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Music from Dreams in the Compositional Process: An Online Survey

Keane Southard

MHS 590: Making New Music Now

May 8, 2020
1

According to anecdotal reports, composers’ dreams have been a source of musical ideas

for hundreds of years, yet there has been very little research done on music in dreams and none

that focuses on how composers may use music from their dreams in their compositions. Inspired

by my own experiences as a composer who has used musical ideas from his dreams in several of

his compositions, the purpose of this paper is to explore to what extent living composers hear

original music in their dreams and how this music may be used in the compositional process. To

do this, I created an online survey for composers to answer various questions about music in

dreams and how it affects their composing.

While it seems to be more prevalent in the visual arts, examples of composers from

various musical genres creating compositions from music in their dreams are not uncommon. 1 In

the rock and isicathamiya music genres, musicians Billy Joel and Joseph Shabalala claim that all

of their compositions start in dreams.2 Perhaps most famously, Paul McCartney dreamed the

music for the Beatles hit song “Yesterday,” which is one of the most popular songs of all time. 3

In classical music, Ludwig van Beethoven, Giuseppe Tartini, and Igor Stravinsky each claimed

that they had dreamed one of their musical compositions.4 Oliver Sacks mentions that Maurice

Ravel dreamed some of his best melodies and that Hector Berlioz once dreamed a symphony and

could recall nearly the entire first movement upon waking, but ultimately decided to never write

1
Deirdre Barrett, “Dreams and creative problem-solving,” Annals of the New York
Academy of Sciences 1406, no. 1 (2017): 64.
2
Barrett, “Dreams and creative problem-solving,” 65.
3
Barrett, 65. McCartney initially thought the tune must have been an old one that he
heard before, but after playing it for his friends he realized it must be original. While he later
wrote words to go with it, the initial working title of the song was “Scrambled Eggs.”
4
Barrett, 65.
2

it down and instead let it vanish from his memory. 5 Irving J. Massey writes that Anton Brucker

and Johannes Brahms each used music from their dreams in compositions, and that Richard

Wagner and both Robert and Clara Schumann reported musical dreams. 6

Previous Research on Music in Dreams

The first systematic study on music in dreams was done by psychologists at the

University of Florence in 2006. They asked 35 professional musicians and 30 non-musicians

about the contents of their dreams each day over a 30-day period. They found that “musicians’

dreams contained more than twice the recall of musical contents with respect to non-musicians’

dreams,” with 40% of the professional musicians’ dreams containing music compared to 18% of

the non-musician’s dreams, suggesting that formal knowledge of music-making increases the

probability of musical dreams.7 Furthermore, in the musicians’ group 55% of musical dreams

were factual versions of known pieces, 17% were unusual versions of known pieces, and 28%

contained unknown music, supporting the anecdotal evidence that original music can appear in

dreams and potentially be used as material by composers in their compositions. 8 Based on these

findings, the researchers hypothesized that original music may be produced in dreams by

“creating original musical surfaces from new compositions of memory items,” as a result of

5
Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. (New York, NY: Alfred A.
Knopf, Inc., 2007) 283-84.
6
Irving J. Massey, “The Musical Dream Revisited: Music and Language in Dreams,”
Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts S, no. 1 (2006): 43.
7
Valeria Uga et al., “Music in dreams,” Consciousness and Cognition 15, no. 2 (2006):
353.
8
Uga et al., “Music in dreams,” 354.
3

“being able to attach musical events on a normative structure in a meaningful and

comprehensible way,” even though this capacity has usually been conceived of as a conscious

cognitive effort.9

A decade later in 2016, researchers in Germany conducted a similar study, this time

asking participants to fill out a single questionnaire instead of daily ones. They had a total of

144 participants consisting of 52 psychology students, 32 music students, 49 choir members, and

11 others. They found that about 12% of all recalled dreams included musical topics, and while

this is significantly lower than in Uga et al.’s study, the researchers suggest the previous study

may have had bias due to their instructions included in their questionnaires, and that participants

were recruited specifically for a study on music in dreams, which may have led to self-selection

and people with more musical dreams more likely to participate in the study. 10 Of the dreams

that contained music, 52% contained known music, 28% known but altered music, and 20%

original new music.11 The researchers also looked at those who composed music in their

waking-life and found that “for those participants who stated the percentage of dreams in which

new music occurred, we found a statistical tendency for composing music in waking-life with the

percentage of new music in dreams.”12 They also found that total time of music activities during

the day was associated with a higher percentage of music dreams. 13 They conclude by

