Do you remember what you heard before you fell asleep last night? Was it a game of Candy Crush, a Spotify playlist or a movie from a streaming service? None of those comforting sounds existed 10 or 20 years ago. The sounds that accompanied sleep a decade ago and earlier were very different. Much like how children don't recognize the sound of a dial-up modem or a world without rising temperatures, improvements to technology have made a symphony’s worth of once-common sleep sounds unknown to people today. In the name of nostalgia, here are seven sounds whose days of lulling millions to sleep are now in the past.
Broadcast Sign-Off Messages
Odd as it seems now, TV and radio used to stop. The stations would do their best to ease you out of the broadcast day with their sign off messages. Often, they’d have a pastor calmly deliver a godly message called a sermonette, before playing the national anthem over patriotic or pastoral imagery. Then, they’d say who owned the station and wish viewers a good night before withholding that sweet, sweet TV fix for a couple of hours, as too few people were watching to justify the expense of airing content. That changed with the rise of late night infomercials in the 1990s, which actually made television stations money.
Why They Sent People to Sleep: After TVs signed off, people simply had fewer distractions to keep them to bed. And the message, which often followed the wrap-up of the day’s events, triggered a Pavlovian response that indicated it was time for bed or at least begin a wind down routine.
TVs weren’t always smart. They once flat out stupid. Like a deranged village idiot, they would burble meaningless noise and incomprehensible imagery in the absence of explicit instructions. Analog televisions once emitted an angular hum like the constant cresting of an electronic wave. The sound was a point of fascination for pop culture—think Carol Ann squatting by the set in “Poltergeist”—but digital broadcasting replaced analog snow clouds with clear screens of blue. Luckily, static enthusiasts can turn to YouTube for their TV static fix.
Why They Sent People to Sleep: White noise is a scientifically-approved way of drowning out slamming doors and screaming people on the street outside to help you sleep better. TV static is different from the soothing version of White Noise, as it’s not a consistent sound. Still, the electromagnetic freakout was like the television was saying “shush.” Many naps were the result of fuzzy reception.
Today’s movie streaming services immediately load after the credits roll. With DVDs and Blu Rays, the end of the movie triggered a return to the DVD menu, which was usually a short loop of scenes and sounds from the feature. Hearing Donkey saying repeat "Oooh, oooh, pick me! Pick me!” on the Shrek DVD menu is Spanish Inquisition level torture after 30 minutes. Well-reviewed adult movies don’t fare much better, either, as the Kroll Show illustrated when their “Rich Dicks” jolted awake to the disc menu of “Drive.”
Why They Sent People to Sleep: It didn’t. If the late night movie was the distraction used to help people asleep, then the endless menu loop was the haunting sound they woke up to. The big question was: do you fall asleep again or get up and turn off the DVD? In our experience, it was often the latter.
Last Songs on Album
In the ’70s and ’80s, hundreds of heads hit pillows to the fadeouts of “Purple Rain,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “Eclipse” and “Gold Dust Woman.” They were slow rising epics, perfect for launching off to dreamland. Then CDs came, and the ability to shuffle through songs came with them, killing the core concept of an album closer. Today, subscription music services have sleep timers or potentially string together songs forever (or at least until the power cuts out.) And it plays them without the need to spray discs with Windex to stop them from skipping.
Why They Sent People to Sleep: Well, it was mostly the pot that sent people to sleep. But listening to an entire album was the fade-out many needed to drift off into a hazy rest.
It’s far easier now to reach out and touch someone late at night. Hell you don’t even need words. Whether it’s an emergency, a booty call or both, you can seamlessly text, snap or send an emoji-only message that definitely involves the aubergine. Back in the day, you spoke to people over the phone and if that person were on the line, you were presented with a repeated electronic tone. In some cases, the two-note blur of d sharp and b natural would play for hours. What kinds of sex dreams that musical sequence spawned in the heads of the teenagers who passed out, we don’t want to know.
Why They Sent People to Sleep: Sleep was more a byproduct of being put on hold. The busy signal was simply the tone that led people there.
Groaning Air Conditioners
In the ’80s, air conditioners buzzed and spewed with a volume rivaling Slayer’s “Seasons in the Abyss.” Strange as it seems, many summertime sleepers were lulled to sleep by the noise produced climate controllers. Unfortunately for people who depended on a hard rocking air conditioner sound to sleep, today’s machines operate with volumes and temperaments that’s less thrash metal, more Bon Iver. As This Old House magazine noted, improvements to fan-blade shape and compressors have quieted modern central air systems to as little as 0.05 percent of the noise of their predecessors. Technological changes have improved window units as well, dropping the volume down to the level of an overheard conversation.
Why They Sent People to Sleep: The hum of an AC is similar to white noise in that it provides a consistent tone that not only blocks out other loud sounds but provides a point on which people can focus.
Late Night Radio Stories
In the ‘30s, it must have seemed like magic. When midnight struck, you pressed a button on a box and people miles away would act out you a story. Shows like “Lights Out” dropped at midnight and offered macabre tales to chill listeners lying alone in the dark. Dull chimes ring out from the radio under a warning that those needing to avoid tension and excitement should turn the radio off. By the time host Arch Oboler introduced the night’s story, you were already involuntarily pull the sheets over your head. There are scary podcasts available to download in the dead of night, but they can’t match the eerie thrill of live radio.
Why They Sent People to Sleep: They didn’t. Imagine being on an isolated prairie somewhere, with little contact with the outside world and a life that revolves around your day-to-day farming tasks. Then out of a crackling radio comes an eerie story involving monsters or calculating femme fatales. You wouldn’t sleep well, either.