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10 Best Noises & Sounds for Sleep and Which Ones to Avoid

The best sleep sound may be silence, but white noise, pink noise, music, and nature sounds may also help you fall and stay asleep.
Published
2023-04-26
Updated
2024-01-06
20 MINS
Written by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
Reviewed by
Chester Wu, MD, Rise Science Medical Reviewer
Our Editorial Standards
We bring sleep research out of the lab and into your life. Every post begins with peer-reviewed studies — not third-party sources — to make sure we only share advice that can be defended to a room full of sleep scientists.
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Updated Regularly
We regularly update our articles to explain the latest research and shifts in scientific consensus in a simple and actionable way.
woman listening to best sounds and noises for sleep

You’ve brushed your teeth, washed your face, and changed into pajamas. There’s only one thing left to do before you crawl into bed: turn on some relaxing sleep sounds. 

Many of us turn to a white noise machine, an ASMR podcast, or a sleep app with soothing ocean waves to help us drift off. But can sleep sounds really boost our sleep and overall health and wellness? 

Spoiler alert: there’s not much science behind sleep sounds and the best noise for sleep may be no noise at all. But we know that silence is hard to come by, especially for those of us living in busy cities or with noisy neighbors. 

This is where sleep sounds can be beneficial. After all, the sound of static or lapping waves is much more relaxing than the barking dogs and traffic outside.

Below, we’ll dive into the best sounds for sleep and share the science behind them. Plus, we’ll share how the RISE app can help you fall and stay asleep, whatever noise you’re listening to, with science-backed sleep hygiene habits.  

Heads-up: We’re not affiliated with any noise machines or sound apps. That means we can offer unbiased advice on the best sleep sounds out there. In this article, we’ll share what science has to say on the topic to help you make an informed decision.

Advice from a sleep doctor:

“There’s some promising research into sounds like white noise, pink noise, and music for sleep, but there’s not enough evidence to recommend anything wholeheartedly. My advice is to aim for silence and experiment with sleep sounds if silence isn’t possible for you.”

Rise Science Medical Reviewer Dr. Chester Wu

Which Noise is Best for Sleeping?

Turning to a sound at night to help you drift off? Here are your options and what scientific research there is behind them. 

But just a warning, scientific research into sleep sounds has a few problems. Studies are often small, rely on self-reported data, and there’s not enough good quality evidence to back up certain sounds. 

1. Silence 

Silence is considered the holy grail when it comes to sleep sounds. There’s not a lot of research into the potential risks of listening to sounds all night as you sleep, but we do know silence is good for us. 

Research suggests long-term exposure to noise pollution can lead to higher blood pressure and even fatal heart attacks. And there is a theory that our ears may need downtime to clear out metabolic waste from our auditory systems and recover from the day. 

The science: One study found using earplugs and an eye mask helped participants listening to ICU sounds get more REM sleep, wake up less often in the night, and have higher levels of the sleep hormone melatonin.

Expert tip: Use earplugs if you live in a noisy environment. We recommend these. Earplugs rated to 32 decibels can help to block disruptive noise, but still allow you to hear your alarm or crying child. 

2. White Noise 

White noise is a constant patternless noise that contains all frequencies the human ear can hear on the sound spectrum. These frequencies are played at equal intensities. It’s sometimes called broadband noise because it spans across all bands of sound. 

You can hear white noise from a running fan, air conditioner, air purifier, or TV and radio static. 

RISE has sound recordings of a fan, car interior, or propeller plane to get white noise sounds. You can choose whether your chosen sound plays all night or turns off after 15, 30, 60, 90, or 120 minutes. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to go right to their relaxation audio guide homepage and get started.

The science: A 2021 study found when participants in New York City slept with a white noise machine they fell asleep faster and woke up less often during the night. Another 2021 study found white noise helped to improve the sleep quality of patients in a noisy ICU.

Expert tip: Listen to white noise on a low volume and consider setting a timer if you only need it to fall asleep, not stay asleep. 

We’ve covered more about whether white noise can help you sleep here. 

