The science of healing sounds.
A few years ago in university I went through a sustained period of severe insomnia. The chronic lack of sleep eventually started to interfere with my everyday life: I couldn’t keep my attention, had problems with memorization, was constantly out of energy and was emotionally unstable. I dreaded nightfall when, tired but determined to relax, I would wait for hours for sleep to come. I usually ended up with Dumbo’s Pink Elephant–like dreams that left me as drowsy as before.
Then, at a family function, a relative gave me a CD. “Try this,” he said. “It’ll make you go to sleep in no time.” That night I skeptically propped on my headphones and pressed play. Water began to flow gently; a bird chirped here and there; a very low frequency, barely audible, pulsated underneath. Soon enough I glided into a restful sleep to these healing sounds.
It’s not a big secret that certain sounds and music enhance relaxation, just as other ones do the opposite. Music helps to set our mood: think about your workout playlist or what you put on when you want to focus, when you’re entertaining friends, when you have sex. But music and sound can do more than create ambiance. They have the power to transform, transcend and heal. In therapy work and in hospitals and hospices, music and healing sounds are used more and more. The field of music medicine has been growing steadily over the last 10 years.
Thanks to advancements in the field of neuroscience, we’re able to gain better insights into how music and healing sounds work on the brain. To understand the impact that sound can have on our mental and physical well-being, it’s important to look at what exactly sound is.
Sound is a form of energy, a vibrational force or mechanical wave that passes through a medium like air, water…and you. Yes, you.
We tend to think of sound as purely defined by its auditory quality, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Only a very limited range of frequencies, from 20 Hz – 20 kHz, is audible to the human ear.
In the case of my CD, the healing sounds of nature created a tranquil sonic environment that enabled me to relax more easily. But what actually put me to sleep was that low pulsating frequency, the one I could barely hear. There are two principles at work here called brainwave entrainment and binaural beat, and it’s less creepy than it sounds.
Your brain, even at rest and in deep sleep, is under constant electrical activity which, measured in an EEG, creates patterns ranging in frequencies between roughly 0.2 – 30+ Hz. Monitoring brainwave activity provides insight into a person’s mental state. For example, someone who is often anxious will have brainwave activity in the higher frequencies, and a monk in deep meditation in the lower ones. Most of us spend most of our time in a so-called beta wave state, in which the mind is engaged, focused and alert. In other words, we spend most of our time awake. The delta brainwave, the lowest frequency, describes the deep, dreamless sleep during which your body’s innate ability to recover and heal kicks in.
Brainwave entrainment describes the brain’s tendency to synchronize its rhythmic pattern with that of an external stimulus, either light or sound. When a binaural beat is created through playing two slightly out-of-tune frequencies into each ear, the brain will synchronize these by tuning in to the subtractive frequency. The idea to stimulate the brain into a desired state of mind is very popular in spiritual and holistic sound healing. But in music neuroscience, this is a topic of hot research as well. Neuroscientists are investigating what stimulation of specific frequencies can do to treat various neurological disorders as well as how it might benefit the aging brain.
While sound as vibration is what is mostly at play in music medicine and healing sounds, sound as music — as a cultural and emotional construction — is what music therapy operates on. The relationship between therapist and patient is key here, facilitated through both music listening and music making. A common phenomenon is the recovery of speech after brain injury through song. When the neural connection to speech processing is damaged, this information can be accessed alternatively through song, as music utilizes many different parts of the brain.
Of course, music therapy and sound medicine are used in clinical settings. But if you want to incorporate the healing power of sound into your daily life, sound healing is where to turn. Kathryn Merriam, a 27-year-old musician from Toronto, has been researching and practicing sound healing for five years now. She became attuned to the qualities of healing sounds and music during a spontaneous vocal workshop while studying at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Seeking to re-create and deepen the transformational experience, she took a class on vibrational arts and energy work where she was introduced to the sounds of the Tibetan bowl and tuning fork, two common sound healing modalities lauded for their pure sounds. Merriam describes their effects as a dreamlike state of consciousness that allows her mind to sink into deep relaxation.
“These meditative states are rare,” Merriam says, “especially in this age of technology which promotes such a fast-paced lifestyle. I believe that sound is one of the best ways to help us reach that restful place and prepare us for a life without anxiety or stress.” Just like movement-based holistic health practices such as yoga, Pilates and tai chi, healing sounds essentially promote awareness and mindfulness. Vital here is not just sound but intention. As stress and anxiety have physical manifestations that can be damaging in the long run, healing sounds are powerful in preventative care.
The existence of such diverse fields as music therapy, music medicine and healing sounds prove that music and sound are a matter of interdisciplinary scrutiny. A prime example for their interconnectedness is the Music and Health Research Collaboratory (MaHRC), established by the University of Toronto in 2012. Under the umbrella term of sound health, the Collaboratory’s aim is to research the role of sound and music across institutions and disciplines, in all its dimensions: physical, mental, social and aesthetic.
My own experience with music and healing sounds has certainly expanded from my waking life all the way to the unconscious, when I’m sound asleep thanks to some binaural beats.