9
Uga et al., 356.
10
Lukas Vogelsang et al., “The Continuity Between Waking-Life Musical Activities and
Music Dreams,” Dreaming 26, no. 2 (2016): 134-39.
11
Vogelsang et al., “Waking-Life Musical Activities,” 134-36.
12
Vogelsang et al., 136-37.
13
Vogelsang et al., 136.
4

recommending that “one could investigate the dreams of professional composers and their

frequency of new music in dreams.”14

In 2018, a study on music and dreams was published in which 1,966 participants filled

out an online questionnaire.15 Participants were asked about the extent to which they engage

with music during their waking hours, but participants were from the general population and not

specifically music students or professional musicians. The results were that only 6% of all

remembered dreams contained music, which is similar to the numbers in the Vogelsang et al. 16

The researchers also found that the frequency of music dreams was significantly higher for those

who spend more time in musical activities when awake, which is consistent with previous

studies.17 45% of participants reported having musical dreams, although the these tended to be

fairly rare as only 3% of participants responded that 40-100% of all their dreams contained

music.18 Additionally, 43% of music dreams contained known music, 40% contained known

music with alterations, while 17% contained unknown music. In all, 29% of those with musical

dreams stated, “that they create new melodies/pieces of music within their dreams.” 19 The

researchers conclude that “dreams provide valuable inspirations for musicians.” 20

14
Vogelsang et al., 140.
15
Nina König et al., “Music in Dreams and Music in Waking: An Online Study,”
Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain 28, no. 2 (2018): 65-70.
16
König et al., “Music in Dreams,” 66.
17
König et al., 67.
18
König et al., 66.
19
König et al., 67.
20
König et al., 69.
5

The most recent study on music and dreams was published in 2019. While most of the

425 participants were psychology students, 187 of these (44%) played music in their leisure time

and 64 of these (34% of the music-playing students) composed music during their waking life. 21

Participants were asked to keep a dream diary for fourteen consecutive days in addition to filling

out a questionnaire about their musical activities in waking life. Overall, 8% of remembered

dreams contained music, and while playing an instrument during the day was significantly

associated with higher music dream frequency, composers “had significantly fewer dreams

including music at night than participants who were playing an instrument but were not

composing,” which is opposed to the findings of Vogelsang et al. 22 The researchers suggest that

“the frequency of new music dreams of professional composers might be an interesting avenue

for future research.”23

Method and Participants

The survey was created using Google Forms and distributed online via social media

groups and email lists that focus on composers or new music. A total of 180 composers

completed the survey between April 9, 2020 and April 14, 2020. While responses were

anonymous, participants had the option of leaving their name and contact information if they

were interested in the possibility of being interviewed further on the topic. A list of the survey

questions is provided in the Appendix.

21
Nina König and Michael Schredl, “Music in dreams: A diary study,” Psychology of
Music (2019): 2. doi:10.1177/0305735619854533.
22
König and Schredl, “Music in dreams,” 4-5.
23
König and Schredl, 7.
6

The participants were fairly equally distributed by composer status, with 23 amateur

composers, 40 students, 67 semi-professionals, and 50 professionals (see Figure 1). 24

Figure 1, Status of Composer Participants

How would you describe your status as


a composer? (N=180)

23, 13% Amateur


50, 28%
Student
40, 22%
Semi-professional
67, 37% Professional

Broken down by age, a plurality of participants were in the youngest age range, 18-29 years old,

and the amount of participants decreased for each subsequently higher age range (see Figure 2).

Figure 2, Age Ranges of Participants

Age (in years) (N=180)


8, 4% 18-29

23, 13% 1, 1% 30-39

1, 1% 40-49
60, 33% 50-59
24, 13%
60-69
70-79
30, 17%
80+
33, 18%
Prefer not to say

24
These categories were defined in the survey in the following ways: Amateur = I don’t
earn income from composing. Semi-Professional = I earn some income from composing, but my
primary source of income comes from outside of composing or teaching composition.
Professional = Composing and/or teaching composition is the primary source of my income.
Student = I’m currently studying composition at the undergraduate or graduate level.
7

For gender, nearly three quarters of participants were male (see Figure 3).

Figure 3, Genders of Participants

Gender (N=180)

3, 2%

2, 1% 42, 23% Female


Male
Nonbinary

133, 74% Prefer not to say

Similarly, almost three quarters of participants identified their nationality as the United States

(see Figure 4).

Figure 4, Nationality of Participants: United States vs. Rest of World

Nationality (US vs. World) (N=180)


4, 2%

43, 24% United States


Rest of World
Both (Dual Citizen)
133, 74%

Breaking down nationality by continental region, just over three quarters of participants were

from North America, with the largest minority being European citizens (see Figure 5).
8

Figure 5, Nationality of Participants by Continental Region

Nationality (By Continental Region) (N=180)


1, 1%

8, 5% 2, 1% North America
6, 3% 2, 1%
Europe
2, 1%
Latin America
22, 12%

Asia

Oceania

137, 76%
Africa

North America and Europe (Dual


Citizen)

In terms of education level, 90% of participants held or were currently working on a degree in

higher education (see Figure 6).