3. Pink Noise

Pink noise is similar to white noise, but at a lower pitch. It sounds deeper than white noise and many people find this more relaxing. 

You can hear pink noise in ocean waves, steady rain, a waterfall, or rustling leaves. 

RISE has sound recordings of the ocean, a waterfall, and rainfall. You can choose whether your chosen sound plays all night or turns off after 15, 30, 60, 90, or 120 minutes. 

The science: A 2012 study found listening to pink noise reduced brain wave complexity and helped participants get more stable sleep with fewer awakenings compared to sleeping with no noise. An older study from 1991 found pink noise played all night could increase deep sleep.  

Expert tip: While ocean waves and waterfalls provide pink noise, you can also try playing a dedicated pink noise recording on an app. This will give you a constant sound with no gaps or rises and falls in volume to help mask outside noises. 

4. Brown Noise

Brown noise, also known as red noise, is yet another constant patternless noise. It has higher energy at lower frequencies than white and pink noise, and so it sounds like a low roar. 

You can hear brown noise in heavy rain, a strong shower, or a thunderstorm. 

RISE has a Rain & Thunder sound recording. You can choose whether it plays all night or turns off after 15, 30, 60, 90, or 120 minutes. 

The science: There’s not much science behind brown noise for sleep. A 2020 study found brown noise (as well as white and pink) improved cognitive function and working memory compared to a quiet environment. 

Expert tip: Listen to brown noise on a low volume and consider setting a timer. Experiment with white and pink noise, which have more research behind them when it comes to sleep improvements. 

5. Nature Sounds

RISE app screenshot showing soothing background sounds
The RISE app has relaxing sleep sounds to listen to on a timer.

Nature sounds can consist of white, pink, or brown noise depending on the frequencies. You can drift off to the sound of raindrops, a babbling brook, chirping crickets, or a woodland soundscape. 

These sounds may help you sleep as they can promote your body’s natural relaxation state. A 2017 study found listening to natural sounds may increase parasympathetic activity, or your body’s “rest-and-digest mode,” more than listening to artificial sounds.

The RISE app has a range of nature sounds to choose from including:

  • A crackling fire
  • Ocean waves
  • A waterfall
  • Rain sounds and thunder

You can choose whether your chosen sound plays all night or turns off after 15, 30, 60, 90, or 120 minutes. 

The science: An older study from 1992 found when hospitalized patients listened to ocean sounds they reported waking up less often, falling back to sleep easier, sleeping deeper, sleeping for longer, and getting better quality sleep. A 2018 study found both nature sounds and silence improved the sleep quality of hospitalized patients. 

Expert tip: Experiment with different nature sounds. Water sounds may be relaxing to some, but may make others need the bathroom. 

6. Music 

Lullabies aren’t just for kids. Listening to calming music can help you wind down for bed. 

As well as masking sounds, your favorite songs can help you relax and provide distraction if you find yourself awake with anxious thoughts. There’s even some evidence to show it may help those with sleep disorders like insomnia. 

If you’re opting for music, remember to pick something slow and soothing. Choose a specially designed sleep music track. For example, RISE has an ambient music recording you can listen to as you fall asleep. 

The science: A 2021 meta-analysis looking at 22 studies found listening to music for sleep for at least three weeks can improve sleep quality (although there’s no set definition for sleep quality). Music didn’t improve sleep onset latency (how long it takes to fall asleep) or sleep efficiency (how long you spend actually sleeping in bed), but it may help with anxiety. A 2021 meta-analysis found sedative music can help older adults get better quality sleep.

Expert tip: Choose a playlist made for sleep or curate calming songs yourself. You don’t want your favorite rock track to come on at  2 a.m. 

7. Sleep Stories 

There’s a reason we tell kids bedtime stories to help them drift off. As an adult, you can turn to sleep stories. These are stories about relaxing — and sometimes intentionally boring — topics read in a softly spoken voice.  

One of the pros of sleep stories is that it gives you a distraction if anxious thoughts are keeping you up. 

They’re also intentionally designed for sleep. If you listen to a regular audiobook before bed, you may get hooked on the story and want to stay awake to listen to it. Or the story may be scary or exciting and leave you thinking about it long after you’ve turned it off. 

