An Insomniac’s Guide to Music

It is 3 a.m. and you’re awake. You’ve spent hours flipping pillows, you’ve been fascinated by the faint crack in the ceiling above your head and your eyes are sore. But you can’t sleep. You make attempts to coax that elusive unconsciousness, but it won’t come. This is the 3 a.m. of the insomniac; the time of opening and closing the fridge, of dreading the morning and of questioning everything. But, for me at least, it is also the time for great music.

I often find myself here, too exhausted to accomplish anything productive but still needing something to do with my unsettled energy. Listening to music provides the perfect non-activity. When you’re alone in the world of the awake, you put on a record and it’s like that is all there is. You don’t care if its long, slow or strange. You just listen.

If you do drift off to sleep, the music might even weave into your dreams. Sometimes I wake up feeling like I dreamed one of Frank Sinatra’s sad and mournful songs or that I slept to the tune of Radiohead. It’s one of the few perks of sleep deprivation.

I have found that certain music thrives when played in these quiet solitary hours. Music too inaccessible, experimental, moody, or emotional to listen to in the light of day can come alive when the sun goes down. I think there are even some songs that were written to be listened to exclusively in the middle of the night.

You don’t want to hear Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” when you’re sitting in a Panera for lunch. No, the perfect scene for music like that is a lonely insomniac standing under a single street lamp, maybe in the rain. Or just try to listen to Willie Nelson’s “Help Me Make it Though the Night” at 4 p.m.: It feels all wrong…ugh, no. No, that is a song to listen to when you’re awake and feeling sentimental far past the respectable hours of the night.

The light of day is far too harsh and positive for the dark poetic lyrics and gruff vocals of Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen. Or take the absolute quintessential piece of night music, Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” You don’t listen to that when you brush your teeth. It’s a song for feeling dark and complicated. It begs to be listened to on repeat without judgment.

And so, to my fellow insomniacs: You who are perhaps reading these words by lamplight at some ungodly hour, I have compiled a playlist of songs I’ve found perfect for the hours we are left in the limbo between night and morning. Some of the tracks are long, some are in different languages or are instrumental and some (well, many) might be considered a bit depressing. But at night none of those roadblocks matter; they are even encouraged. I don’t know if these picks are too personal to work for all the baggy-eyed night-dwellers, but I do know that they have made me wonderful company on many a long, sleepless night.

Click here for An Insomniac’s Playlist on Spotify.