Figure 6, Highest (or current) Education Level of Participants

Highest (or current) Education Level


(N=180)
3, 2%

15, 8% High School or GED

1, 1% Some college credit, no degree


58, 32%
Associate Degree
41, 23%
Bachelor's degree
Master's degree
62, 34% Doctoral degree
9

Finally, the vast majority of participants (78%) identified as White/Caucasian, while Asian and

Hispanic/Latino were the largest minorities with 7% each. Additionally, 7% preferred not to

share their race/ethnicity (see Figure 7).

Figure 7, Race/Ethnicity of Participants (Total equals more than 180 because some chose

multiple answers)

Race/Ethnicity (N=180)

140

12 6 12 3 1 12 1 2

Results

The vast majority (80%) of participants report that they have had dreams with music in

them (see Figure 8). This seems to support the finding by Vogelsang et al. and König et al. that

more time spent in musical activities during waking is associated with more music dreams.

(While this survey did not ask about how much time participants spend in music activities while

awake, as all participants are composers it is reasonable to assume that they spend more time in

musical activities than most people.)


10

Figure 8, “Do you ever hear music in your dreams while asleep?”

Do you ever hear music in your


dreams while asleep? (N=180)

36, 20%
Yes
No
144, 80%

For most of the participants who hear music in their dreams, this is a fairly rare occurrence, with

60% saying they have musical dreams a few times a year or less frequently. However, for some

it occurs quite frequently, with 15% saying they have musical dreams once a week or more often

(see Figure 9).

Figure 9, Frequency of Musical Dreams

FREQUENCY OF MUSICAL DREAMS (N=144)


Once a year or less A few times a year Once a month A few times a month
Once a week A few times a week Always

4, 3%
14, 10% 23, 16%

4, 3%

18, 12%

18, 12%
63, 44%
11

Additionally, for the participants who hear music in their dreams, nearly all of them (94%) report

having heard music that they couldn’t identify as having been composed before they fell asleep.

The majority of those who hear music in their dreams (64%) reported that the music in their

dreams is often or always original music (see Figure 10). While previous studies measured the

percentage of dreams with original music in them as opposed to the percentage of dreamers who

had dreams with original music at difference frequency levels, this study seems to suggest that

composers may hear original music in their dreams at a higher rate than others.

Figure 10, Frequency of Original Music in Musical Dreams

Considering your dreams with music in


them, how often is this original music?
(N=144)

9, 6%

Never
35, 24%
26, 18% Occasionally
Sometimes
17, 12% Often

57, 40% Always

Like other aspects of dreams, the memory of original music often fades quickly upon waking and

can be difficult to remember. While some participants reported that they always (6%) or never

(12%) are able to remember at least some of the original music from their dreams upon waking,

most participants (82%) are able to remember some of it some of the time but not others (see

Figure 11).
12

Figure 11, Frequency of Remembering at Least Some Original Dream Music

Of your dreams with original music, how


often are you able to remember at least
some of the music upon waking? (N=135)

8, 6%

16, 12%
20, 15% Never
Occasionally
Sometimes

56, 41% Often


35, 26%
Always

In order to remember original music from a dream, a majority of respondents (69%) “capture” it

in some kind of fixed form (see Figure 12). By far the most popular reason for capturing this

music is to potentially use it in a future composition, with 60% of respondents citing this as a

reason (see Figure 13; 15 participants who answered that they capture original dream music did

not give a reason for doing so.) The frequency of capturing original dream music varies, with a

plurality of respondents reporting that the occasionally capture it (40%; see Figure 14). The

most popular method of capturing is writing it by hand using traditional notation, with 62% using

that method (see Figure 15).


13

Figure 12, “When you hear original music in a dream, do you ever capture it in a fixed

form in order to remember it?”

When you hear original music in a


dream, do you ever capture it in fixed
form in order to remember it? (N=119)

37, 31%
Yes
No
82, 69%

Figure 13, “Why do you capture original music from your dreams?” (Total equals more

than 67 as some mentioned multiple reasons.)

Why do you capture original music from your


dreams? (N=67)

40

7 3 9 5 1 1 4 1 2
14

Figure 14, Frequency of Capturing Original Dream Music

How often do you capture original


dream music when you hear it? (N=82)

4, 5%

17, 21% Occasionally


33, 40% Sometimes
Often
Always
28, 34%

Figure 15, Methods of Capturing Original Dream Music (Total equals more than 82 as

some mentioned multiple methods.)

How do you capture it? Check all that apply


(N=82)

51

31
29

21

12
8

Write it by hand in Write it by hand in Write it into Record it into a Recording it into a Other
traditional notation non-traditional notation software recording device by recording device by
notation singing it playing it on an
instrument
15

At the heart of this study, we find that around half of all surveyed composers reported that they

have (38%) or may have (12%) used original dream music as material for a composition (see

Figure 16). This suggests that original dream music is a common and significant source of

usable musical materials for composers. For those who answered that they may have used

original dream music as material for a composition, the most common reason that they

responded that way was that they were unsure whether the musical material they used came from

a dream or not, which 53% of respondents cited (see Figure 17). This may reflect the difficulty

of remembering music from dreams and in perceiving the change between the intermediate half-

asleep/half-awake states that immediately precede and follow sleep.

