You know what’s challenging? Waking up every day at the crack of dawn, getting up to get ready for your 9-to-5, dropping your children off at school or going to university. Whatever the reason you’re waking up early, it can be a difficult task, even if you’ve been doing it for years. As children, many of us were awakened by the loving words of our caregivers, which certainly changes in adulthood when we rely mostly on our phones to wake us up in the morning.
The sound you wake up to in the morning — which might be a very loud, horn-like alarm sound or a more soothing option, like the sound of birds singing — can really set you up for a peaceful (or not so peaceful) experience.
There are quite a few options for alarm sounds already in your phone’s ringtone library, whether you use an iOS or Android phone, plus the option of downloading apps with even more choices. It’s also possible to set your favorite song as your morning alarm sound of choice. Between all of those great (and not-so-great) options, which one is the best? Which one makes for an effective and great waking-up experience?
No matter the sound you choose, the first step for waking up feeling great and well-rested is, of course, a good night’s sleep, said Sydney Aten, a neuroscientist specializing in circadian rhythms, sleep and astrocytes at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and a research fellow in neurology in the division of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School.
“Adults, on average, need about 7 to 9 hours of sleep at night, and that varies from person to person,” Aten said. According to her, the number of hours of sleep you need depends on a few factors, and genes play a considerable role. “There are certain mutations in genes that can cause you to be a longer or shorter sleeper,” she explained.
Your environment, socioeconomic status and life stage are other key factors that determine whether you get a good night of sleep or not (for example, whether you’re a parent or a caregiver to children or older people).
“It’s a privilege to be able to sleep the number of hours your body needs,” Aten said. “Other people don’t have that. The environment plays a huge role, where you’re living, where you’re sleeping; light exposure is big, as well.”
It can also be dependent on health, both physical and mental. “If you’re sick, you’re likely to sleep longer. If you might be feeling depressed, that can also increase or decrease sleep duration,” Aten said.
In other words, you can only wake up well if you slept well. But it’s also possible to sleep well and wake up feeling stressed because of a terrible, distressing alarm sound. So which one is the best?
One small study published in 2020 by researchers at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology suggests that neutral (non-melodic) sounds can increase the length of time you experience morning grogginess, meaning that the wrong alarm sound could make you feel sleepy well into your day.
Would it be the same for me?
“Waking up to loud sounds can add more stress to your day and increase your heart rate, so maybe that’s not optimal.”
I tried, during the course of three weeks from Monday to Friday, a variety of alarm sounds, which I classified into three categories. The first includes very loud horn-like sounds, such as “Alarm” in the iPhone ringtone library, and is apparently designed for everyone who’d like to wake up on a jumpscare every day. The second includes Apple’s default alarm, “Radar,” and Samsung’s “Morning Flower,” which are not as loud as the previous one, but still high-pitched and repetitive. The third category was all about melodic and calming sounds such as iPhone’s “Harp.”
Very Loud Alarm Sounds
I started this experiment by setting up “Alarm” as my designated sound to wake up to. For five consecutive days, I woke up, always at the same time, to this traumatizing sound. On day one, I was already under the impression that there was no worse sound to wake up to, and by day five, I was convinced of it. I’d wake up feeling scared and would reach quickly for my phone so that the alarm wouldn’t wake up my next-door neighbors, too.
As soon as “Alarm” went off, my heart would start racing and I’d wake up in a panic, which according to Aten can add stress to the day and might not be the best choice for a peaceful morning.
“Those really strong alarm sounds can be quite stressful to the body,” she said. “Getting up out of this laying position is already stressful enough, and waking up to loud sounds can add more stress to your day and increase your heart rate, so maybe that’s not optimal.”
Even if you’ve had an incredible night of sleep, you can still wake up feeling stressed and grumpy just because of your alarm sound — which, in my experience, is what happened when I tried Apple’s “Alarm.”
‘Neutral’ Alarm Sounds
For the next phase of my experiment, I tried the infamous “Radar,” Apple’s default alarm, which didn’t make me feel as scared while waking up as “Alarm,“ but still got my heart racing and gave me a feeling of uneasiness.
Aten said that these types of alarms can do the trick and will wake up even heavy sleepers (I took this to mean there’s really no reason to go through the disturbing experience that is “Alarm”).
