Back around 530 BC, Pythagoras, the first person in the West to declare the Earth was round, taught that music can bring the souls of men and women into harmony, calm the mind and restore the physical body to perfect health using harmonic ratios as a medicine for mental and physical diseases.
In ancient Greece, music became so widely respected for its impact on physiology that it was even used to improve the sports performances of athletes during the Olympic games. The ancient Egyptians used vowel sound chants in healing. Australian aboriginal peoples are believed to have used musical instruments for healing purposes more than 40,000 years ago. And now many forward-thinking therapists of many varieties are finding the power of certain sound frequencies to heal.
Sound is a vibratory waveform measured in cycles per second (cps, equivalent to Hertz or Hz) that varies with time (like voltage or current). The human ear can detect sounds from around 18 cps to approximately 18,000 cps, although as we get older our hearing decreases in acuity. Young children can sometimes hear above 20,000 cps, and dolphins and whales can produce and sense waveforms up to 180,000 cps.
It's important to remember that just because we don't hear something doesn't mean there isn't a sound. The entire universe is in a constant state of vibration, from the electrons moving around the nucleus of every atom to planets moving around their suns and distant galaxies moving around the galactic core. Everything is in motion and therefore making what can be perceived as sound. Pythagoras referred to this as "the music of the spheres."
But it's not just heavenly bodies that emit sound. Even the chair you're sitting on, the book you're reading, the carburetor in your car and the molecules that make up your body are in a state of vibration. In fact, each of them has a unique vibratory frequency.
The foundation of sound healing is based on the understanding that every bone, every organ of the human body, even every individual human body, has a unique signature frequency that can be manipulated and modulated by other frequencies. So if your liver is not operating at its correct frequency, for example, it can be 'tuned up' through the application of the correct sound vibration.
Jonathan Goldman, MA, an international authority on sound healing, pioneer in the field of harmonics, and director of the Sound Healers Association in Boulder, Colorado, says that when we are in "sound health," the human body is like an incredible orchestra playing the Symphony of the Self.
"But what if the second violin player loses their sheet music?" he asks. "They begin to play out of tune, out of harmony, and pretty soon the whole string section sounds off. Eventually the whole orchestra sounds off. This is a metaphor for a part of our body losing its normally healthy resonance frequency, its correct vibration. When this happens, we say it is diseased."
In the world of sound healing, there are two main methodologies: psychoacoustics and vibroacoustics. Psychoacoustics refers to sound produced from an external source that is consciously registered through our ears and our brain, such as from music, gongs, singing bowls and tones, thus affecting the entire nervous system.
Vibroacoustic therapy, as the name suggests, is primarily vibratory in nature, with sound delivered to the body in any needed location via speakers embedded in special massage tables, mattresses and reclining chairs, believed to affect the patient at a cellular and even a molecular level.
Chanting, humming and toning register in the ears and also directly vibrate the body of the person doing the chanting or toning. Goldman, who has authored a book called The Humming Effect (Healing Arts Press, 2017), says that simple humming increases oxygen in our cells, lymphatic circulation and melatonin, and lowers blood pressure and heart rate.
"If you are tense and stressed out, take a nice deep breath and hum for a couple of minutes," he says. "It's more effective than straight slow breathing. In fact they've done research that says humming and other self-created sounds improve heart rate variability better than deep breathing and singing. You also get boosted promotion of interleukin, a protein associated with platelet creation, you get increased levels of nitric oxide, which is a vasodilator that helps the body by loosening up the circulatory system, and you get the release of oxytocin, which is the trust hormone."
What medicine knows so far
Modern medicine has been tiptoeing into the arena of sound healing ever since the introduction of ultrasound—which uses sound frequencies higher than the range of human detection—to successfully break up kidney stones back in the 1980s, a process called extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL).1
Beyond its widespread use in medical imaging, such as to observe a fetus in the womb or diagnose various soft-tissue conditions, ultrasound is also currently used in mainstream medicine as a therapy for sports-related musculoskeletal conditions such as tendon injuries.2
As far as sound healing is concerned, there are studies showing effectiveness for a number of conditions. But a good deal more detailed scientific investigation needs to be done to fully understand its potential.
