The Magic of Sound Healing
Updated: Jan 20, 2019
“Sound is the force of creation, the true whole. Music then, becomes the voice of the great cosmic oneness and therefor the optimal way to reach this final state of healing”
— Hazrat Inayat Khan
Yesterday, I was invited into a church in Edinburgh, Scotland, to experience a sound bath. For those unfamiliar, a sound bath uses instruments such as singing bowls to create a healing soundscape meant to bring balance into your body and mind.
I was first introduced to sound healing in Spain in 2011, where I had a singing bowl massage during a teacher training I was assisting. That's a whole other story, but long story short I didn't sleep for two days afterwards until I went for a swim and the water neutralized the vibrations.
Singing bowls are magic all on their own, each one connected to a different chakra, each chakra connected to a different planet. Each experience I've had with sound healing has been profound, and if you are able to go, I highly recommend this experience!
If you are interested in learning more about sound healing or the basics of human energy from an academic perspective, i've shared a paper I wrote below. Its a bit dense, but if you skip to the end there are several resources I would highly recommend reading if you are interested in learning more about sound healing or the energetics of being human ❤
There are many sensory elements that make up a space. Generally speaking, when describing our immediate environment, our first thoughts travel to shapes, colours, textures, and what we see with our eyes. We are used to describing, analyzing, and criticizing our visual environment, and have developed extensive language surrounding this art. Sound, on the other hand, is almost an afterthought, even if there is a repetitive or unpleasant sound. More often than not, the soundscape forms the backdrop of how we experience our environment with our other senses (Ackerman, 1990).
Schafer describes our tendency to favour sight as a means for gathering information in his book, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. “In the West the ear gave way to the eye as the most important gatherer of information” (Schafer, 1977). This is in contrast to cultures of mysticism and tribalism where sound and hearing were of the utmost importance. Schafer describes how vital and respected the ability to listen was in communicating with the divine, in Zoroastrian religion and sufism. He argues that it wasn’t until the renaissance that god was even a visual concept, previously it was a concept understood primarily through sound and vibration. Randall McClellan also describes the divine origins of sound, in the form of music. In his studies of world culture, he found that all cultures had created some form of music. He also found that most had legends to describe how music was formed. None of the legends attributed the discovery of music to humans, all attributed this gift to the divine in some form (McClellan, 2000). Schafer implies a deeper dimension to sound in quoting Wagner, who states “To the eye appeals the outer man, the inner to the ear.” (Schafer, 1977)
Regardless of whether we choose to engage in active listening to our sonic environment, sound is something that is constantly affecting us mentally and physically. Our ears, unlike our eyes, do not have a lid or something that we can close them off with (Schafer, 1977). Sound is constantly entering into our ears, it is only aural perception in the brain that shifts to either actively interpret or place to the wayside these sounds. Our ears are even active when we sleep. Most if not all of us have the shared experience of having an ambient sound incorporate itself into a dream, before waking to discover that the sound is in fact being heard by the ears.
The reality that sound is constantly affecting us, whether we are conscious of it or not, has become a topic of scholarly interest only in relatively recent history. While sound in the context of music and speech has been an important part human culture since the beginning of social organization, the reality of our modern soundscapes is a concern that was brought to the surface by researchers such as Schafer in The Tuning of the World, which was written in 1977. In The Tuning of the World, Schafer not only attempts to define the “soundscape,” but also goes into depth into the importance its applications in design, and its effects on human health.
Schafer refers to soundscape as “any acoustic field of study. We may speak of a musical composition as a soundscape, or a radio program as a soundscape, or an acoustic environment as a soundscape” (Schafer, 1977). He also states that “We can isolate an acoustic environment as a field of study just as we can study the characteristics of a given landscape.” Despite the fact that the concept of soundscape has been criticized by authors such as Kelman, Sterne, and Ingold, who highlight the importance of continually reworking the concept of soundscape, the term still serves as an adequate means of referring to our acoustic environment. In the context of this paper, the soundscape is used as a workable term in which to study an acoustic environments effect on the human body.
As the field of sound studies grows and develops, there is an increasing amount of research that examines our evolving soundscapes and their effects on human health. Human health is another concept that is constantly changing and being re-evaluated. Health was defined in 1948 by the World Health Organization as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” (Huber, 2011). Although in modern times, this definition has been criticized for aspects such as “complete” which are seen as too absolute, this definition has not been modified by the WHO and is still considered to be the international definition of health.
