What Is Sound Therapy?
From drumming circles to gong baths, sound therapy techniques elicit profound emotional and physiological responses.
Sound vibrations carry information from the external world to our inner realm, connecting our minds and bodies with the wider environment.
As the frequency of these vibrations changes, so do our own physical and mental processes, all of which makes sound a uniquely potent tool for healing.
Sound therapy therefore involves the targeted use of sound to bring about shifts in consciousness and improvements in wellbeing. The practice itself is broadly defined and includes a wide range of techniques and treatments – from gong baths to music therapy – all of which have the power to alleviate stress, release trauma and bring about life-changing insights.
Sound for Healing: The World’s Oldest Therapy
Recent studies using brain-imaging technology have begun to shed light on the neurological mechanisms behind music’s ability to alter our emotions, yet humans have always had an innate comprehension of the power of sound.
Archaeological evidence dating back to the Mesolithic period suggests that ancient hunter gatherers took part in ‘cave raves’, using drums and rattles to create rhythmic soundscapes that sent participants into a collective trance, facilitating tribal bonding and group cohesion.
Several millennia later, Ancient Greek physicians routinely used musical instruments to create restorative vibrations with which they sought to cure their patients’ physical, mental and spiritual woes. Revered philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, meanwhile, eulogised about the power of sound and music to bring emotions into balance.
Yet despite our undeniable connection to sound, the use of sound therapy per se began to decline with the rise of allopathic medicine and the staunchly materialist culture of modernity. Fortunately, this has begun to change in the last few years, thanks in part to the rediscovery of psychedelic therapy and the role that music has been shown to play in shaping healing outcomes.
According to several recent studies, sound and music are capable of triggering peak experiences and altered states of consciousness, even in the absence of psychedelics.
Separate research has shown that the antidepressant effects of psilocybin are in fact potentiated by music, which has the capacity to make or break the efficacy of psychedelic therapy sessions.
Such discoveries are not new, but do serve to place ancient indigenous knowledge and practices within a framework that is accessible to the modern medical establishment.
For thousands of years, shamanic healers have used sound to guide their patients through visionary states of consciousness and lead them towards transformative outcomes. From the icaros of Amazonian ayahuasqueros to the Bwiti harp music of West African iboga ceremonies, sound has always held the space for psychedelic healing rituals and is now being rediscovered as a therapeutic tool in the West.
The Power Of Sound Therapy
We may not all be therapists, but we all use sound to change the way we feel.
From listening to energising music during a workout to letting our worries drift away with the sound of the ocean, we instinctively turn to sonic vibrations when we need to change gears physically and emotionally.
This impulse is written into our brainstem, the most evolutionarily ancient component of the human brain. Noradrenergic neurons originating in this fundamental structure regulate the autonomic nervous system, bringing about involuntary changes in heart rate, respiration and blood pressure in response to external stimuli. Sound signals, for instance, are interpreted by the brainstem as either threatening or soothing, resulting in drastic physiological responses.
Studies on preterm infants with breathing difficulties have revealed that relaxing sounds help to regulate respiratory rhythms while also lowering heart rate, illustrating the intrinsic response of the brainstem to sound frequencies. As we get older, this so-called ‘reptilian brain’ continues to associate gentle sounds with the protective vocalisations of our parents, lulling our entire being into a calm, peaceful state.
Conversely, stimulating noises signal the need for action, triggering the brainstem to bring us into a state of arousal and heightened alertness. In essence, then, sound therapy plays upon our most basic unconscious processes, tapping into a direct line to our control room and generating immediate shifts in our embodied experience of reality.
How Sound Therapy Works
Sound therapy has consistently been shown to bring about a range of positive outcomes.
A global study conducted by the British Academy of Sound Therapy, for instance, revealed that 81.8 percent of participants relied on music to increase their happiness levels while 46.5 percent used therapeutic sounds to help them process difficult emotions. Overall, 89 percent said that music played an important role in their health and wellbeing.
Such catharsis occurs as the end product of a cascade of neurological and hormonal processes, which can vary depending on the type of sound therapy employed. Binaural beats, for example, are created by playing a different tone in each ear in order to entrain participants’ brainwaves to a particular frequency. Listening to binaural beats within the delta or theta frequency bands has been shown to reduce anxiety and increase quality of life scores.
Sound baths, meanwhile, use instruments like gongs and Tibetan singing bowls to immerse participants in a full-body listening experience. Studies have shown that this form of sound therapy reduces stress, prevents occupational burnout and boosts mental health.
Similarly, various forms of music therapy can be employed to alleviate stress and anxiety. Unlike the aforementioned techniques, this branch of sound therapy involves complete musical compositions rather than deconstructed sound in its elemental form, and elicits a range of complex brain responses.
For instance, music exerts significant influence over the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which coordinates the body’s response to stress by regulating the production of cortisol – otherwise known as the stress hormone. Listening to relaxing music reduces HPA activation, resulting in measurable decreases in stress levels.
At the same time, listening to music triggers the release of dopamine within the brain’s reward circuit, leading to the activation of emotional processing centres such as the orbitofrontal cortex. The pleasure we get from music therefore has a uniquely sentimental quality, which is why therapists regularly use melodic sound as a catalyst for emotional release.
The Sound-Mind-Body Connection
The link between emotional stress and biological functioning is well established, and there is now a growing interest in the physical health benefits of sound therapy.
Though more studies are needed to determine the efficacy of sonic interventions for particular ailments, the mere enjoyment of music has been associated with reductions in inflammation and other positive immune system adaptations.
Listening to music also lowers the need for opiate drugs in postoperative patients, suggesting that sound therapy may stimulate the release of endorphins and other endogenous painkillers.
An avalanche of recent studies has helped to highlight the ways in which human physiology is adapted to respond to sound, giving scientific depth to our intuitive understanding of the power of sonic vibrations. Of the five basic senses, none is more rousing than sound, which has the capacity to instantly stir our passion, alter our heart rate and provoke our intellect.
Few – if any – therapeutic tools are able to evoke such integrated mental, physical and emotional responses, which is why people have naturally relied upon sound for healing since time immemorial.