Music therapy has been shown to help reduce agitated behavior in elderly people with dementia while mitigating caregiver stress,3 and it can improve social communication and functional brain connectivity in children with autism.4 Music therapy has also proven useful in managing pre-operative stress before cancer surgery,5 and patients who listened to music while under general anesthesia had lower postoperative blood pressure and a calmer recovery.6
Studies show that vibroacoustics can be effective for managing pain, reducing stress and anxiety, reducing the symptoms of patients undergoing chemotherapy, improving muscle tone and increasing range of motion. It helps soothe patients prior to and after surgery as well as providing stimulation for the hearing impaired and developmentally disabled.7
Vibroacoustics has also been successfully applied to reducing swelling and pain in patients suffering from knee osteoarthritis,8 and there is some preliminary work suggesting that it might be able to treat symptoms of depression in the elderly.9
Tibetan singing bowls have proven to reduce stress, anxiety and depression as well as provide upliftment to the spirit.10 Group drumming is also effective for reducing anxiety and depression while increasing social resilience and shifting the immune system toward greater anti-inflammatory signaling.11 And by exposing mice to a unique combination of light and sound, MIT neuroscientists have shown that they can improve cognitive and memory impairments similar to those seen in Alzheimer's patients - although these results in animals do not necessarily apply to humans.12
Dr David Perez-Martinez, an integrative psychiatrist in New York City, has been a therapeutic sound practitioner for 40 years and says that he sees its healing effects in his practice every day. "Sound affects human beings and living organisms at every level of existence," he says. "It affects us physically and physiologically, emotionally, psychologically, socially and spiritually at every level. I can't claim that it cures depression or panic attacks. It's just a tool. But if you use it properly, you can get these desired effects, and my patients walk out of here differently."
Perez-Martinez says that sound affects the central nervous system, putting us into either a rest-and-relax state (activating the parasympathetic nervous system) or fight-or-flight state (activating the sympathetic nervous system).
One major player in this process is the parasympathetic vagus nerve running from the cranium through the trunk, which controls the lungs, heart and digestive tract and also modulates stress response, emotions and mood. "Sound is directly involved in the regulation of all of our viscera, mainly—though not exclusively—through the vagus nerve. Certain sounds stimulate certain emotions."
In addition to all these physical effects, Perez-Martinez maintains that sound is organizational and has design properties. "All matter is formed into the shape it assumes by the underlying vibratory field that it has," he says. As evidence, he points to the science of cymatics, the study of sound wave phenomena pioneered by Swiss medical doctor Hans Jenny, who observed that tones and sounds create intricate geometric patterns in sand, powder and other media (see box, right).
He says that when people come to him panicky, restless and fearful, with a racing pulse and rapid breathing, sound therapy is one of the only things that works. "For those patients, I could give them a pill that would calm them down. But then it would knock them out. So when I get a patient like that, I lie them down and cover their eyes from the light, and then I play very low tones. Usually they walk out of here like they're walking in the clouds."
More than just sound
David Gibson, a leading scholar and researcher in the field of sound healing and the founder and director of the Globe Institute in San Francisco, says that one of the most important aspects is to introduce stable, consistent frequencies to the body, as opposed to the chaotic vibrations created by negative emotions, such as fear and anxiety, anger and stress.
"If you look at a waveform of vocalizations made under stress, it looks very chaotic," he says. "Fortunately, there's a basic law of physics that says strong coherent vibrational signals will overcome a weaker vibration and then entrain the weaker into the stronger. So what we're doing with sound healing, mostly, is changing the chaotic vibrations and overcoming them by introducing coherent, stable vibrations, which are mostly produced by such things as crystal bowls, tuning forks or Tibetan bowls."
Gibson says it's not just the frequency of the tone that needs to be considered, but rather a "hierarchy of vibration" that is far more complex. Other things to consider are the timbre of the tone, intensity, pitch and harmonic structures. Timbre, for example, is the character or quality of a sound. "When I'm talking about the frequency of anger, I'm not really just talking about frequency. I'm talking about the timbre, the tonality of it, that's chaotic."