The science: Sleep stories are a relatively new sleep aid, so there’s no research on them. Anecdotally, many say sleep stories help them relax and drift off. 

Expert tip: Choose a sleep story that’s short enough to allow you to listen to the ending before you drift off, or boring enough that you don’t mind falling asleep halfway through. 

8. Meditation Soundtracks 

RISE app screenshot showing relaxation session
The RISE app can guide you through relaxation techniques for sleep.

Meditation soundtracks guide you through meditation techniques like deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation (where you tense and relax one muscle group at a time). You might listen to lower stress and anxiety and help you drift off.  

We’ve covered nine effective breathing exercises before bed here. 

The science: A 2014 study asked participants to do 20 minutes of paced breathing before bed. The results showed they fell asleep faster and woke up less often during the night. A 2020 study found diaphragmatic breathing helped hospitalized patients get better sleep.  

Expert tip: Choose a meditation track that walks you through exercises to help you relax. RISE can guide you through relaxation exercises like diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and autogenic training (where you imagine parts of your body getting warm and heavy). 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to go right to their relaxation audio guide homepage and get started.

9. ASMR

ASMR stands for autonomous sensory meridian response. Many report feeling relaxed and sleepy, and getting a tingling feeling in their scalp or down their neck when listening to ASMR recordings. 

There are many different types of ASMR sounds including:  

  • Whispering 
  • Tapping 
  • Brushing 
  • Scrunching paper 
  • Scratching 

The science: There’s not much solid science on ASMR, but anecdotally a survey of 475 people, roughly half men and half women, found 82% used ASMR to help them sleep, 70% used it to deal with stress, and a whopping 98% agreed it helped them relax. All reported to have experienced and regularly consume ASMR. A 2022 study showed ASMR lowered stress and anxiety, and improved sleep quality among university students.

Expert tip: Experiment with different types of ASMR. Some recordings involve sounds without talking, which may be less distracting than talking tracks.

10. Binaural Beats

Binaural beats involve two sounds of different sound frequencies being played into different ears at the same time. It only works through headphones, which in itself may disrupt your sleep if wearing them makes side sleeping uncomfortable.

The science: In a 2018 study, participants slept with a 3-hertz binaural beat track for one night. The binaural beats were played when they entered stage 2 sleep, or light sleep, and stopped when they entered deep sleep. Deep sleep was longer for those who had been exposed to the binaural beats than those who were sleeping without the track. While interesting, this would be almost impossible to replicate at home. 

Expert tip: Invest in headphones that are comfortable for sleeping. You can buy soft headbands with small speakers in them designed for sleeping on your side.

Do Sleep Sounds Help You Sleep?

Anecdotally, many people say listening to a certain noise helps them sleep, but why is this?

Sleep Sounds Can Mask Disruptive Noises 

Sleep sounds may help you sleep because they can mask noise. This is called auditory masking. When you’ve got a white noise machine playing, for example, you’re less likely to be aroused by “peak noises” like a siren outside or your partner’s snoring, which might otherwise keep you up.

One study asked healthy participants to sleep with a recorded ICU noise with and without white noise. Listening to the white noise helped mask the ICU noise, meaning participants woke up less often during the night. The study concluded white noise helped as it reduced the difference between background noise and peak noise. 

Sleep Sounds Can Help You Relax 

Anxiety and ruminating (endless worrying) can easily keep you up at night. And it can feel harder to relax when you’re listening to noises outside your home or an empty silence. 

Relaxing sounds like rainfall or a softly spoken sleep story can therefore reduce anxiety and provide a distraction to help you drift off. 

One study looked at patients in the ICU and found white noise improved their sleep quality. The researchers stated this could be due to both auditory masking and the fact it promoted relaxation. 

Sleep sounds can also become part of your bedtime routine and act as a cue for sleep. Your brain may associate switching on a white noise machine or a recording of ocean waves with winding down for bed.

The Problems with the Science 

While there are some promising studies, there’s a lack of scientific evidence behind sleep sounds. 