Figure 16, “Have you ever used original music from a dream as material for a

composition?”

Have you ever used original music from a


dream as material for a composition?
(N=180)

22, 12%

69, 38% Yes


No
Maybe
89, 50%
16

Figure 17, Maybe Used Original Dream Music in Composition: Explanations

If maybe, why did you answer that way?


(N=17)
Continued piece in progress
1, 6%
2, 11% Don't remember if from dream or
1, 6%
not
2, 12% May influence pieces subconsciously

2, 12% General concept or feeling used

9, 53% May have been during half-asleep


state
Haven't used it yet

While half of participants have or may have used original dream music as material for

compositions, for most it seems to play a minor role in their pieces and their entire compositional

output. 68% of respondents say they have used original dream music in less than five of their

compositions, although for some it has been a much more significant source of musical ideas

with 8% saying they have used original dream music in 21-50 of their works (see Figure 18).

Compositions with original dream music make up a small percentage of most of these

composers’ total body of compositions, with 55% saying these compositions are just 1-5% of

their total output to date. Nevertheless, a small minority (8%) say their compositions with

original dream music make up 41% or more of their catalogue of works (see Figure 19).

Additionally, for compositions using original dream music, the proportion of the piece that is

derived from the original dream music tends to be small, with the most common answer as 1-

10% which was given by 48% of respondents. However, 5% report compositions where all or

nearly all the composition is derived from their original dream music, suggesting that
17

compositions can appear almost fully formed and complete in a dream and be fully or almost

fully remembered (see Figure 20).

Figure 18, Number of Compositions Using Original Dream Music

Approximately how many different


compositions of yours have used original
music from your dreams? (N=91)
7, 8%

6, 7%
1-2
3-4
16, 17% 40, 44%
5-10
11-20

22, 24% 21-50

Figure 19, Proportion of Works with Compositions that use Original Dream Music

Approximately what proportion of your current


total body of compositions is this? (N=91)

5, 6%
4, 4%
2, 2% 1-5%

2, 2% 6-10%

10, 11% 11-20%


21-30%
50, 55%
31-40%
18, 20% 41-50%
51-100%
18

Figure 20, Amount of Composition Derived from Original Dream Music (Total equals

more than 91 as some mentioned multiple aspects.)

In your compositions that use original music


from your dreams, approximately how much of
the composition is from or derived from the
dream music? Check all that apply. (N=91)

44

17 15 8 7 7 2 5 7 5 18

1-10% 11-20% 21-30% 31-40% 41-50% 51-60% 61-70% 71-80% 81-90% 91-100% I'm not
sure

The most common aspect of original dream music to be used in compositions is melody, used by

76% of respondents, followed by the more abstract elements of concept and general feeling or

mood, which were both cited by 64% of respondents (see Figure 21).

Figure 21, Aspects of Original Dream Music Used in Compositions (Total equals more than

91 as some mentioned multiple aspects.)

Which aspects of your original dream music have


you used as material when creating new
compositions? Check all that apply. (N=91)

69
58 58
49 45
41

21 20 5

Melody Harmony Lyrics/Text Orchestration Form Concept Rhythmimc General Other


Patterns Feeling or
Mood
19

Discussion

Beyond the above results, several interesting associations and findings from the survey

are worth mentioning. One such association was that amateur composers appear less likely to

capture original music from their dreams in order to possibly use it in future compositions.

While 11 amateurs, 12 students, 34 semi-professionals, and 25 professionals (a total of 82)

reported capturing original music from their dreams, only 18% of those amateurs (n=2) said they

capture it in order to perhaps use it in a future composition, compared to 82% of the students

(n=9), 50% of the semi-professionals (n=17), and 48% of the professionals (n=12). This

suggests that non-amateur composers may make more practical use out of the original dream

music that they find interesting. Perhaps these composers are more willing to draw on any

sources for inspiration for their compositions, and an added pressure to do so may come from

having more commissions and projects with hard deadlines, something that amateur composers

are less likely to have. This is certainly an avenue that should be explored more in future

research.

Another notable correlation is that of the 66 composers from the United States who

reported capturing original dream music, 37 did so in order to possibly use it later in a

composition (56%) compared to only 3 of the 16 composers from the rest of the world or who

are dual citizens (19%). This disparity may be due to the small sample size of the non-United

States participants, but this is worth looking into in future research.