As simple tones progress to music, there are chordal relationships between two tones and their timbres, as well as rhythms and melodies over time, and thus a whole tapestry of tonal characteristics in musical intervals, which creates varying emotional effects. The last, most subtle effect, he says, is the energy of intention with which the tone is created.
Without a doubt, sound healing is an incredibly diverse and nuanced field with many promising applications for improving health and wellbeing. And yet, so far science has barely scratched the surface in terms of understanding how sound affects the body.
Sharry Edwards, M.Ed., director of Sound Health Research Institute, Inc., in Albany, Ohio, has developed a method of conducting spectral analysis of the human voice. Spectral analysis is the electronic analysis of related frequencies, which there are many of in every human voice, as well as various qualitative timbres that make each human voice unique.
Spectral analysis uses mathematical equations to break down and precisely describe voice patterns into a mathematical language that can be "read,"and Edwards claims that such an analysis can reveal abnormal or missing vibrations in the body indicating disease, which can be normalized by the presentation of the missing sound frequencies. Her work suggests just how subtle a vibratory dance is going on within the human body.
Edwards has found that different people respond differently to the same sounds. "I have yet to discover a universal sound that is beneficial to everyone," she says. "Not only that, people respond differently to sounds depending on their geographical location." She also claims that these fundamental vibrational relationships dictate such things as the behaviors guiding complex chemical interactions in the body.
Mainstream medical science has a long way to go to catch up to all the possibilities that sound healing offers. But slowly, more and more doctors are coming around. As Perez-Martinez puts it, sound vibrations have worked where other medicine has failed. "Sound turned my medical practice into a healing practice."
Where sound and human cells meet
Living cells have been proven to interact not just on a chemical basis, but to also actively generate, emit and be affected by a wide range of electromagnetic signals.1 Cells communicate over a broad spectral range, from low-frequency radio waves up into the visible light segment of the electromagnetic spectrum, and there are many theories as to how cells actually go about this electromagnetic communication.2
Up until recently, it was never thought possible that sound waves and electromagnetic waves could interact, because they are very different in nature. Nor had it been considered possible that sound could impact cellular function and communication.
Sound is a so-called 'mechanical wave,' conducted through some sort of tangible medium like air or water. Electromagnetic waves, on the other hand, are a form of energy transmitted as oscillating electric and magnetic fields, and they do not need any sort of medium to carry them. This is why, for example, electromagnetic waves can travel through the vacuum of outer space, but sound waves cannot.
However, researchers at the Ohio State University recently demonstrated for the first time that sound waves actually do interact with external magnetic fields.3
And perhaps, from a purely mechanical perspective, it makes perfect sense that sound frequencies affect cellular structures. Water accounts for more than 70 percent of total cell mass. As early as 1680, English natural philosopher and architect Robert Hooke was demonstrating the effects of sound on various materials.
Hans Jenny, a Swiss medical doctor, built upon this research, dubbing the study of visible sound and vibration 'cymatics.' Alexander Lauterwasser, a German researcher and photographer, has applied Jenny's work to water, demonstrating the various patterns and wave forms it takes on when sound is introduced.
L.L., a 57-year-old woman from Phoenix, Arizona, suffered from brain fog, fatigue, migraines, chronic vertigo and chronic pain, with symptoms lasting for over two years. "I thought I was dying," she says. "I went to every doctor under the sun including naturopaths. I had blood work done, MRIs, allergy tests. I have a folder full of appointments."
A qualified yoga instructor and professional pilot, she ended up diagnosed with fibromyalgia, vestibular migraines and aerotoxic poisoning from airplane fuel. She couldn't walk, drive, read or even watch television.
"I knew that something was out of harmony in my body. It just came to me one night that vibration is everything." She began to research sound and vibrational healing and quickly started doing work with chanting. That same week she found a gong therapist right next door. "Friends helped me to walk over there, and that was it. When I heard the gong, I just knew intuitively that it was going to heal me."
It took a couple of weeks of working with the gongs, playing them for hours every day, before she noticed her daily migraines weren't occurring as often. "I still couldn't walk well," she says. "I sat on a chair and played gongs every day for two years."