For example, a 2021 systematic review looked at 38 studies on white noise and sleep and concluded: “Conventional wisdom contends that continuous noise, such as so-called “white noise machines”, may improve sleep. After systematically reviewing published scientific literature, we conclude that the quality of evidence supporting this assertion is very low.” 

And in research outside of this review, studies are often small, short in duration, done on people in hospitals, or rely on self-reported data, which can be inaccurate. It’s also impossible to blind studies on sleep sounds as participants know if they’re falling asleep listening to a certain sound or not. 

Many people turn to sleep sounds if they have sleep problems like insomnia, but there’s simply not enough evidence to say whether it can help or not yet. 

There May Be Some Dangers 

Because there’s a lack of research into listening to sounds as you sleep, we don’t know for sure if it can cause harm. 

Research shows long-term exposure to traffic noise at night can change your sleep architecture, or how your body moves through the sleep stages. You may get less deep sleep and less rapid-eye-movement sleep (REM sleep). But it’s not clear whether exposure to other types of noise at night — like relaxing nature sounds — could have the same effects. 

One study did find high-intensity white noise has been shown to reduce REM sleep. Low-intensity noise may be safer, we just don’t know yet.

And research suggests white noise at night may be damaging to those with tinnitus, so speak to your healthcare provider if you want to use sleep sounds to mask ringing in your ears. 

You may also develop a psychological dependence on the sound and find when you try to sleep in silence, you get anxious about not being able to sleep, and this anxiety keeps you up. We cover why you can't fall asleep without background noise here or without the TV on here and how to swap in more sleep-promoting substitutes.

The Final Verdict 

Should you use soothing sounds to drift off or not? We say there’s not enough evidence showing it’s beneficial, but we do know traffic or ICU noise at night can be harmful and disruptive. And losing out on sleep does a number on your energy levels, health, and overall well-being. 

So, if you can’t get silence, sleep sounds like white noise or calming music may be beneficial for you. And if anxiety keeps you up, the best sleep sound would be anything that helps you relax, drift off, and get a better night’s sleep.

For a sleep doctor’s take on the matter, we asked our sleep advisor and medical reviewer, Dr. Chester Wu for his opinion. 

“There’s some promising research into sounds like white noise, pink noise, and music for sleep, but there’s not enough evidence to recommend anything wholeheartedly. My advice is to aim for silence and experiment with sleep sounds if silence isn’t possible for you.” Rise Science Medical Reviewer Dr. Chester Wu

Keeping sleep debt low should be your top priority. Sleep debt is the running total of how much sleep you owe your body. It’s compared against your sleep need, the genetically determined amount of sleep you need each night. 

If you’re trying sleep sounds for the first time, keep an eye on your sleep debt to make sure it doesn’t creep up if new noises are disrupting your sleep. You can also see if listening to sleep sounds helps you keep your sleep debt lower than when you try to sleep without them. 

You can use the RISE app to find out your individual sleep need and how much sleep debt you have. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to view their sleep need and here to view their sleep debt.

How to Use Sleep Sounds to Sleep?

If you do decide to use sleep sounds to sleep, here’s some advice to get the most out of them: 

  • Use a timer: We don’t know if listening to sounds all night could be harmful. If you need sounds to drift off, use a sound machine or sleep app with a timer so you’re only listening to it for an hour or so, instead of all night. 
  • Set it to a low volume: Reduce the chances of hearing damage by listening to sleep sounds at as low a volume as you can to mask outside noises. Noises above 47 decibels may make auditory masking ineffective and disturb sleep. If you need it loud to mask disruptive noises, try using earplugs as well. 
  • Buy a sound machine that doesn’t emit light: You don’t want blue light keeping you up. We’ve covered more on what color light is best for sleep here. 
  • Experiment to find what works for you: Try all of the sleep sounds we covered above to see which one helps you fall and stay asleep. 
  • Improve your sleep hygiene: Fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer with good sleep hygiene. This will help you rely on sleep sounds less. More on what to do below.

How to Fall and Stay Asleep Without Sleep Sounds?