7 of the 82 participants (9%) who reported that they capture original dream music said

that they do so because they feel this music has some kind of intrinsic value, whether spiritual,

mystical, or magical, because of the fact it came to them in a dream:

I am not really a religious person but there is something Godly about dreaming of music
-(Female, age 18-29, USA, White/Caucasian, Semi-professional, Master’s degree)
20

I feel that music from dreams is creativity conceptualized in the most spiritual form
-(Female, age 18-29, USA, White/Caucasian, Student, Some college credit but no degree)

Because I like what I am hearing and I believe it is coming to me for a reason…I feel that
the music is coming from some other time and place – or from Spirit, as if someone else
is sending the music to me through my dreamtime so that I will write it down and share it
with the world. -(Female, age 60-69, USA, White/Caucasian, Amateur, Some college
credit but no degree)

It’s an almost magical process that the brain keeps composing when one goes to sleep
-(Female, age 70-79, Canadian, White/Caucasian, Professional, Doctoral degree)

I would add myself into this group, as I feel that this music has special value, even when it later

turns out to be less interesting than it was during the dream, because it seems like a gift from

beyond that is being given to me rather than something I have created.

Interestingly, all 7 of these participants (100%) also reported having used original dream

music in their compositions before. This rate was higher than the other 75 participants who

capture original dream music where 55 have (73%), 13 haven’t (17%), and 7 said maybe (9%).

This suggests that those who view original dream music in this way may value it more, which in

turn may incline these composers to use it more in future compositions.

While Massey claims that “the music we remember when we awake from a dream does

not change quality in retrospect. It is as good or as trivial as it was in the dream itself,” evidence

from our survey suggests that this is not always the case. 25 Six participants mentioned that upon

waking they often find that the original music from their dream is not as interesting or is of

worse quality than it seemed in the dream. Indeed, I have found this to be a frequent occurrence

when I hear original dream music.

25
Massey, “Musical Dream Revisited,” 45.
21

Two of these six composers suggest that this may be due to original dream music being

less creative, that the brain relies on sounds it has heard recently and creates new music from

them without the aid of a critical “ear”:

I don’t often find, in the end, that my dreamt ideas are of particular value…I think that’s
because the dream supplies a more “uncritical” experience, where access to emotions is
quite free. Thus, there is a different ear within the dream, a perhaps more childish, more
naïve ear, that allows itself to be moved by material that the more critical, trained ear of
the composer, learns to avoid, for the sake of making things more interesting (or that
correspond to more intellectual, more thoughtful, more consciously aware of intertextual
meanings and contexts). -(Male, age 40-49, USA/French, White/Caucasian, Semi-
Professional, Doctoral degree)

An interesting thing to think about is that I've read that the brain is not very original
during sleep. Therefore, if you meet a stranger in the dream, the person is rarely ever a
stranger. The face of that person will be from someone you have met or seen recently. I
wonder what impact this has on aural elements of dreams…if the brain's reaction to
sound is the same to visuals. Will sound always be derived from something we heard
recently? I have had many times where I've dictated something in the middle of the night
only to realize it was a piece by Joe Hisaishi, Melinda Wagner, Nobuo Uematsu, or John
Harbison, for example. -(Male, age 18-29, USA, White/Caucasian, Semi-Professional,
Master’s degree)

While there may be an element of truth to these assertions, previous research suggests that the

lack of a critical “ear” in dreams actually can help solve compositional problems by thinking

“outside the box” and finding creative solutions. A study on dreams and creative problem-

solving found that:

Dreams were particularly good for finding solutions that required thinking outside the
box. This makes sense with regard to what we know about the physiology of REM sleep:
the prefrontal cortex is damped down so that we are not as quick to censor with ‘that’s
not the way to approach it’…The power of dream thinking lies in how different it is from
what the waking mind does—so when we are stuck on a problem, dreams can supply the
breakthrough.26

26
Barrett, “Dreams and creative problem-solving,” 66.
22

Indeed, in the present survey there were more participants who supported this assertion. Three

participants reported that original music from their dreams was less inhibited and perhaps more

true to themselves than the musical ideas they come up with when awake:

Composing music is a process often complicated by self doubt. Dreaming can often help
overcome thes [sic] fears. -(Female, age 70-79, Canadian, White/Caucasian,
Professional, Doctoral degree)

I usually end up humming it when I wake up. It has opened up doors to new things that I
want to try or work with -(Male, age 18-29, USA, Black/African, Student, Master’s
degree)

I think that dreams are much less inhibiting than real life, so in many respects the music
from my dreams is a little freer than what I would write while conscious. Sometimes I'm
meeting up with a composer in the past and we work on music together. -(Male, age 60-
69, USA, White/Caucasian, Semi-Professional, Master’s degree)

Similarly, 18 participants mentioned that dreams sometimes help them solve compositional

problems in works-in-progress, especially when they are experiencing writer’s block:

When I am working on a composition and find myself stuck or not knowing what should
come next, often I will dream a solution to the problem and will try to record it quickly
upon waking before the idea fades. -(Male, age 18-29, USA, White/Caucasian, Semi-
Professional, Some college credit but no degree)