“For most individuals, it should be able to get you up, even if you’re in that deeper stage of sleep,” she said. “If you can’t get up to that alarm, maybe you should reconsider your bedtime habits in order to get better, more efficient sleep.”
Aten also explained the concept of sleep inertia, which can be useful to help you understand the best possible alarm sound for you. Defining it as “that grogginess that you feel after waking up,” she noted it can last from seconds to minutes, “even up to an hour in certain individuals.”
It’s basically that moment when you’re awake, but not really. For me, I’ve realized that it lasts for about 5-10 minutes.
Why is it relevant for choosing the best possible alarm sound? Well, the aforementioned study from researchers in Melbourne reported that different types of alarm sounds can increase or decrease a person’s period of sleep inertia. The study involved 50 anonymous participants who responded to a questionnaire about their favorite sounds to wake up to. In a surprise to the researchers, non-melodic sounds were found to increase sleep inertia.
“If you don’t wake properly, your work performance can be degraded for periods up to four hours, and that has been linked to major accidents,” said the study’s lead author, Stuart McFarlane, in a statement. “You would assume that a startling ‘beep beep beep’ alarm would improve alertness, but our data revealed that melodic alarms may be the key element. This was unexpected.”
For this reason, I realized that “Radar” isn’t the alarm sound for me, either. Not only did it scare me when it rang out in the morning, but it wasn’t a pleasant sound to wake up to and made me feel sleepier for longer — i.e., increased my sleep inertia period.
Relaxing And Melodic Alarm Sounds
On week 3, I set up the sound “Birds,” available in the sleep section of Apple’s Health app, which is already downloaded on iOS devices. During this week, I had a much better experience waking up in the morning. “Birds” didn’t scare or disturb me as much as the previous two alarms did. It was a huge improvement, and I woke up feeling more relaxed every day.
However, I’m not a morning person, even though I’m up very early during the week, so I still wasn’t completely set on this alarm sound. I’d hear birds singing happily in my garden and get triggered, thinking it sounded just like my morning alarm. I might have developed an aversion to the sound of birds during this experiment.
This realization brought me to the next option available to all of us in this journey: setting up you favorite song as an alarm sound. For me, it’s “Fearless” by Taylor Swift. However, I was scared I’d start to hate one of my favorite songs if I set it up as my alarm, so I quickly changed my ringtone because I refuse to create an aversion to Taylor Swift, OK? It’s clearly possible to relate feelings to sounds, and I didn’t want to have a Pavlovian negative response to Taylor Swift like some people have to the Slack notification.
So what did I do? I decided that the best option was to exclude sounds altogether from my sleep inertia period. I set my phone to vibrate when my alarm went off, and 5-10 minutes later, which is how long my sleep inertia usually lasts, to use the “Harp” sound. That way, I get a few moments to understand that I’ll be waking up soon, but without lots of disturbance, and then a relaxing sound to let me know that, yes, now it’s time to get up.
To figure out your own best possible alarm sound, it’s important to understand your period of morning grogginess. How long does it last? Pay attention to what point in the morning you start to feel more alert after waking up.
It might be helpful to opt for a melodic sound, such as the sound of a harp or even your favorite song (one of the Melbourne researchers suggested the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” or The Cure’s “Close to Me” as good melodic options). Or you can use the sound of your phone vibrating; however, if you’re a heavy sleeper, be careful as it might be too subtle and you’ll end up oversleeping.
Understanding the different stages of sleep also helps. There’s light sleep, deep sleep, and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.
“If your alarm goes off when you’re in those deeper stages of sleep, it’s harder to wake up,” Aten said.
How can you fix that? There are apps, such as Sleep Cycle, that will wake you up during your period of lighter sleep. If you need to wake up by 6:30, for example, the app will choose a period between 6:00 and 6:30 when you’re in your lightest sleep stage (depending on the time that you went to bed), making it easier to wake up.
There’s no single, universal answer on what’s the best alarm sound for everyone. It depends on your lifestyle, how well you sleep, and how groggy you tend to feel in the mornings. But the advice I can certainly give to anyone after my experiment is stay away from “Alarm,” and everything else can work out.