Sound Healing: History, Benefits, Effectiveness

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Sound Healing: History, Benefits, Effectiveness

THC Editorial Team December 18, 2021
Shakuhachi (A Kind of Bamboo Flute) and Its Cover, 19th century, Sunayama Gosei, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (article on sound healing)
Shakuhachi (A Kind of Bamboo Flute) and Its Cover, 19th century, Sunayama Gosei, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Contents

Sound is everywhere. Whether it’s the hum of the refrigerator, honks from the traffic outside, or sounds from within like a heartbeat, sound remains constant. Sounds are vibrations, which affect the objects and bodies around them. As such, certain sounds and frequencies can promote healing in people.

What Is Sound Healing?

Sound healing is the process of using specific sound frequencies to encourage well-being. This practice encompasses both using one’s voice and listening to other voices and sounds. In sound healing therapy sessions, there are many ways to transmit the sounds to the client, including having the client use their voice alone, with other voices, or while listening to music, and having the client listen to another’s voice, an instrument, or music. This process is believed to promote a “state of harmony and health” in clients’ minds and bodies.1

History of Sound Therapy

Sound healing therapy is an ancient practice originating in Tibetan and Himalayan cultures. Sound healers use Tibetan singing bowls, metal bowls that were once used in spiritual and healing ceremonies conducted by monks in Nepal and Tibet.2 These bowls have gained some popularity in Western cultures in recent years, perhaps because their ancient healing benefits have been affirmed by modern scientific studies. Few of those used and sold today are ancient artifacts, or even originate in Tibet.3 The singing bowls produce a vibrational sound when tapped or rubbed with a wooden mallet.2

Sound healing as a scientific and medical practice in the Western world was pioneered by English osteopath Sir Peter Guy Manners in the mid-20th century. In the 1960s, his research focused on using audible voice frequency in several different treatments. He believed that his sound healing methods stimulated the human body’s natural healing abilities. He used these methods to study and treat chronic inflammation, arthritis, and bone calcification. Manners discovered over 600 healing frequencies and coordinated them to related body parts.4

In the late 20th century, Fabien Maman emerged in the sound therapy field. He was a French musician, acupuncturist, composer, and bioenergetic researcher. He wrote and performed pieces at large concert venues like Carnegie Hall as a musician and composer. In 1977, he turned to acupuncture and used his musical background to link music and sound to his new field. He discovered and shaped the use of tuning forks in sound therapy. Tuning forks are now commonly used in sound healing and can communicate vibrations to the body, DNA cells, and the magnetic field.4

In 1996, Simon Heather, an acupuncturist based in the United Kingdom, founded the UK Sound Healers Association. This group aims to promote sound healing in the UK and contributed to the 2005 founding of the College of Sound Healing. Two years after the association was founded, Heather began teaching healers and therapists to be sound healing practitioners and, in the following decades, spread his theories about the practice across the globe.5

How Does Sound Healing Therapy Work?

Sounds are made up of vibrations, which affect the world around them. Organisms have their own vibratory rates, and objects have their own resonant frequencies. When an object is struck and placed next to or touching another object, the other object will begin to vibrate too.1 These vibrations affect people as well, at even an atomic level. The right combination of sounds can organize neural activity, stimulate bodies, and retune emotions, leading to calmness and productivity.6

Certain neural regions of the brain respond to different sounds and different properties of sound. The sound vibrations travel through the ear and get transformed into nerve impulses, which are interpreted by the auditory cortex, or the hearing center of the brain, and react differently with each region. For instance, the right side of the auditory cortex interprets the pitch of the sound and some aspects of melody, harmony, timbre, and rhythm, while the left side is affected by quick changes in the frequency and intensity of the sound. The surface of the auditory cortex handles the low frequencies, and the deeper recesses near the center of the brain manage the higher frequencies.6 The association cortex or area, the part of the brain responsible for linking and coordinating motor and sensory regions, searches through memories to find a match for the sound in something it has heard before.6,7 Finally, Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, the brain’s language centers, interpret the words the sound might contain.6

Because sound vibrations profoundly affect the brain, brainwave patterns will often change to match aspects of the sound vibrations, including pitches and tone sequences. The brain mirrors the sound— when the tone sequence grows coherent and sounds like a melody, parts of the brain interact more coherently.6 Sounds that promote calm, like the Tibetan singing bowls, have been shown to affect delta brainwaves, which are associated with deep relaxation.2

Although the exact reason for the healing produced by vibrations is unknown, there are a few hypotheses:

  • Changing brainwaves: Because human brainwaves can vary based on the sound vibrations, certain sounds will cause the brain to relax. The brain can switch from producing beta waves in an agitated state to producing theta or delta waves when more relaxed.2
  • Binaural beats: When tones at different hertz levels are played in either ear, the brain often syncs to the difference between the two. For instance, if a sound were played at 300 hertz in the left ear and 305 hertz in the other, the brain would sync to five hertz. This can be measured with an EEG, but when testing this hypothesis, results have been mixed.2
  • The body’s biofield: Some researchers have proposed that there is an energy field, referred to as the biofield, surrounding the human body. In this case, the sound vibrations may interact with the biofield to create the desired effect in the person.2