Often solved a musical problem that I ponder when awake -(Female, age 70-79,
Canadian, White/Caucasian, Professional, Doctoral degree)

Sometimes the music is a "solution" to a composition problem in a piece I'm working on.
interestingly, music i conceive of in my sleep tends to be music that "solves a problem" i
am having with a piece in my wakened state. -(Male, age 70-79, USA, White/Caucasian,
Professional, Doctoral degree)

Often times, when I reach a troubling section of the piece, I will let it sit in my head right
before I go to bed. More often than not, when I take this approach, I will have dreams
where the primary subject of my dream is sheet music. Sometimes this notation will line
up with what I wrote, sometimes it is fictional. Nonetheless, my dream will be about
working on the piece. Right off hand, I can't recall if I ever heard the piece aurally in my
dream. I just remember the importance of the visual aspect. However, when I wake up, I
usually will have found a solution or an alternate route that will be more effective for the
music. This is a very unreliable method of composition, however. -(Male, age 18-29,
USA, White/Caucasian, Semi-Professional, Master’s degree)
23

Sometimes, when I am stuck on a piece and experiencing writer's block, I will have a
dream about it and that will get me past it. -(Male, age 18-29, USA, White/Caucasian,
Student, Bachelor’s degree)

Another common assertion, mentioned by 17 participants, was that original dream music

was hard to remember upon waking or that it was too complex to capture in a complete way so

that it could be replicated accurately:

It’s bloody annoying when you remember dreaming great music but can’t remember it!
-(Male, age 30-39, United Kingdom, White/Caucasian, Semi-Professional, Master’s
degree)

I get fleeting impressions, often times hearing music in its entirety, but I often Cant [sic]
fully dissect it. I'll remember the melody and basic accompaniments/orchestrational
principles, and past that I have to rely on how the music made me feel and try to recreate
that as best as possible. -(Male, age 18-29, United Kingdom, White/Caucasian, Student,
Bachelor’s degree)

I am not always able to recreate what I hear, only a small part of it. -(Male, age 60-69,
USA, White/Caucasian and Native American, Semi-Professional, Master’s degree)

Sometimes the music is just too complex to score in notation and orchestration, and I say
that as a professional orchestrator and composer. -(Male, age 50-59, USA,
White/Caucasian, Professional, Some college credit but no degree)

If I could remember more of the music in my dreams by the time I wake up, I would
incorporate that music into my compositions; I just can't remember it clearly enough
when I try to write it down. -(Female, age 30-39, USA, White/Caucasian, Amateur,
Master’s degree)

I have dreamed entirely original music in many occasions that was for a complex
ensemble and had a complexity of musical language. You know how you can imagine a
sound or melodic idea that is beyond your ear-training skills to transcribe in real-time,
but you know what you want to hear? It’s like that. I’ve never been able to use any of
this for my writing, but I have been able to at least enjoy listening to the music. I wish
you guys could hear it too. I think it’s pretty awesome. Usually orchestral mid-20th
century sounds. -(Male, age 30-39, USA, White/Caucasian, Professional, Doctoral
degree)

While most respondents wanted to be able to remember and capture more of this music, one

participant felt that the effort to capture the music was often not worth the trouble:
24

I’m usually in too apathetic a state when I wake up in the middle of the night or morning
to attempt capture, and increasingly in doubt if anything that comes in this state is worth
keeping. -(Male, age 30-39, USA, White/Caucasian, Amateur, Master’s degree)

Massey claims that, “Music is not forgotten as quickly as is the other content of dreams when

one awakes,” and while the current study has not compared remembering music to remembering

other elements of dreams, this evidence casts some doubt on Massey’s assertion. 27

Notable Outliers

While this study suggests that using original dream music in compositions is a fairly

widespread practice among composers, it remains a minor source of musical ideas for the

majority of these composers. However, for a few participants it is a much more prominent and

important part of their compositional process. For example, a male Portuguese amateur

composer in his 50s with a doctoral degree responded that he always hears music in his dreams,

it is always original, he is always able to remember at least some of it upon waking, and he

captures it occasionally by hand in non-traditional notation. He has used melodies and lyrics/text

from his dream music in 21-50 compositions, which constitutes approximately 31-40% of his

total body of works. These compositions consist of anywhere between 50-100% music derived

from his dream music. Perhaps most interestingly, he says, “It's a curse. Music in the head all

the time, asleep or awake. No rest.”