Using the WHO definition of health as a guide, this paper will examine the physical, mental, and social effects of the soundscape on human health. It will then see how the traditional cultures, the medical system and beyond, are using sounds effect on the body in a positive way that benefits human health.
The Modern Soundscape
The modern soundscape is one that is highly criticized by most who study sound. Schafer, in The Tuning of the World, stated “The soundscape of the world is changing. Modern man is beginning to inhabit a world radically different from any he has hitherto known. These sounds, which differ in quality and intensity from those of the past, have alerted many researchers to the dangers of an indiscriminate and imperialistic spread of more and larger sounds into every corner of man's life.” (Schafer, 1977).
This shift in soundscape is largely attributable to the industrial revolution, when masses of previously rural dwellers moved into cities in search of work. People in their own nature are loud, and bringing them together with noisy machinery was a recipe for a chaotic soundscape full of both human and non-human sounds. Despite advances in technology since the industrial revolution, cities still provide a diverse and increasingly noisy soundscape. Whether it be blaring sirens, hissing busses, or the hammers of construction workers - it is challenging to find a space in the city without the mechanical humming of a fan or ringing of a cell phone. In 2014, the UN reported that 54 percent of the world's population lived in urban areas, with number expected to increase to 66 percent by 2050 (The United Nations, 2014). With cities providing a place to live for a large percentage of the earth's population, the quality of life and opportunities that they provide for all components of health is an important topic of conversation.
While cities are known mostly for their economic opportunities, the reality is that they also serve as a place for people to live, socialize, and pursue their dreams. The environment that cities provide for this to happen is an important aspect of urban planning, which is a field that, like scholarly sound studies, is relatively new. With the mass urbanization of the planet, however, both urban planning and sound studies are important aspects of healthy living.
Within the fields of both urban planning and sound studies, noise pollution is a term thats significance is increasing as rapidly as urbanization. Noise is defined by Stansfeld and Matheson as “unwanted sound, perceived as an environmental stressor and nuisance.” In Noise pollution: non-auditory effects on human health, Stansfeld and Matheson highlight that beyond the more obvious auditory, hearing loss effects of noise pollution, there are also links between noise pollution and sleep disturbance, overall performance, and cardiovascular disease (Stansfeld and Matheson, 2003).
A Deeper Look: How Sound Affects the Body
Physically, how sound waves enter into the ear are referred to as the physiology of hearing. Despite the focus of western medicine on the ear as the primary interpreter of sound, the dynamic nature of sound waves means that although we cannot see them or may not be able to feel them, they also have effects on parts of the body other than the ear. There is also the psychological effects of listening. What we hear is processed by the cells of the ear and transmitted to through the nervous system to the brain. How these sounds are interpreted by the brain and the biological actions that occur as a result of interpreting sound is referred to as psychoacoustics (Plack, 2005). How sound affects the body is clearly quite a multidimensional process, but can subdivided into these two concepts, the physiology of sound in how it affects the ear and the body, and the psychology or psychoacoustics of sound, and how sound is interpreted the brain and how that affects the body.
Within the field of soundscape studies, much of the discourse on the physiology of sound and psychoacoustics has been focused on the negative effects of sound on the body, especially in the city in the form of noise pollution. While this is a valid and growing concern due to urbanization and global population growth, sound also has the ability to have very positive effects on the human body. Both modern and ancient medicines have found ways to incorporate sound into promoting health and healing within the human body. In the middle ages, sound was seen as so embedded in overall health, that those who studied medicine were required by law to have an appreciation for music (Conrad, 2010). With the current distress that the soundscape of the city is placing on the body and mind through noise pollution, sonic healing has the potential to bring balance back to bodies that are plagued by the noisiness of the modern soundscape.
The Physiology of Sound Healing
Sound healing is estimated to have been around for 82,000 years, making it the oldest continuous musical tradition (McClellan, 2000). In An Overview of Sound Healing Practices: Implications for the Profession of Music Therapy, Barbara Crowe and Mary Shovel discuss the emerging field of sound healing, as it is beginning to be more researched and understood by western scholarship. In this article, they define sound healing as “the direct impact of physical, acoustical vibrations on bodily structures, physiological functioning, and neural activity. The sound is the stimulus used to heal created by the presence and interaction of various forms of mechanical energy” (Crowe & Shovel, 1996). Crowe and Shovel focus on the physiological effect of sound vibrations on the human body, even going so far as to state that “According to the sound healing literature, in many of the sound healing techniques, how the patient experiences the sound emotionally or socially is not important. True cognitive perception of the sound - assigning meaning to the sensory input, is not always involved. The direct physical impact of the vibration itself is the vehicle for treatment.”
