The Drift

Sonata-Allegro Snooze 

Photo by Nenad Aksic/Shutterstock, with additional illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker.

Falling asleep at a concert—among the cultured classes, there are few faux pas ghastlier than this. And yet, even with the risk of devastating social opprobrium looming over the mezzanine, the symphony haunter sees it—or more often, hears it—as surely as the orchestra tunes to the oboe’s A. Somewhere in the hall, usually during a meditative largo passage or dreamy adagio movement, there erupts a series of sounds not called for in the score: a ragged snore, a rustle of fabric as an elbow meets a side, a startled intake of breath, and, finally, silence. Resisting the call of sleep in the concert hall is a rule of live performance one learns early, perhaps even before the prohibition on applause between movements. Close your eyes to better feel the music if you must—but don’t you dare fall asleep.

Here’s a confusing thing though: Swipe through the categories of your favorite curated music streaming service or browse the compilations section of your favorite album store, and you’re sure to find some variation on the category “music to help you fall asleep.” The music contained therein can be from many genres—my favorite service Songza has at least 12 stations explicitly promising rest, ranging from ethereal new age to dreamy indie to country. But when one searches for sleepy-time music, what one is most likely to encounter is a sampling of the classical repertoire, usually solo or chamber instrumental music (or low-key orchestral movements) and likely from the Romantic period. In other words, the same music that you’d be chastised for dozing off to during a concert is available for precisely that purpose when you get home.

Why does the taboo apply in one place and not the other? If it’s rude to sleep during a live piece of music—offensive to the composer and performers, unappreciative of the art itself—then why are we so comfortable with assigning a drowsing function to whole swaths of sound when we’re organizing it for everyday consumption? A lullaby by name is one thing; but if a composer has created a piece of music with the expectation that you will listen to all of it, can it be anything other than disrespectful to fall asleep—and intentionally at that—instead?

It would easy to just say no. Art is meant to be engaged with, a certain common sense goes, and you cannot properly engage if you are drooling on your pillow. Indeed, the preference in art music for wakeful listening is an old one. In the second, andante movement of his Symphony No. 94 in G Major, Joseph Haydn placed, after a quiet and stately presentation of the main theme, a sudden fortissimo chord complete with timpani. (The chord was so surprising, in fact, that it gave the piece its nickname, the “Surprise Symphony.”) Critics quickly spun a very popular anecdote out of the musical joke; namely, that Haydn intended the blast to be a rude awakening for audience members who had rudely drifted off. While Haydn later distanced himself from this explanation, sleeping patrons were indeed a nuisance in the composer’s late-18th-century milieu. As music historian Michael Steinberg writes of the “Surprise Symphony”’s 1792 premiere, “Londoners staggered from their heavy dinners—plenty of sherry before, hock and Burgundy during, and port afterward—into the cramped Hanover-Square Concert Rooms … ” That napping followed is, well, not surprising—even if it is objectionable.

But the Haydn example, however apocryphal, is still an issue of public performance, which depends on performers in front of whom it would clearly be insensitive to slumber. Does listening behind closed doors change the equation? Composer Jason Eckardt looks askance regardless of venue: “I don’t know of any composers, myself included, that wouldn’t want the full attention of the listener,” he wrote to me. “I suppose that one could be less than enthusiastic about their music making people drowsy, and perhaps the idea of streaming playlists that put listeners to sleep has more to say about the disengagement of the listeners rather than the content (or intent) of the music.”

But what about subgenres that seem designed to encourage sleep? Frédéric Chopin wrote all those lovely “nocturnes” for piano—can it really be a sin to close your eyes during a song meant to evoke the night? And then there are the so-called minimalists, folks like Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and John Luther Adams, whose expansive scores are definitely invitations to meditate. Why not dream as well?

For his part, Adams—whose 2014 Pulitzer Prize–winning “Become Ocean” recently reentered the news due to a generous nod from Taylor Swift—is open-minded. “From time to time my work has been called ‘soporific,’ ” he told me. “Although that’s probably not intended as a compliment, I’m not particularly offended by it.” Adams noted that for him music is fundamentally “a call to attention.” But he admitted that “there are many different modes of listening, and I’ve done some of my best work while sleeping.”

Allowing your resting mind to process and transform the sounds of nature—as Adams did with the Pacific while writing “Become Ocean”—is one thing. But no one composed the soundscape of the sea. Someone did, however, put a great deal of effort into those gorgeous nocturnes, minimalist unfurlings, and all the other music bedtime listeners gradually tune out as they go under. Whether you see this as a problem or not depends on your answer to a fundamental question—what, exactly, is music for? How are we meant to “use” it?