Another outlier is a female, White/Caucasian, amateur composer from the United States

in her 60s with some college education but no degree who studied classical violin as a child and

then later started playing folk music, bluegrass, and jazz while also learning the mandolin. She

responded that she hears music in her dreams a few times a week, it is often original music, she

27
Massey, “Musical Dream Revisited,” 43.
25

is always able to remember at least some of it, and that she always captures this original dream

music, “because I like what I am hearing and I believe it is coming to me for a reason,” always

writing it down by hand in traditional notation. While she hears music constantly in her mind,

she doesn’t call it a curse: “Almost all my life, I have heard music when I am dreaming, - and

actually I hear music much of my waking time during the day also. It feels like I can turn music

on and off, as I am in the mood to ‘hear it in my head.’” She has used melodies, harmonies, and

orchestration from her dream music in between 21-50 compositions which comprises 41-50% of

her total body of works. She feels strongly that there is a mystical and spiritual reason for this

music coming to her:

I feel that the music is coming from some other time and place - or from Spirit, as if
someone else is sending the music to me through my dreamtime so that I will write it
down and share it with the world…I feel that the more I open my mind and heart, the
more I hear in what feels like a "cosmic consciousness" that is all past, present, and future
blended together...I believe that composers from earlier times are still composing by
connecting and inspiring us in our dreamtime, when we are more open.

While she isn’t the only respondent who mentioned a spiritual, mystical, or magical sense to this

music (see p. 19-20 above), the pervasiveness of dream music in her output is extraordinary.

Interestingly, she reports hearing the same music over the course of several nights in different

dreams: “Sometimes, in my sleep, I have heard the same music repeated over and over, and I am

still not able to recall it the next morning. But the following night I hear the same music again in

my sleep, and I recognize it, and eventually I will write it down.”

Limitations of the Study

This survey of composers found that 80% of participants hear musical dreams, which is

considerable higher than the 45% of the general population in König et al. It also found that

94% of participants who report having musical dreams (135 of 144) have had original music in
26

them at some point, which is also much higher than the 29% found in König et al. While these

differences may be partially explained by the fact that, as previous studies have shown, those

who spend more time in musical activities while awake are more likely to have musical dreams,

and the fact that the present survey only included composers, who likely spend more time than

most people in musical activities while awake, a degree of self-selection in this study is also a

probable factor. While I encouraged composers to participate even if they had never experienced

music in their dreams, I can imagine that some potential participants saw the title of the survey—

“Music from Dreams in the Compositional Process”—and declined to participate because they

had never experienced music in their dreams before. As a result, these figures are likely higher

than the true rates of musical dreams in general and dreams with original music for the wider

population of composers.

While this study had a large gender, race/ethnicity, and nationality imbalance, with

approximately three-quarters of participants being male, three-quarters White/Caucasian, and

three-quarters North American (with a significant amount of participants fitting in more than one

of these demographics,) this is reflective of the unfortunate and still prominent demographic

imbalances in the field of music composition today. The fact that the survey was in English also

likely contributed to the imbalance of North American participants to those of other countries

and regions, and how and where it was distributed likely also contributed to these imbalances.

Another flaw with this study was the distinction between “Semi-professional” and

“Professional” composers. The survey gave a definition of “Semi-professional” as, “I earn some

income from composing, but my primary source of income comes from outside of composing or

teaching composition,” and “Professional” as, “Composing and/or teaching composition is the

primary source of my income.” However, there are composers who consider themselves fully
27

professional yet under these definitions would fall under the category of “semi-professional,”

such as university composition professors if the majority of their professional duties are actually

teaching other musical topics, such as music theory courses. Future studies should use better

definitions for these terms, no definitions, or combine both categories into one.

Conclusions and More Recommendations for Future Research

While it was not explored in this study, future research could look at whether there are

differences in how original dream music is used by composers in different genres and styles of

music. This could also be extended to comparing the musical dreams, their frequency and

content, between composers and improvisors as well.

Another avenue for future research is exploring how composers use original music that

comes not from dreams but from the hypnagogic and hypnopompic states, the half-awake/half-

asleep states that precede and follow sleep respectively. Five participants mentioned these states

as fertile grounds for original musical material to appear, and I can add that this has certainly

been true in my own experience as a composer. Sacks writes that in these states “free-floating

reverie and dreamlike or hallucinatory apparitions are particularly common. These tend to be

highly visual, kaleidoscopic, elusive, and difficult to remember—but on occasion they may take

the form of coherent musical hallucination.”28 He mentions that the orchestral introduction to

Richard Wagner’s opera Das Rheingold came to the composer while he was in a hypnagogic

state.29 Sacks feels that the prevalence of music heard in these states among musicians is not

28
Sacks, Musicophilia, 280-81.
29
Sacks, 282-83.
28

insignificant: “After speaking to a number of professional musicians about this, I find that

intensely vivid musical imagery or quasi-hallucination is not uncommon in such states.” 30 It

would be interesting to explore if there are differences between the music heard in these states

compared to the music in dreams, how composers may use this music, and whether hearing

original music in these states is as prevalent as music in dreams considering both composers and

the general population.

