786 and 1788. Recommended recording: The Beaux Arts Trio, on Philips.
- Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartets Op. 18, known as the “Early String Quartets”. The six string quartets in this collection—elegant lyric, and ahead of their time—were composed between 1798 and 1800. Recommended recording: The Alexander String Quartet, on Foghorn.
- Johannes Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet in B Minor. Brahms wrote this preternaturally beautiful work, scored for clarinet and string quartet, near the end of his life in 1891. I humbly and happily suggest that it is among the most perfect pieces of music ever composed. Recommended recording: Karl Leister, clarinet and the Vermeer Quartet on Orfeo.
- Johannes Brahms’s Trio for Violin, Horn, and Piano (known as the “Horn Trio”). Another pieces of perfection from Brahms, you’ll want to listen to it for yourself once the kids are asleep. Recommended recording: Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano; Itzhak Perlman, violin; Barry Tuckwell, horn on London.
- J. S. Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias (“Two and Three-Part Inventions”) for harpsichord. This last piece is a household favorite. I have played this music for my youngest two kids (aged 12 and 10) nearly every night for the last ten years. Once, many years ago, I attempted to substitute something else. My daughter, five years old at the time, staged an demonstration and shut down the house. I never swapped it out again. Recommended recording: Kenneth Gilbert, harpsichord on Archiv.
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