Crowe and Chovel discuss that in order for this to be fully understood, the body as an energetic system, as understood by eastern philosophies of Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, is an important concept. In Chinese medicine, the energetic system is used to treat disease in the body by means of the meridian system. In Ayurveda, the nadi and chakra systems are believed to correspond to various organ and glandular systems. When you compare the nadi system with the meridian system, there are many similarities that would lead one to believe that they are different ways of describing the same phenomena. In both the meridian system and the nadi system, the system of channels is similar to the nervous and circulatory systems, except more subtle. Sound is used for healing in various capacities within both of these traditions, primarily though through chanting, but also through the external application of sound through specific instruments. In both Ayurveda and Chinese medicine, chanting certain sounds is said to positively affect certain organ and glandular systems (Crowe & Chovel, 1996).
In relatively modern times, researchers such as Yale anatomist Harold Burr have been able to measure the energy fields surrounding the human body. Burr was able to use these measurements to isolate certain patterns of behaviour within the electromagnetic field of humans, and also within other living organisms such as trees (Crowe & Chovel, 1996). The more recent work of Paul Rosch uses gas discharge radiation to photograph the presence of an aura surrounding a person (Rosch, 2009). Dr. Björn Nordenström, in a 1986 Discover Magazine story, compared the significance electrical flow of energy within the body to that of the circulatory system, stating that there is an “unknown universe of electrical activity that's the very foundation of the healing process and is as critical to well being as the flow of blood.” (Rosch, 2009). In his article, Nordenström compares the Chinese medicine concepts of yin and yang, to positive and negative ion charges within the body. Rosch states that Nordenström’s works “reinforce an emerging paradigm of communication at a physical/atomic level that emphasizes the connectedness not only among the body's components but also between the organism and all of nature.”
Randall McLellan describes the significance and complexity of the energetic systems of the body in relationship to sound, in his book The Healing Forces of Music: History, Theory, and Practice. In it, he states, “The body consists of a large number of interlocking and interdependent vibrational systems of various frequencies and densities. The substance of the body is a virtual symphony of frequencies, sounds, and biological, mental and emotional rhythms in a state of continuous flow which seek to achieve and maintain the state of perfect balance and equilibrium.” (McLellan, 2000). This implies that the human body itself is a soundscape, with its own acoustic environment. Just as a soundscape in its traditional environmental sense can be modified, sound healing implies that our internal soundscape can also be tuned and adjusted to support optimal health.
In order to further understand how sound impacts the energetic system of the human body, McLellan presents several sound studies terms that are useful in describing this phenomena of sound healing. Two that are of significant importance in sound healing are frequency and resonance. Frequency refers to the rate of vibration of a sound. Resonance refers to “the ability of a substance, such as wood, air, metal, and living flesh, to vibrate sympathetically to a frequency imposed from another source” (McClellan, 2000). Unlike sight, which is limited by light, sound is able to travel through substances including the human body, especially through the frequency and resonance.
One example of the bodies frequency and resonance interacting with the external world is through the use of tuning forks as a diagnostic tool. While tuning forks were originally created by a musician to tune orchestras, they are now used diagnostically in both alternative and western medicine. In both cases, how the tuning fork reacts after being sounded and placed on an area of the body is used to find discrepancies in what is happening internally. In western medicine, tuning forks are most commonly used to find bone fractures if other imaging technology is not available or practical (Kazemi, 1999).
Frequency and resonance are further used to describe how sonic healing takes place. “The therapeutic application of frequencies is based on two principles: that sound is a vibratory energy that interacts with the vibratory energy of body structures through resonance, which is defined as the interaction of two bodies vibrating at the same frequency; and that each structure of the body has its own natural resonating frequency. Illness results when this natural frequency is altered by frequencies that are foreign to it. A change of frequency results in a change of energy; a change of energy results in a change of frequency, for they are related to each other. After determining the natural frequency of the structure in question, that frequency can be introduced to the body structure and, through resonance, cause it to return to its natural frequency.” (McClellan, 2000).
