I had a strange experience in an energy crystal shop a few years ago. I was reluctant to enter because I am extremely skeptical of all things new age, but I needed a gift for a crystal enthusiast friend of mine. I selected a pretty stone, apparently endowed with powers of protection. I brought it up to the counter. Before the shop owner completed our transaction, he dropped the stone in a low, wide bronze bowl. “To clean it,” he told me.
He struck the bowl with a wooden mallet and it made a deep, rich sound. With each reverberation I felt a tingling sensation blossom at the back of my skull and expand through my whole body. For a few hours after I felt light-headed, like my body was floating and humming. It faded gradually, like the dissolving sound of the bowl.
Later that day I researched it, wanting to recreate the experience. I discovered that what I had heard was called a singing bowl. I tried to find music or a YouTube video that would replicate the effect, and although some of the sounds I found were pleasant, I never got the same corporal sensation. Eventually I dropped the subject. Today I’m picking it back up.
Singing bowls are one of the many instruments used in an alternative therapy called sound healing — a method which uses sound wave vibrations to treat physical and mental conditions. Tuning forks, pan flutes, harps, drums, and other vibratory instruments are used to create these allegedly healing soundscapes.
It turns out sound therapy has been practiced for millenia, as Indigenous societies around the world have traditionally used sound in healing ceremonies. Over 40,000 years ago in Northern Australia the yidaki, or didgeridoo, was used to promote healing. Vibratory instruments were used by Greek physicians to treat mental distress, aid digestion, and induce sleep. Musical chants were also used by the Egyptians to heal the sick.
Related: This is how I fought insomnia and won.
Sound therapy uses vibrations to stimulate self-healing
Sound therapy is based on the theory that because all matter is vibratory, including our cells, when a person’s resonant (or optimal) frequency is out of balance, their physical and emotional health is affected. Advocates maintain that sonic frequencies can retune our body to its resonant frequency through something called entrainment. Entrainment is the method of exposing something to its natural rhythmic pattern, inducing organisms to fall into the same rhythm. This is the re-tuning aspect. An example of this is our compulsion to tap our feet or dance to the rhythm when we hear music. Sound therapy can synchronize brainwaves to a slower rhythm, in order to bring about deep relaxation.
With each rise, I felt a slow, pleasant electrocution crawl up my spine and shoot down my arms. I definitely felt relaxed afterwards.
Entrainment can also be very subtle. Humans with perfect hearing cannot hear below 20Hz, so often in vibroacoustic therapy it’s more about vibrations that you feel instead of hear. Developed in Norway by Olav Skille in the 1980s, vibroacoustic therapy involves passing vibrations into the body. Low-frequency sound stimulation has effectively been used to alleviate back pain, regulate pain and improve sleep for patients with Fibromyalgia, and improve tension, anxiety, and depression.
One popular therapy that uses sound is music therapy, which has been widely accepted within the Western medical community. A music therapist must have a degree, complete 1.000 hours of internship, and pass a national board certification examination. There is no formal licensing or training requirement for sound therapists.
While music therapy is recognized as an effective form of clinical therapy, sound healing has been controversial. Although there are many positive testimonials, there has been no scientific research to prove the effectiveness of healing with sound waves. So I wanted to try it for myself.
Related: This is the sound of wellness.
Sound therapists use music and sound as a tool to open a door
Philip Allan Jacobs is a sound healer and vibrational therapist, and retired (12 Years) Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner and acupuncturist based in Toronto. He has been using vibroacoustic therapy (VAT) and song for seven years in his private practice for mental health, addictions and chronic illness.
Jacobs approaches sound therapy through a branch of Chinese medicine called medical qigong. This ancient form of Chinese medicine is a complete system of health care that identifies the root causes of symptoms, and treats the body and mind as a whole. It is often practiced as an adjunct to Western medicine, as it may treat people with conditions that Western medicine finds ambiguous. Where Western medicine looks at individual organs, Eastern medicine looks at organ systems, with organs as the central point of these main systems.
Qigong focuses on five primary yin organ systems, according to Jacobs:
- Heart = joy/anxiety
- kidneys = fear and shock/wisdom
- Liver = anger/compassion
- Lungs = sadness, grief/justice
- Spleen = worrying, overthinking/trust
“In medical Qigong each organ system which relates to an emotion has a different vowel tone,” Jacobs explains. “Through binaural beats, we have been able to relate different tones to different organ systems.”
Binaural beats are an auditory illusion caused by listening to two tones of slightly different frequencies, one in each ear. The difference in these frequencies creates the illusion of a third sound – a rhythmic beat. Binaural beats are purportedly used to induce brain wave patterns. The different sound frequencies are used to “hack” brainwaves to promote physical healing by downshifting from the beta state (13-30Hz), which is normal consciousness, to the delta state (0.5-4.0Hz), which is the rhythm of dreamless sleep and deep relaxation.
On top of using guitar and his own voice, Jacobs also incorporates singing bowls. “The frequencies that I create between my voice and the bowl is what we know as a binaural pulse. That joins the left and right hemisphere, balances the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system and allows the body to heal itself.”
Being in a parasympathetic state decreases stress and regulates blood pressure while increasing antibody production for better immunity. This state is necessary for the body to heal itself, and is the door that sound therapists seek to open.
Jacobs gave me a 30-minute sound therapy experience. First he told me to close my eyes and recall a favourite memory or song. He then started strumming his guitar. He played four songs: Elton John’s ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’, an original song called ‘I Am All of the Things‘, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (which he explained as a chakra activating and clearing song), and ended with George Michael’s ‘Freedom’.
I certainly felt the chills. I started to really tingle and relax towards the end of the second song and through the third. Heavier chanting parts of the songs exacerbated the tingling effect, amplified by the voice doubling and tripling effects Jacobs used. He would start with a quieter low ‘oh’ sound and open it up to a louder ‘ah’ sound. It had a deep, smooth expansive effect, akin to the reverberations of church acoustics, and seemed to stretch outward forever like ripples over water. With each rise, I felt a slow, pleasant electrocution crawl up my spine and shoot down my arms. I definitely felt relaxed afterwards.
Music for my mental health
Jacobs explained that usually people come to him with a specific issue to address. “If somebody is coming in and they’re feeling depressed or anxious, then that gives me a lead into what organ system to work with. If someone is anxious and can’t eat, that would be heart and spleen. We mix different tones together for the binaural pulses we want to produce, essentially creating a custom song for that session in that moment.”
A few recent studies have shown binaural beats can effectively induce theta activity (meditative state) and can induce favorable mental states to combat depression and anxiety, as well as aid in rehabilitation for people with cognitive impairment.
On a more superficial level, music is just pleasing to the senses. Using PET and fMRI brain imaging techniques, a 2011 study at McGill University measured dopamine release in response to music that gives people “aesthetic chills”. These chills are considered an indicator of emotional response to music. The study revealed that dopamine is indeed released when we experience pleasurable music.
I grapple with depression from time to time, and I suffer from recurring bouts of insomnia. Some weeks I sleep normally, and some weeks I am the undead. After I ended my Zoom call with Jacobs, I laid down and closed my eyes. I fell fast asleep and woke up about three hours later, confused, groggy, drooly and hungry — the telltale signs of a solid snooze. Napping is not something I have been able to do unless supremely hungover and sleep deprived, so this was certainly a benefit, and empirical evidence that there is something to this form of therapy.
While I cannot confirm or deny that sound waves can improve kidney function or kill cancer cells, I can confirm that it put me into a state of deep relaxation and helped me steal back some much-needed sleep.