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There’s a reason your alarm clock sounds awful—but it doesn’t have to

You don't need to wake up with an adrenaline rush every morning.

a person reaches for their phone to turn off the alarm in the morning Credit: Getty Images / blackCAT

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Beep. Beep. Beep. We bet you just read that in the sound of the worst alarm clock you’ve ever heard. Which, if we’re honest, is probably most of them. Alarms aren’t generally known for their charming tones transitioning you into wakefulness. We got to wondering why alarm clocks sound so bad. Turns out, there’s more to the story than just trying to ruin your morning.

When were alarm clocks invented?

a person reaches to stop their analogue alarm
Credit: Getty Images / PeopleImages

Alarms were designed to mimic bells (though they don't do it well).

The United States didn’t start mass-producing clocks until the 1830s or 1840s, according to Ken De Lucca, the director of education at the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC). The first mass-produced clock was a smaller option designed to sit on a mantel or sideboard.

Production of clocks accelerated in conjunction with the “personalization of time”—or, when time became something that was pertinent on an individual basis, say, when people had to start showing up at work at a certain time—per The Conversation. Personal clocks like pocket watches and wristwatches—even those with alarms—were popular before clock production surged. But as a cutting-edge technology, they were an expensive item only widely available to people in nobility, De Lucca says.

The snooze button wasn’t introduced until later—likely sometime in the early 1900s. Prior to its invention, alarm clocks were designed to beep intermittently, De Lucca explains. This effect would have mimicked that of a snooze button.

As for the sound, alarms were likely based on the chiming of bells, which were used in a variety of settings, including communities and religious orders, De Lucca says. At some point, someone realized the process could be mechanized, which is what led to the first alarm clocks. Unfortunately, the sound of bells wasn't all that easy to replicate, he adds.

Why do alarm clocks sound so terrible?

a digital alarm clock with a green display on a side table
Credit: Getty Images / mrsmuckers

Digital alarms use oscillators to make the tone that wakes you.

Modern alarms rely on a beeping sound that was likely intended to mimic the bells used as timekeeping signals for cities and communities. But, you might be thinking, “my alarm doesn’t really sound like a bell.” There’s a good reason for that—“[manufacturers] couldn't simulate the bell sound without a lot of extra cost and add-ons,” De Lucca says. The current tone is simply cheaper and more convenient, he explains.

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Alarm clocks generate noise to rouse you in a couple different ways. Some alarms, like old-school analog clocks use two miniature bells positioned atop the clock with a small mallet that sways between them.

Others rely on internal oscillators, according to De Lucca. “The oscillators can be built into the one master chip,” De Lucca says. “Basically, it's going to an integrated circuit that is made to oscillate. And ‘oscillate’ is just a fancy term to say turn on and off at a particular rate,” he explains. The sound is then amplified, creating the tone that wakes a person up.

Finally, there are digital alarms. These have gradually evolved to include a greater selection of sounds that can range from your typical white or pink noise to natural sounds like the tide or crickets. According to De Lucca, most rely on computer-generated sounds. Companies can use synthesizers, which is partially why they won’t sound exactly like what they're trying to replicate. “But if you listen to it, you kind of know it's the ocean, but it really is not the same.”

Do alarm clock sounds matter?

a sunrise alarm with a hand on a bedside table
Credit: Getty Images / David-Prado

If you want to wake up without an alarm tone, a clock that mimics sunrise might fill the bill.

The effects of a startling alarm clock can be unpleasant, but they’re not generally long-lived, says Mona Shattell, the chair of the Department of Nursing Systems at the University of Central Florida. “We know that a gradual or natural awakening is more pleasant because it alleviates the adrenaline rush of the ‘flight or fight’ response when jarred quickly from deep sleep to wakefulness,” she says.

If you want to skip the sound altogether, there are a handful of options. For example, Reviewed’s editor-in-chief, Dave Kender, swears by White Noise. He uses the app to generate noise throughout the night, and sets it to fade out just before he'd like to wake. It makes the experience of waking up more gentle, as he’s woken by the relative lack of noise as opposed to a beeping alarm. He does note that it's risky—so you're probably best off setting a backup alarm, especially if you're trying it out for the first time.

"A gradual or natural awakening is more pleasant because it alleviates the adrenaline rush of the ‘flight or fight’ response," Shattell says.

You can also try to make the most of your circadian rhythm to avoid alarm clocks. Instead of using an alarm to cue your mornings, try natural sunlight exposure or a sunrise alarm. (We love the Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light for its realistic simulation.) Getting sunlight in the morning will shift your circadian rhythm earlier. Sleeping in a dark room is the best practice. But if you can get away with it, consider leaving blinds cracked to allow sunlight in come morning, and let the rays gently wake you.

How can you pick a great alarm clock?

a loftie alarm lightly illuminating a side table
Credit: Reviewed / Betsey Goldwasser

Choosing an alarm with softer sounds may prove helpful.

The gold standard is to wake up naturally if your schedule and lifestyle allow for it, according to Shattell. “Most working adults and parenting persons do not get enough sleep," she says. "They go to bed too late and then have to cut short their needed, natural sleep time and must use an alarm if they want to get to work or take care of business." While oversleeping is an issue, it’s not as pronounced as not getting enough sleep, according to Shattell.

When it comes to using an alarm to jolt yourself awake: “It’s better for your body not to have adrenaline and cortisol rushing through your system if it’s not needed,” Shattell says. So, if you must use an alarm, she suggests looking for something with tones that will allow for a softer transition from sleep to wake.

If you aren’t bothered by the beeping of traditional alarms, you’ll have a broad selection. However, if those tend to wake you with a start, perhaps more subtle tones and chimes (or even just a greater selection of volumes) would prove better.

We love the Loftie alarm clock, which has numerous alarm tones. On the first morning our tester used it, she was convinced that the Loftie defined what waking up should be. The DreamCaster by Sharp is another excellent option, which carries a lower price tag that might be easier to stomach. It’s not as exquisitely equipped as the Loftie, but it isn’t as blaring as some of the others we tested, and it also has a range of volumes that will serve most well.

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