Examples of Methods of Physical Sound Healing
As mentioned, chanting is one of the ways to use sonic vibration to positively impact the human body, by means of using specific frequencies and tones to access glandular and organ systems. This sound can either be produced internally with the intention of using the sound to heal the person who is making it, or can be done by one or many people in a community to heal one or several people. The sounds that are chanted are based on the idea that specific mantras or sounds correspond to promoting certain aspects of health within a person. While this physical vibrational effects of chanting have not been extensively studied in Western Medicine, it is a very accepted form of treatment for illness and ailments in countries such as India where it is deeply embedded in the culture.
Another form of imposing sound on the body is radionics. While radionics has been largely rejected by the American medical system, it has been embraced in other countries such as England. Radionics uses oscillatory frequencies above the level of human hearing to measure the energy field of the human body, and uses discrepancies in the measurements to diagnose as treat (via soundwaves) these imbalances (McClellan, 2000). While in North America radiology is questioned as pseudoscience, in countries such as England, there are institutions such as The Radionic Association that offer professional training for its use. Recent studies by Andreadis et al have found that “The use of radio frequency ablation on metastatic or primary tumours of the liver enriches the possibilities of therapeutic treatment” (Andreadis et al, 2004).
The Psychology of Sound Healing
While the physiological effects of sound beyond hearing exist on the fringes of modern medicine, the psychological effects have been more extensively studied and documented. How the brain interprets sound, both actively and below our threshold of awareness, is of interest in sonic healing for both its direct and indirect effects. The brain is seen as the command centre for the human body, according to most western anatomy perspectives. Therefore, what is affecting the brain on a direct and subtle level, is also by default affecting the entire body.
How the brain perceives sounds as pleasant or unpleasant has corresponding biological effects on the various systems of the human body. As mentioned previously, studies on noise by Stansfeld and Matheson found that exposure to noise was connected to sleep disturbance, an overall decrease in the ability to preform everyday tasks, and cardiovascular disease (Stansfeld & Matheson, 2003). This is mostly due to sounds perceived as unpleasant as causing symptoms of stress within the body. Excessive stress is so toxic to the body, that the relaxation effect that sounds perceived as pleasant have on the body could be argument alone for the benefits of sonic healing. Some of the more positive psychological effects of sound such as relaxation have been very well studied and documented, primary through the study of music as sonic therapy.
One notable study of how sound effects on humans examined the style of music listened to and how that affected the brain. In this study, it was found that listening grunge rock music significantly increased feelings of hostility, saddness, tension, and fatique. It also significantly reduced feelings of caring, relaxation, mental clarity, and vigor. In contrast, after listening to music which the facilitators of the study deemed “designer music,” which was designed to have specific effects on the listener, there were significant increases in caring, relaxation, and mental clarity, and significant decreases in hostility, fatigue, sadness, and tension (McCraty et al, 1998). In a separate study completed by many of the same scientists, it was found that the emotional effects of music had the ability to positively or negatively affect the immune system of the listener (McCraty et al, 1996). While the process of listening and musical preference is subjective, these trends and their corresponding emotional responses are of interest to those looking to use sound to promote health.
This use of music in a more traditional healing setting, in hospitals pre, during, and post surgery, has also shown effects in reducing the stress levels of both the operating doctor and patient. This reduction of stress meant that the doctor was able to preform their work with greater ease, efficiency, and accuracy; while the patient was able to recover more quickly (Conrad, 2010). Researchers hypothesized that this increase in speed of recovery was due to the music helping to restore the disrupted homeostasis within the brain.
Sound is a sense that doesn't exist in the forefront of much of our awareness. Despite the fact that we use sound as a large part of communication, we tend to favour other senses such as sight and taste to our sense of hearing. Regardless, sound has a measurable effect on our body, from both a psychological and physical perspective. The research presented highlights the effect sound has the body, and the need for both further research into sound healing as well as acoustic design of spaces and soundscapes to enhance and promote health.
Sound healing has been a part of human culture since the beginning, and yet still much of it is unexplored or is seen as pseudoscience in the world of western medicine. While extensive research has been done on the physiology and psychology of hearing, there is still a huge opportunity for expansion into research surrounding sonic healing and more specifically physiological sonic healing. Sound healing and a more spiritual connection to sound is a practice that has deep roots is the pasts of most if not all religions and cultures. Re-establishing a connection to this ancient art form with the knowledge of how powerful sounds effect is on the human body and mind, offers the potential for a sanctuary of sound healing in the noisiness of modern day life. In a culture that is plagued by disease, soundscape design and sound healing could be the missing link to restore peace and balance to our bodies.
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