Which alarm tone is best for waking up?

Waking up on time is crucial for people’s productivity and wellbeing. Yet picking the right alarm tone can be challenging. Throughout history, alarm clocks have evolved to help rouse people from sleep. Mechanical alarm clocks appeared in 15th-century Europe to shake people from their slumber. Over the centuries, waking technologies advanced along with alarm tones. Now in the 21st century, we have a wide selection of alarms and tones. But with this variety comes the question: Which tone is actually best for waking up?

This article will examine alarm tones and sleep cycles to determine which sounds are most effective for waking people. While preferences vary between individuals, certain acoustic properties allow some tones to energize sleepers better than others.

Human Sleep Cycles

Human sleep occurs in cycles that last about 90-120 minutes each. There are two main types of sleep: non-REM (NREM) sleep and REM sleep.

NREM sleep is divided into three stages:

  • Stage 1 is light sleep, with slow eye movement and the ability to wake up easily.
  • Stage 2 is slightly deeper sleep with slowed brain waves and relaxed muscles.
  • Stages 3 is the deepest sleep stage, also called slow wave sleep, with very relaxed muscles and difficult arousal.

REM sleep features rapid eye movements, dreaming, and paralysis of voluntary muscles. Brain wave activity increases to wake-like patterns during REM sleep. REM cycles get longer through the night, with the deepest REM late in sleep (1).

NREM stages 1-3 are considered “light sleep,” while only NREM stage 3 is “deep sleep.” REM is a unique “active sleep” state. Light sleep promotes mental and physical restoration, while deep sleep restores the body and builds energy. REM sleep supports learning, memory, and mood regulation (2).

Healthy sleep consists of 4-5 full cycles of NREM and REM sleep. Getting adequate deep sleep and REM sleep is essential for daytime alertness, performance, and overall health (3).

Alarm Tones and Sleep Stages

Different alarm tones interact with our sleep cycles in various ways. We go through several sleep stages each night, cycling between light sleep, deep sleep, and REM sleep. When an alarm goes off, it typically awakens us from one of the lighter stages of sleep. However, depending on the type of tone, it may pull us out of deep sleep which can leave us feeling groggy and disoriented, a phenomenon known as sleep inertia (source).

Loud, jarring alarm tones are more effective at waking us from deep sleep. But this can be jolting and stressful on the body. Waking from deep sleep stages can cause severe sleep inertia that makes getting out of bed more difficult (source).

Gentler, gradually increasing alarm tones are less likely to pull us from deep sleep. By starting softly and slowly getting louder, they allow a more gentle transition out of lighter sleep stages. This results in less sleep inertia upon waking up (source).

The ideal alarm tone will wake you in the lightest phases of sleep. This minimizes that disconnected, groggy feeling. Tuning your alarm tone to your personal sleep cycles can help you wake up feeling more refreshed and ready to take on the day.

Loud vs Soft Tones

Research shows that louder alarm tones tend to be more effective for waking people up compared to softer tones. An alarm tone around 50-70 decibels is optimal for waking most people from sleep (Source).

Loud noises trigger a startle response that abruptly pulls people out of deep sleep. Softer tones often fail to fully arouse someone from REM sleep. One study found alarms set to 80-84 decibels were most effective for waking teens (Source).

However, extremely loud alarms over 100 decibels can be jarring and unpleasant to wake up to. The optimal volume seems to be between 50-84 decibels for effectively waking someone without being too abrasive.

High vs Low Frequency Tones

High frequency tones typically range from 2,000 to 4,000 Hz, while low frequency tones are usually below 1,000 Hz. According to https://www.soundproofcow.com/difference-high-middle-low-frequency-noise/, high-frequency tones seem sharper and more piercing to the human ear. The higher pitch can feel more jarring when you are startled awake.

Low frequency tones with their deeper, rumbling quality may be easier to sleep through. As noted in research from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), low-frequency smoke alarms were found to be more effective at waking certain groups like children, older adults, and those with hearing loss. The deeper tone seems to penetrate sleep stages better for some.

When choosing between a high or low frequency alarm, you may want to consider which type of tone seems more effective at rousing you from sleep, while also being pleasant enough to not cause too much shock or irritation.

Popular Alarm Tones

Most smartphones and alarm clocks come pre-loaded with a variety of alarm tones to choose from. Some of the most popular pre-set alarm tones include:

Radar / Beeps

The radar or beeping alarm tone is common on many devices. It starts softly and gradually increases in volume and frequency of beeps. The increasing urgency can be effective for waking heavy sleepers. However, some people find the harsh beeping unpleasant to wake up to.

