Secret to the perfect wake-up sound, and scientists think they’ve figured it out

(ORDO NEWS) — With a return to office work where it’s no longer possible to jump out of bed and head straight to a Zoom meeting, many of us will be waking up early to catch up with the hustle and bustle of the morning. Therefore, it is important that the alarm clock is on top.

But what type of alarm clock is most effective when you wake up? Pythagoras asked this question around 500 BC. He believed that certain songs energy-awakening melodies were able to counteract the drowsiness that awakening can cause.

And it looks like he was right. Studies have shown that certain alarm sounds can actually increase our alertness upon waking up.

In particular, alarm clocks that have a “tuneful” quality have melodies that energize the listener and are great for effective wake-up calls. But to understand why this is happening, we first need to understand how our brains respond to complex stimuli when we wake up from sleep.

Proper awakening is important

You never want to wake up feeling sleepy. And how we wake up can affect not only our mood and outlook for the day, but also our cognition and mental performance.

In some cases, drowsiness after waking up can be dangerous hours later, as it reduces the effectiveness of important decision-making (for example, in medical settings, emergency response, security, or driving a car).

This cognitive state of lowered vigilance is called “sleep inertia”. It is a growing concern as it can have serious consequences when performing high-risk tasks, including driving.

How does the brain wake up?

The transition from sleep to wakefulness does not follow the principle of a switch, as shown by brain imaging techniques. Awakening depends on complex biological processes, including increased blood flow to the brain.

Research shows that areas of the brain that are important for wakefulness (the prefrontal cortex) take longer to fire up than other areas (such as the basal ganglia) that are important for arousal. This means that you may be alert, but not quite conscious.

Studies have also shown that after waking up, blood flow activity in the brain is reduced compared to before sleep. Thus, being awake may in part require mechanisms to redistribute blood flow in the brain, which certain types of sounds and music can do.

Another factor that influences alertness upon awakening is the stage of sleep at that moment. When you wake up from a light sleep, you are less likely to feel alert than after a deeper slow-wave or REM sleep.

The stage of light sleep is characterized by the frequency of theta waves (by the electrical activity of the brain) and may be associated with a feeling of sleepiness. In this stage of sleep, arousal from external stimuli, such as an alarm, can quickly wake a person from sleep.

In contrast, deep sleep or slow-wave sleep consists of delta waves, which are associated with loss of consciousness. This is a more difficult stage of sleep for full awakening.

The effectiveness of the alarm clock also depends on age. Young people between the ages of 18 and 25 need louder alarms than older people, and teenagers need an even higher threshold than young adults. At 18, you may need an alarm 20 decibels louder than at 80.

Is the frequency and melody of the sound important?

But when it comes to choosing an alarm clock, what exactly is the best choice? A growing body of evidence suggests that different alarm sounds can have a positive effect on a person’s performance after waking up.

Our systematic review, published in 2020, found that temporal frequencies (pitch measured in hertz) around 500 Hz are better at awakening young children than 2000+ Hz varieties.

We don’t have enough research to say if this also applies to adults, but the same types of alarms are expected to be helpful.

Voice notifications, such as a person yelling “wake up!”, work better than higher frequencies. However, they are not as effective as 500 Hz tones, like those found on most mobile phones.

Our study also examined how the qualities of music, in particular melodies, play a role in inducing wakefulness. We found that how people interpret the “tune” of their alarm clocks also reflects how sleepy they feel after waking up.

So, people who use alarm clocks with a melody that they willingly hum experience less drowsiness than those who use a standard “beeping” alarm clock.

Based on this, we developed a customized rhythmic melody, which significantly improved the performance after waking up and after sleep compared to the standard sound signal.

Other studies have also shown that popular music (which can be interpreted as melodic) is good at countering sleep inertia after a short nap, and even better if the music is personally liked by the listener.

What can I do to improve my waking anxiety?
What does all this mean for everyday life? Given all of the above, we believe that the ideal alarm clock should sound something like this:

– it has a melody that you can easily hum or sing along with it

– the dominant frequency is around 500 Hz, or in the key of C5 and

– it’s neither too fast nor too slow (100-120 beats per minute is ideal).

You should also remember that for young people (or for especially sound sleepers), the alarm signal should be louder.

Considering the default alarm clocks found on our devices, much more work is needed here, especially since research in this area is relatively recent. Consequently, we suspect that the availability of downloadable custom alarms will increase over time.

Most pre-loaded alarm clocks at the right volume will wake you up, but special designs (like the one above) have been modeled on the latest research to not only stimulate arousal, but increase alertness.


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