Today she is completely out of pain, has no vertigo and only rarely has a migraine. Her balance continues to get better every day. She plays gongs for classes, workshops, and events all over the US and Europe and is building her own Sound Sanctuary in Scottsdale, Arizona.
"Sophie" is a 26-year-old woman from New York City who suffers from anxiety and depression. A patient of Dr David Perez-Martinez, she says that when he initially introduced her to the idea of using sound to help with her symptoms that it seemed pretty "out there." But she thought, "Why not give it a try?"
She says she has found the sound sessions to be consistently positive. "I have never had a session where I left feeling anything less than freed," she says.
"He calls it 'tuning up.' Personally, I feel it is a returning to a primal equilibrium, like deleting your browser history or restoring your computer to an earlier setting. Our brain can return, through sound healing, to a state akin to how it functioned before mental illness
She says sound healing plus her meditation practice have empowered her to manage her mental and emotional fluctuations. "Although it is not a once-and-done solution, I credit sound healing and meditation for my steadily improving mental health."
SOUND HEALING THERAPIES
There are literally dozens of different kinds of sound healing therapies currently in use. Here is a list of the most common available today.
Music can help reduce pain, improve sleep, offer relaxation and stress relief, as well as positively affect productivity and accelerate learning. Remember the Mozart effect? Classical music in particular has been shown to reduce heart rate variability and decrease stress hormone levels and blood pressure.1
This type of sound therapy involves delivering vibrational frequencies through speakers directly to the body. It is used to reduce pain and increase relaxation, among other effects.2
Neurologic music therapy (NMT)
NMT focuses specifically on the physical effects of music and rhythm on the brain's signaling pathways. NMT is used by people suffering from a wide variety of neurologic disorders including autism, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, Parkinson's disease, Down syndrome and sensory integration disorder.
The study of sound vibrations emitted by living organisms, bioacoustics as taught by Sharry Edwards, M.Ed., mainly focuses on the sounds of the human voice. She claims that voice analysis can reveal abnormal or missing vibrations indicative of disease in the human structure, which can be normalized by the presentation of the missing sound frequencies.
Singing bowl / crystal bowl therapy
This method dates back to twelfth-century Tibet or earlier and has been used to augment meditation and rituals. Studies show it is an effective intervention for reducing tension, anxiety and depression. It also has been shown to increase spiritual and emotional wellbeing.3
Music and/or tones are emitted through speakers into a deep tub of soothing water where the patient can recline, submersed up to the chin, absorbing the acoustic waves conducted by the water.
This modality combines the use of tuning forks with Oriental medicine. Tuning forks are placed on acupuncture points, supposedly activating the meridians to induce a healing and balancing response in the body. It's said to be an excellent approach for patients who are afraid of needles or too frail to tolerate them.
Metal gongs of various sizes have been used in sound meditation and vibrational therapy for calming, energizing and transformation since the Bronze Age.
Binaural beats and brainwave entrainment
Binaural beats are created when tones of different frequencies are sent to each of the two ears. The theory is that the brain then 'entrains,' or produces brainwaves, at a third frequency—the difference between the first two—which matches one of the natural brainwave frequencies associated with different behavioral states. It's claimed that this process can induce relaxation, sleep and enhanced focus. Studies have shown that entrainment is effective for improving sleep quality and reducing pain perception.4
Neurophone therapy is another type of brainwave entrainment. The device encodes sound and converts it into ultrasonic signals at 40,000 cps (40 kHz) that are said to open up brain pathways, apparently balancing the left and right hemispheres of the brain and increasing wellbeing.
Vocal sound healing
Chanting, toning and singing have been used to induce relaxation and regulate mood for thousands of years. Chanting and toning vibrate different areas of the body, and the vibrations can be directed through intention.
You don't even have to be able to carry a tune to hum. According to Jonathan Goldman, founder and director of the Sound Healers Association and author of the book The Humming Effect, humming is the simplest way to create the inner vibrations that can lead to calmness and wellbeing in the body.
Tuning fork therapy
This therapy uses calibrated metal tuning forks applied to different parts of the body to help release stress, increase energy and promote wellbeing. Tuning forks are often used on trigger points, with the aim to reduce pain and affect healing responses.