Marimba / Xylophone

Marimba and xylophone tones use higher pitched, musical sounds that start softly and build. The upbeat melody is less jarring than beeping alarms. However, the gradual build up may not be enough to rouse deep sleepers.

Orchestra / Piano

Orchestra hits and piano tones like “Bright Morning” use musical instruments to provide gentle wake up calls. The pleasant chimes are not as harsh as beeping. But the constant soft volume may not be loud enough stimulation for some.

Nature Sounds

Nature sound alarms like birds chirping, ocean waves, or rainfall provide relaxing audio experiences. They avoid harsh electronic beeping. But the constant loop may not supply enough variation in volume or tempo to wake heavy sleepers.

Custom Tones and Music

Many alarm apps and devices nowadays allow users to set custom tones or music for their alarms instead of the default generic ringtones. This allows for a more personalized wake-up experience. According to an article on PCMag, you can set a favorite song as your alarm tone on both iPhones and Android devices by using certain music apps and services.

Using a more personalized tone or song may be more effective at waking someone up than a generic alarm tone. Hearing a favorite song or custom sound can help make the alarm less jarring or unpleasant. The familiarity of the sound can ease a person into waking up. Custom tones also allow people to choose sounds that are naturally energetic or uplifting to start their day on a positive note.

However, some limitations exist for customizing alarm tones on certain devices. For example, some have noted on Apple’s forums that the iPhone’s built-in Sleep/Wake Up alarm only supports default tones, not custom music imported from your library.

Overall, the ability to personalize alarm tones with custom music or sounds generally provides a better user experience than generic ringtones alone. The familiarity and personalization helps make waking up a bit more pleasant.

Gradually Increasing Tones

Some alarms slowly increase in volume or intensity over time, which can help ease people awake compared to a sudden, jarring tone. For example, on iPhone, the Sleep/Wake Up alarm in the Clock app provides sounds that gradually get louder (https://www.reddit.com/r/iphone/comments/11jzacl/gradually_increase_alarm_volume/). Android phones also offer alarms with gradually increasing volume. The idea is that a gentle start makes waking up a bit less shocking than an alarm blasting at full volume right away.

Gradually increasing alarm tones aim to wake the brain up slowly during lighter stages of sleep, in sync with the body’s natural transition process. This gradual method may lead to less grogginess upon waking compared to abrupt alarms. Overall, having options for a slowly swelling alarm sound can benefit people who want a more peaceful waking experience.

Natural Sounds

Alarms that use natural sounds like birds or water mimic a soothing natural environment. Studies have shown that waking up to nature sounds can help people feel more refreshed and energized in the morning compared to jarring beeps or buzzes (Giordana, 2022).

The sounds of flowing water, chirping birds, or gentle rainfall create a calm and peaceful alarm tone. This allows the body to slowly transition out of deep sleep instead of shocking the nervous system awake. Research has found that alarms using nature sounds help improve mood and reduce grogginess upon waking up (McFarlane, 2020).

Some examples of pleasant nature alarm tones include:

  • Ocean waves crashing
  • Birdsong
  • Crickets chirping
  • Rainfall
  • Babbling brook

The key is choosing a relaxing nature sound that is not too abrasive. The alarm tone should ease a person into wakefulness gently. This gives time for the body to gradually move through lighter stages of sleep before becoming fully alert (Giordana, 2022).


In summary, research indicates that gradually increasing alarm tones that mimic natural sounds tend to be most effective for waking people up. Lower frequency tones around 500 Hz that increase to a higher 2000 Hz over 30 seconds provide enough of a change in sound to rouse people from deep sleep cycles. The natural quality also makes these alarms less jarring or stressful first thing in the morning.

Waking up at the right time is critical for productivity and sleep health. Getting sufficient sleep ensures we have enough energy for the day ahead and allows our bodies to restore and repair. Setting an alarm optimized for gently waking us during lighter sleep stages helps us start the day feeling refreshed.

Take some time to experiment with different alarm tones and volumes to find the best fit for your own circadian rhythms. Pay attention to how you feel upon waking with different alarms. Gradual nature sounds work well for many, but custom tones personal to you like music or friendly voices can also be effective. Finding an alarm that works with your sleep patterns will make morning wake-ups easier.

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