Sound Healing— Music to Heal Mind, Body, and Soul
Imagine if you could experience deep relaxation, reset your nervous system, and heal your brain while lying comfortably on your bed or in a chair at home. And what if you could extend your longevity, protect your mind, and improve your quality of life by just opening your mouth?
Welcome to the world of sound healing and the magic made possible by music, rhythm, and sound. Our human connection with music dates back at least 42,000 years, as evidenced by flutes made of bird bone and mammoth ivory discovered in Southern Germany. Our ancestors used song, drumming, and chanting in healing rituals. And Indigenous Peoples and religions around the globe have incorporated music, singing, and chanting into their ceremonies.
While the uses of music and sound in rituals and ceremonies go back many millennia, science has been slow to discover the how and why of sound healing. Today, that may change as doctors and scientists search for non-pharmaceutical ways to improve our health and support the brain.
Given the stresses of the world, the brain benefits of sound are more needed than ever. The aftereffects of COVID, worker shortages in many industries, and economic and environmental challenges have led many to depression, burn out, and brain fog. Could music and sound help restore a sense of balance and brain functioning? The evidence suggests yes. In one Swedish study, a group of burned-out employees achieved more significant, longer-lasting results listening to a specially designed music program than a comparison group receiving the standard psychotherapy intervention.
Other studies suggest that music may stimulate neural activity among Alzheimer’s patients and older adults who learn to improvise on the piano may improve their cognitive flexibility and executive function. Singing may help improve cardiovascular health in older patients with cardiovascular disease. And music may be useful in pain control.
To expand the scientific understanding of the health benefits of sound and music, the Sound Health Initiative was launched in 2016 under the leadership of the internationally acclaimed soprano Renée Fleming and Dr. Francis Collins, then-director of the National Institute of Health (NIH). In 2019, they were awarded a $20 million NIH grant to support a clearinghouse of existing cross-disciplinary research on sound healing and new studies in the field. Given the potential applications of this data to older adults’ mental and physical health, we owe a “Bravo!” to Fleming and her colleagues.
On the trail of sound healing
My exploration of sound healing began during the pandemic when I learned about the work of the late Alfred Tomatis, a French doctor who explored the importance of what we hear on our brains, behavior, and voices. For him, sound was a “nutrient to the nervous system.” Reading about Tomatis and the field of psychoacoustics he helped found, I wondered if my non-correctable hearing loss might affect my attention and focus. I purchased a Tomatis-inspired music program online called “The Listening Program” from Advanced Brain Technologies (ABT).
To use it, I put on a headset for a short period daily and listened to classical music modified to support brain performance. The experience was enjoyable, and my coordination and focus improved within a short time. ABT’s rhythm program, called “InTime,” helped tune my internal sense of beat and balance as I listened to original percussive sounds from around the world. Even after completing the programs, I used them as go-to tools when I felt stressed.
I asked Alex Doman, founder of ABT, how their programs and other sound healing approaches compared to meditation when it came to brain support. Doman was quick to endorse the benefits of meditation but reminded me that meditation requires effort, and for those who are very stressed, any extra effort may feel like too much. Listening to sound and music, however, is relaxing, rewarding, easy to do, and may enhance our ability to meditate.
Doman further suggested that working with music and sound healing is almost always safe, unlike some pharmaceutical interventions. So even if research hasn’t yet pinpointed how sound and music affect the brain, you can experiment today and discover what works best for you.
Here are other approaches I’ve tried and recommend:
Listen to your favorite music
While using neuro-acoustically modified music like The Listening Program may have particular benefits, many of us find happiness just listening to a favorite piece of music. Studies have documented the benefits of allowing dementia patients to listen to a playlist built from their favorite tunes. When we’re feeling down, music can offer us emotional support. Perhaps we pick pieces that match our mood and give us comfort. Or maybe we choose tunes that help us shift our mood. Either way can help.
Relax with sound baths and sound ceremonies
You can search YouTube for “sound bath” recordings, offering deeply relaxing environments created with crystal and Tibetan bowls, gongs, and other instruments. Put in your earbuds, cover your eyes, and enjoy an effortless, meditation-like experience. After reading The Healing Power of Sound: Recovery from Life-Threatening Illness Using Sound, Voice, and Music by the late Dr. Mitchell Gaynor, an oncology physician, I became fascinated by how he used crystal bowls along with conventional therapies to improve outcomes for his cancer patients. Inspired by his success with the bowls, I bought one to enjoy at home.
Tune up your rhythm with drumming
Our 24-7 Internet-obsessed world can lead us far away from the natural rhythms of life. From my experience, listening to beats or drumming provides a natural tune-up and system synchronizer. Parkinson’s patients were shown to improve their gaits and motor skills by working with a metronome or drumbeat. You can enjoy the benefits of rhythm by joining a drum circle or buying a small drum and studying drumming online.
Reset your nervous system with humming
Everyone can hum, and humming has some surprising benefits. According to authors Andi and Jonathan Goldman, humming may help lower blood pressure and heart rate, increase lymphatic circulation, and release endorphins and oxytocin. I find 10 minutes of humming in the car much better for my nervous system than listening to the news!
Find joy through chanting
Spiritual groups have practiced chanting over centuries. Still, I never understood the healing benefits of chanting until I had an opportunity to join a kirtan, a session of devotional singing. After about 15 minutes of chanting, my voice melded with others in the room, and I was lifted into an experience of collective joy. Try a round of chanting online with vocalist Krishna Das or others who lead kirtan singing.
Sing your heart and lungs into better health
The benefits of singing include improved breathing and better use of respiratory muscles—and it has been helpful to people with conditions ranging from asthma to cancer. Singing may help the speaking ability of people with Parkinson’s or aphasia following a stroke. Singing is my favorite mood booster. I can’t feel stuck or cynical after singing.
Research has shown group singing can reduce stress levels and depression, regulate heart rate, release endorphins, and lower pain thresholds, among other benefits. Choral singing also increases feelings of social connection.
All the above activities are pleasurable, available at low cost or no cost, and no further away than your voice and body. They may help speed recovery, protect your brain, and increase longevity. We may not yet know precisely how music and sound healing works, but if Renée Fleming and her colleagues at the Sound Health Initiative succeed, science may start catching up soon with what people have known through the ages. Sound heals.
Sally Fox, PhD, is a life transitions and creativity coach and author of Meeting the Muse After Midlife: A Journey to Joy through Creative Expression, to be published in early 2023. Find her at www.engagingpresence.com.