RISE app screenshot showing when to limit caffeine intake
The RISE app can tell you when to do 20+ sleep hygiene habits.

Whether it’s a noisy neighbor or intrusive thoughts, different sounds may help you get more restful sleep. But there is another way you can improve your sleep: improving your overall sleep hygiene. 

The good news about sleep hygiene is there’s a lot more evidence behind it than sleep sounds and no downsides. 

Here’s what to do: 

  • Get bright light first thing: Light in the morning resets your sleep-wake cycle, so you’ll feel sleepy come bedtime. Aim to get at least 10 minutes of sunlight as soon as possible after waking up and 15 to 20 minutes if it's overcast or you’re getting light through a window. 
  • Avoid light close to bedtime: Light suppresses melatonin production and keeps you up at night. Dim the lights and put on blue-light blocking glasses about 90 minutes before bed (we recommend these). You may want to avoid screens before bed. We’ve covered more on how screen time affects sleep here.
  • Avoid caffeine, large meals, intense exercise, and alcohol too late in the day: All four can keep you up or wake you up during the night. Check RISE for when to avoid each one daily.
  • Do a calming bedtime routine: Turning on sleep sounds could be a part of this, but you can also try reading, journaling, or doing yoga. A wind-down routine will help ease anxious thoughts and it can be a cue for your body to slow down for sleep. RISE can walk you through science-backed relaxation techniques for sleep, which you can do as part of your routine. 
  • Keep your bedroom dark, cool, and quiet: Beyond noise, light and temperature make a difference to your sleep. Aim for 65 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit and use blackout curtains and an eye mask. You can also wear earplugs, even if you’re listening to sleep sounds, to stop peak noises from being as disruptive. Try to keep your sleep environment below 35 decibels, which is about the sound of a whisper. 

It may sound (get it) like a lot to remember, but RISE can remind you when to do 20+ sleep hygiene habits daily to make it easier to get a good night’s rest. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications.

If you have trouble sleeping because of anxious thoughts, we’ve covered more advice on how to sleep with anxiety here and breathing exercises before bed here.

Drift off Peacefully  

Sleep sounds are popular, but there’s not a lot of evidence backing them up. The best sound for sleep may well be silence, but we know that’s not always easy to get. Wear earplugs and try insulating your bedroom with heavy curtains and carpet. 

If, however, anxious thoughts keep you up or noise wakes you up in the night, you might be better off using sleep sounds to make sure you can keep your sleep debt low. 

Experiment to find a sleep noise that helps you relax and masks any disturbing noises. Try white noise, relaxing music, or sleep stories. 

And remember to maintain excellent sleep hygiene to make falling and staying asleep easier. The RISE app can guide you through 20+ sleep hygiene behaviors each day to make getting a good night’s sleep easier, no matter the sounds you listen to. 

FAQs

Best sleep sounds for adults

There’s not enough research to say the best sleep sounds for adults. Silence seems to be best, but sounds like white noise, nature sounds, and calming music can help you fall asleep and mask disturbing sounds, helping you stay asleep.

Sounds that put you to sleep instantly

There’s not enough research to say which sounds can put you to sleep instantly. Silence may be best, but this can allow environmental noises or anxious thoughts to keep you up. Experiment with white noise, pink noise, nature sounds, and calming music to fall asleep. And improve your overall sleep hygiene to fall asleep faster.

What color noise is best for sleep?

There’s not enough research to say which color noise is best for sleep. White noise has been shown to help people fall asleep in noisy environments like cities and hospitals. Pink noise may help you stay asleep through the night and get deeper sleep. Brown noise is also said to be relaxing and helpful when falling asleep.

What color noise is best for anxiety?

There’s not enough research to say which color noise is best for anxiety. White, pink, and brown noise are all said to be relaxing and may help reduce anxiety.

Why do I need noise to sleep?

You may need noise to sleep if you live in a noisy environment, like a city or apartment building. Noise like a white noise machine, nature sounds, or music can help to mask disturbing noises from traffic or neighbors. You may also need noise to sleep if you get anxious thoughts before bed and need a distraction to help you fall asleep.

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