Although music in dreams can be difficult to remember and capture fully in a fixed form,

this study suggests that dreams are a source of musical ideas for a significant portion of

composers, and that while for most of these composers it is a minor source, there are some for

whom it plays a large and important role in their compositional process. Composers use original

dream music in various ways in their composing, such as material for compositions or for

breaking through writer’s block, and for a variety of different reasons. Ending on a personal

note, it is gratifying to learn that many other composers have had similar experiences to me

concerning the music in their dreams. I hope that this study inspires more explorations into the

mysterious experience of musical dreams, particularly for composers.

Bibliography

Barrett, Deirdre. “Dreams and creative problem-solving.” Annals of the New York Academy of
Sciences 1406, no. 1 (2017): 64-67.

König, Nina, and Michael Schredl. “Music in dreams: A diary study.” Psychology of Music
(2019): 1-9. doi:10.1177/0305735619854533.

König, Nina, Nadine Fischer, Maja Friedemann, Theresa Pfeiffer, Anja S. Göritz, and Michael
Schredl. “Music in Dreams and Music in Waking: An Online Study.” Psychomusicology:
Music, Mind, and Brain 28, no. 2 (2018): 65-70.

30
Sacks, 281.
29

Massey, Irving J. “The Musical Dream Revisited: Music and Language in Dreams.” Psychology
of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts S, no. 1 (2006): 42-50.

Sacks, Oliver. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf,
Inc., 2007.

Uga, Valeria, Maria Chiara Lemut, Chiara Zampi, Iole Zilli, and Piero Salzarulo. “Music in
dreams.” Consciousness and Cognition 15, no. 2 (2006): 351-357.

Vogelsang, Lukas, Sena Anold, Jannik Schormann, Silja Wübbelmann, and Michael Schredl.
“The Continuity Between Waking-Life Musical Activities and Music Dreams.”
Dreaming 26, no. 2 (2016): 132-141.

Appendix - Survey Questions

Do you ever hear music in your dreams while asleep? Yes/No

If so, approximately how often? Once a year or less/A few times a year/Once a month/A few
times a month/once a week/A few times a week/Always

Considering your dreams with music in them, how often is this "original music" (meaning it is
not something you recognized as having been composed before you dreamed it, whether
by yourself or someone else)? Never/Occasionally/Sometimes/Often/Always

Of the dreams you've had with original music, how often are you able to remember at least some
of the music upon waking? Never/Occasionally/Sometimes/Often/Always

When you hear original music in a dream, do you ever capture it in a fixed form in order to
remember it? Yes/No

Why do you capture original music from your dreams?

How often do you capture original dream music when you hear it?
Occasionally/Sometimes/Often/Always

How do you capture it? Check all the apply. Write it by hand in traditional notation/Write it by
hand in non-traditional notation/Write it into notation software/Record it into a
recording device by singing it/Record it into a recording device by playing it on an
instrument/Other (fill-in answer)

Have you ever used original music from a dream as material for a composition? Yes/No/Maybe

If maybe, please explain why you answered that way.


30

Approximately how many different compositions of yours have used original music from your
dreams? 1-2/3-4/5-10/11-20/21-50/50+

Approximately what proportion of your current total body of compositions is this?


1-5%/6-10%/11-20%/21-30%/31-40%/41-50%/51-100%

Which aspects of your original dream music have you used as material when creating new
compositions? Check all that apply. Melody/Harmony/Lyrics or
Text/Orchestration/Form/Concept/Rhythmic Patterns/General Feeling or Mood/Other
(fill-in answer)

In your compositions that use original music from your dreams, approximately how much of the
composition is from or derived from the dream music? (Check all that apply, as different
compositions of yours may contain different proportions.) 1-10%/11-20%/21-30%/31-
40%/41-50%/51-60%/61-70%/71-80%/81-90%/91-100%/I’m not sure

Please comment on any other ways in which music from your dreams has impacted your
compositions or compositional process.

Do you have any other comments or thoughts about music in dreams that you would like to
share?

Interest in being interviewed further? Would you be interested in being interviewed further
about how music in dreams are used in your compositional process? If so, please fill out
the contact information below. (Doing so will make your survey response not
anonymous.)

Name:

Email Address:

Phone Number (with country code, if outside the USA)

Demographics

How would you describe your status as a composer? Amateur (I don’t earn income from
composing)/Semi-Professional (I earn some income from composing, but my primary
source of income comes from outside of composing or teaching
composition.)/Professional (Composing and/or teaching composition is the primary
source of my income.)/Student (I’m currently studying composition at the undergraduate
or graduate level.)

Age (in years) 18-29/30-39/40-49/50-59/60-69/70-79/80+/Prefer not to say

Gender Female/Male/Nonbinary/Prefer not to say/Other (fill-in)


31

Nationality

Highest (or current) Education Level High School or GED/Some college credit, no degree,
Associate Degree/Bachelor’s degree/Master’s degree/Doctoral degree

Race/Ethnicity Asian/Black-African/Hispanic-Latino/Native American/Pacific Islander/White-


Caucasian/Prefer not to say/Other (fill-in)