Sound Healing Instruments

Many different instruments are used for sound healing. Tibetan singing bowls are still a common option, though, as noted earlier, they are usually replications.3 Usually, sound healers opt for instruments that are easy to learn and control, like tuning forks, gongs, whistles, didgeridoos, flutes, frame drums, and rain sticks. They can also use their voices in songs, mantras, chants, or laughter.1,8

Voice is one of the most potent healing instruments in sound therapy. Nearly everyone already knows how to use their voice, so it is also the most accessible. When hurt, people will often exclaim, “Ow” or “Ahh,” which serves a purpose—it helps lessen the pain. Even just humming a note, when coupled with a healing intention, can be a powerful tool toward healing.9 Thinking of oneself as the instrument can be helpful to many who attempt sound healing; every person has a unique pitch timbre, vibration, and style.10

Lo, 19th Century, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (article on sound healing)
Image: Lo, 19th Century, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Potential Benefits of Sound Healing

The practice of sound healing has been shown to have several benefits, including:

  • increased relaxation11
  • a more positive outlook11
  • a more accessible meditative state11
  • reduced or healed physical pain4
  • heightened consciousness9
  • reduced stress9
  • lessened exhaustion9
  • increased energy levels1

Effectiveness of Sound Healing

Though the field of sound healing requires more scientific research to be accepted as a mainstream practice, there is evidence that this practice is effective. For instance, researchers have found that while an individual is reciting mantras, the frontal lobes of the brain as well as the limbic system are being stimulated. As such, the “neural maps” of the brain and limbic systems are reorganized. If this practice is continued for an extended period of time, the neural maps can reorganize, leading to the “habitualization of mystical states” and overall more positive thinking. People who accomplish this will often experience theta waves, creating drowsiness, dreaming, and sleep states, and therefore be healthier and more relaxed.11

Emotional intonations, voiced sounds that convey particular emotions, can also stimulate theta waves. They can affect the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in memory and altered states of consciousness. Theta waves are also involved in kindling mechanisms, the continued exposure of cells to stimuli. Emotional intonations can influence and alter these cells in the hippocampus to generate more theta brain wave patterns and increase relaxation.11

Maman’s research in the 1980s at Jussieu University in Paris used cancer cells such as HeLa cells to test his theories about the efficacy of sound healing and tuning forks. Maman sought to show the effects that acoustic sound has on the energy fields of human cells. He discovered that, when exposed to the acoustic sounds, the cancerous cells became unstable and disintegrated or “blew up,” while healthy cells were unaffected, or in some cases, strengthened.1,9

Additionally, several case studies have shown, on an individual level, the effectiveness of sound therapy. Stephanie Hiller, a UK sound therapist trained at the UK College of Sound Healing, used sound healing to help a client, who had arthritis and old injuries in both knees and led a high-stress life. Hiller used tuning forks, Tibetan bowls, an Otto tuner (a specialized tuning fork), and a Shakuhachi (a traditional Japanese bamboo meditation flute). After this treatment, the client reported that she experienced high energy and several days with minimal knee pain and requested that sound healing be a part of her regular treatment.1

Julia Moore, a homeopath in the UK, used sound healing with her client, who had a neck injury that caused constant neck pain, pain and numbness in his arms and fingers, headaches, lack of sleep, a herniated disc, and knee pain. Moore used her voice by toning to heal the areas where she felt blockages, particularly the lumbar area. After this treatment, the client reported that he had increased capacity for movement in his neck, felt alert, experienced a reduction in the constant pain, and even found that a lump he’d had since adolescence was gone.1

Sound healing can have many physical and mental benefits for one’s health. It is a noninvasive treatment and is safe to try. Those interested in pursuing sound healing may find a practitioner through the Sound Healers Association’s Directory.

References

  1. Heather, S. (2007). What is sound healing? The International Journal of Healing and Caring, 7(3).
  2. Goldsby, T. L., & Goldsby, M. E. (2020). Eastern integrative medicine and ancient sound healing treatments for stress: Recent research advances. Integrative Medicine (Encinitas, Calif.), 19(6), 24–30.
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33488307/
  3. Brown, C. G. (2020). Tibetan singing bowls. American Religion, 1(2), 52–73.
    https://doi.org/10.2979/amerreli.1.2.03
  4. Masala, D., & Merolle, V. (2017). The tuning fork and the “soundtherapy.” Senses and Sciences, 4(2), 365–370.
    https://doi.org/10.14616/sands-2017-2-365370
  5. Heather, S. (n.d.). Simon Heather: Healer, workshop leader, author. Simon Heather. Retrieved November 30, 2021, from
    http://simonheather.co.uk/
  6. Campbell, D., & Doman, A. (2011). Healing at the speed of sound: How what we hear transforms our brains and our lives. Penguin Group.
  7. Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Association area. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved December 1, 2021, from
    https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/association%20area#medicalDictionary
  8. Beaulieu, J., & Perez-Martinez, D. (2019). Sound healing, theory, and practice. In Bakhru, A. (Ed.), Nutrition and integrative medicine: A primer for clinicians (pp. 449-469). CRC Press.
    https://doi.org/10.1201/9781315153155
  9. Goldman, J. (2008). The 7 secrets of sound healing. Hay House.
  10. Stevens, C. (2012). Music medicine: The science and spirit of healing yourself with sound. Sounds True.
  11. Singh, R. N. (1996). Self-healing: Powerful techniques. Health Psychology Associates.

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