You might be more familiar with sound pollution than sound medicine. In addition to being unpleasant, the noise of sirens, construction projects, household appliances, and more can erode our physical and mental health. Studies show that frequent exposure to loud or unwanted sounds can lead to hypertension, increased levels of stress, irritability, problematic sleep, and even a decline in cognitive functioning.
But sound can also be used as therapy to promote mental and physical health. For this, we need good noise—pleasing or so-called wanted sounds.
Ancient Roots of Sound Medicine
Sara Auster, a sound therapist, meditation teacher, and author, devotes an entire section of her book Sound Bath to the history of sound as therapy. She notes how people around the world have traditionally used drumming, singing, hand-clapping, and other sound-making activities in their healing ceremonies. She also notes how Aristotle and Plato wrote about sound as a healing influence on health and how ancient schools in Egypt, Greece, and India considered the use of sound to be a highly developed sacred science.
There’s also evidence of Tibetan sound bowls, or singing bowls, being used for healing and contemplation for thousands of years.
Bowls and Baths: Modern Sound Medicine for Stress
Dr. Tamara Goldsby is a clinical psychologist in integrative medicine at UCSD who conducts research on the effects of sound healing on the mind and body. She focuses specifically on the use of singing bowls, which she first encountered on a trip to Nepal. She notes that, originally, monks in Tibet and Nepal were known to infuse prayers into each strike of the hammer as they crafted the bowls. As the bowls were played, the prayers were released.
[Read: “Our Tibetan Crystal Bowl Adventure.”]
In a 2020 paper published in Integrative Medicine, Dr. Goldsby provides an overview of research studies on sound healing treatment for stress. Research that examined heart rate variability and electroencephalogram (EEG) readings found that while listening to singing bowls, participants’ heart rate and brain waves went from a normal or even agitated state to one of deep relaxation. People participating in a singing bowl meditation also experienced a significant decrease in physical pain.
Goldsby and colleagues’ own research on the benefits of singing bowls has looked into the impact of sound baths, where singing bowls and other soothing instruments are used for healing. The focus of a sound bath isn’t on melodic content, but on drones and relatively simple rhythms, similar to a pulsing heartbeat rhythm. Goldsby’s findings showed significant reductions in tension, anxiety, and physical pain, as well as a positive link between the use of singing bowls and a higher sense of spiritual wellbeing.
[Read: “Fighting Cancer With Singing Bowls and Yogic Chants.”]
When asked about further sound therapy research, Goldsby explains how she would like to continue taking physiological measurements (examining blood pressure, biomarkers of stress, and EEG) to dive deeper into the effects of singing-bowl sound baths. She also plans to take singing bowl healing into various regions of the Americas so that underrepresented groups may access this incredibly promising form of healing. “Its potential for healing is almost unlimited,” she says, “and we plan to bring this to the world as much as possible.”
A self-described “nature girl,” Goldsby also wants to explore ways sound therapy might be used along with forest therapy or other nature-related medicine.
From Hospital Beds to Madison Square Garden
In Sound Bath, Auster details two powerful experiences that led her to discover sound medicine and the power of sound for communicating. The first occurred when Sara was ten years old. Her sister, who was 16 at the time, was in the hospital recovering from a long illness. Her sister came out of a coma without the ability to speak. Sara tried sound as a way to communicate with her. She used what she could find in that hospital room—monitors, bedpans, feeding tubes, etc.—to create steady streams of rhythms and sequences. These wordless sounds became audio sentences connecting Sara and her sister in a place beyond rational thought.
The other experience occurred sometime later when Auster was working as an artist in New York City. A tragic fall left her with a broken back. During her long and painful road to recovery, she turned to the power of sound for healing, both mentally and physically. She has since been helping other people do the same, having conducted sound therapy baths in public schools, hospitals, and boardrooms. She’s even guided large-scale mass meditations with sound at New York City’s Lincoln Center and Madison Square Garden.
How Does Sound Medicine Work?
While the study of the physiology and neurophysiology of sound medicine is still in its infancy, what’s sometimes referred to “soundscape research” is based on the understanding that acoustic environments are neither good nor bad in themselves. It’s the human perception of the sounds in the environment that make them wanted or unwanted and the soundscapes positive or negative.
So, while it’s known that sound can affect, for example, the activity and functionality of our nervous system, the exact mechanism for the positive effects of sound healing is currently unknown. One explanation relates to brain wave alterations. Positive sounds can shift our normal, alert, waking beta brainwave state to a relaxed, meditative alpha state. At times, this might even be experienced as a dreamlike state or a deeper state of consciousness. With this comes the opportunity to disconnect from external stimuli and to focus on what’s going on within you. For many, this can be an invitation to self-reflection and self-discovery. In addition to alleviating pain and discomfort, deep relaxation can also change our relationship to the discomfort or pain and take us a place of greater mental and spiritual health.
Another possible explanation about why sound medicine or sound healing works relates to the body’s biofield. Some research suggests that the vibrations
of the sound healing instruments may be interacting with the biofield that surrounds the body. The biofield consists of various fields produced by ions, molecules, and cells, creating a system with immense electromagnetic capacities. The biofield generated by these charged particles extends into space, interacting with the fields in the environment. The effectiveness of sound healing may thus be attributed, at least in part, to the vibrational attuning of the body and its biofield.
Sound Medicine at Home
Goldsby strongly recommends trying various sound baths but recognizes that not everyone has access to a sound healing center. She notes that while the benefits of online sound baths may not be as strong as in-person sound medicine, it may be the next best thing. Another option, she says, is to purchase a singing bowl for at-home use.