The model of use that says you should stay awake imagines music as an art object, a thing that someone has created to which we should extend the reverence of wakeful contemplation. And to be sure, Chopin meant for his nocturnes to, at the very least, function as entertainments (especially, in the 19th century, for the home musician); similarly, the minimalists mean for their drones and repetitions to stretch consciousness, not shut it down.

And yet, the notion of music as a serious art object is a relatively new phenomenon. The history of Western art music is one of the gradual progression of composition from tightly functional uses (folk dancing; the delivery of the Catholic mass) to increasingly abstract ones, like celebration atmosphere; theater, ballet, and film accompaniment; and, most strangely, a few hours of quiet listening in a special building staffed with highly trained professionals. In fact, it’s probably true that the respectful approach to music is something of an aberration in terms of use. Perhaps the rise of streaming services organized on activity and mood is really a return to the norm—a norm in which we use music to help us with something else, rather than submit ourselves to it entirely. I’m happily using a Cy Twombly piece as my iPhone background right now; should using a Beethoven sonata as nightcap really feel any different?

It’s worth being explicit here that without the advent of recording technology, this discussion wouldn’t be happening. Before the popular rise of listening devices and mass media, only the wealthiest could have afforded to have someone play them to sleep. (Or, as in the famous—though likely exaggerated—origin story of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” at the request of the insomniac Count Keyserlingk, at least have your house musician Goldberg offer a little entertainment to pass the wee hours.) The ability to cheaply reproduce and distribute music has expanded not only how we may hear it but also how we might use it.

But choosing an album of Chopin or whatever art you wish to repurpose for your own twilight hour doesn’t have the same impact as determining, from some position of curatorial authority, that an artist’s work or whole genre of music is soporific. On the one hand, there’s a danger in repetition—stations or playlists that conscript legions of art music into the service of sleep necessarily look for similar musical characteristics, and so you end up hearing the same work over and over again. The risk here is of familiarity breeding not contempt exactly but more like habituation. When you’ve heard the “Moonlight Sonata” or other music of its sort a hundred times while brushing your teeth, it’s hard to appreciate it later as a singular work of art, should such an occasion come along.

Then again, at least you’re hearing it at all. Barret Anspach, a Julliard-trained composer who writes for both classical and pop ensembles, told me that he sees such playlist-making as “potentially harmful” because while it makes great classics into comfortingly invisible background music, the need for familiarity also excludes less common pieces that could both intrigue listeners and still be used for sleep. “Why not instead include Brian Eno’s ‘Music for Airports’ or Alvin Lucier’s ‘Music on a Long Thin Wire’?” he asked. “Sure, the tried and true is a sure bet for drowsiness, but the curation of so much tried and true leaves so much other great material off the bedside table, so to speak.”

The matter of whether any particular composer really wants their music on that bedside table—whether placed there by an independent listener or a professional curator—is definitely case by case. Eckardt would rather you didn’t, and Adams is relatively agnostic, but Suzanne Farrin doesn’t mind at all. She told me that to her “sleep is so precious that any music that can assist in that endeavor deserves the highest level of respect … I think composers who would be offended [by being placed in the sleep category] would probably not like their music in any category.”

Farrin’s view of sleep as a worthy subject for music is having something of a moment. At the 2014 Salisbury International Arts Festival, a trio of artists led by the violinist Pekka Kuusisto created an hour-long musical installation piece meant to put the audience to sleep; attendees were even invited to bring their own pillows and blankets. But the most ambitious intentional “sleep music” to date is composer Max Richter’s truly remarkable 8-hour composition “Sleep.” The piece, which comprises 31 individual tracks on the recently released iTunes recording, is a gorgeous, liquid journey through various minimalist motives and textures, mainly articulated by strings, piano, organ, and voice. Richter has explained his goal simply: “What I wanted to do is to sort of provide a landscape or a place—a musical place—where people could actually fall asleep,” he told NPR in September. As with the Salisbury piece, Richter’s live performances of “Sleep” will feature bedding; but you are encouraged to sample the album version wherever you prefer to curl up.

Of course, we shouldn’t take Kuusisto and Richter’s experiments as an invitation to pass out in every concert hall we enter. But their insistence that music can be both thoughtfully made and drowsily forgotten is an argument for relaxing, at least a little, our cultural anxiety around sleeping in the presence of art, especially at home. Determining whether such a response is disrespectful requires balancing the intentions of the artist, the aesthetic demands of the work, and the ultimate freedom of the listener to use art in a variety of ways. I’m listening to Richter’s “Sleep” as I write these final sentences, and I’m totally into it—for me, most music is just too engaging to be background noise at bedtime. But I’ve also come to think that, as long as we keep in mind that nodding off is one use for a given piece of music among many, sleep is a valid option. Let’s just try not to snore—that’s rude no matter where you are.

Read more from The Drift, Slate’s pop-up blog about sleep.