Reviewed by Dr. Michael Kessler, DC —People have enjoyed music’s feel-good qualities since ancient times. In fact, the art of sound in time has existed in every culture known to man. Whether it’s dancing at a music club, sitting at home listening to our favorite records, or belting out the hits while we drive to work, music can bring us to an emotional high within seconds, and help us forget about our troubles. For many, music therapy, or sound therapy, is an accessible escape.
But the effects of sound may go much deeper and help listeners on a therapeutic level, to not only combat stress and anxiety but also deal with pain, fatigue, and memory trouble. There is growing interest in sound therapy as a modern healing method, and preliminary research, so far, has been strong.
What Is Sound Therapy?
There are various ways of administering sound therapy, but the general idea is using sound to produce a desired physical or mental outcome.
In some cases, it could entail administering sounds at a certain tone or frequency to send a therapeutic vibration through the body. In other cases, therapy might involve circling the rim of a bowl with a mallet, to hit different pitches. Sometimes, treatment can utilize soothing or enjoyable music to help with relaxation. Ultimately, sound therapy can take on plenty of forms.
It does not come without some controversy, however. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support its use, and there is some favorable scientific research, too. As more research becomes available, we will have a better understanding of which techniques for which ailments are effective. The idea of music or sound as medicine, however, might be as old as time itself.
How Does Sound Therapy Work?
Although there are different types of sound therapy, all forms are meant to create a sense of calm in the body by relaxing the central nervous system. Elements of sound such as frequency, or pitch, and rhythm are manipulated to produce a desired response. The therapeutic sounds may also complement another relaxing activity like meditation.
The end goal is to create a mental or physical change to reduce pain, calm nerves, ease stress, or increase energy.
Vibroacoustic therapy, for example, exposes patients to a sound frequency of 40 hertz (Hz), to feel a specific vibration. The patient sits or lies down and uses a device called a Sound Oasis Vibroacoustic Therapy System that sends out vibrations and plays music.
One study showed that it was able to improve cognitive abilities in people with Alzheimer’s disease, while other work has shown it can help with pain, memory, fatigue, and mood in people with fibromyalgia.
One theory about how sound therapy works is that it may activate neurons in the brain to strengthen neural pathways. Certain diseases like Alzheimer’s and fibromyalgia are caused by something called brain dysregulation, which means that brain circuits become dormant. Some experts suggest that the vibrations wake these circuits up.
Sound Therapy Techniques
There are numerous sound therapy techniques. We will examine six of them in detail:
Vibroacoustic therapy is rooted in the idea that the body responds to vibrations. As mentioned, vibrations at specific frequencies are issued with the goal of creating relaxation and pain relief. There is a growing body of evidence to support vibrational medicine use, and further studies about how it works are underway.
Singing Bowl Therapy
Singing bowl therapy, also known as Tibetan bowl therapy, has been used for centuries to promote relaxation. It involves moving a mallet around the rim of metal bowls to produce a clear sound with vibration. The low frequency sound that comes from the “singing bowl” is believed to relax the central nervous system.
One study from 2016 found that it was effective for reducing stress, fatigue, anger, and depression. These calming effects might make it useful to curb physical ailments that arise from mental turmoil.
Tuning Fork Therapy
Tuning fork therapy is designed to apply specific vibration to various parts of the body. This form of vibrational therapy is believed to work similarly to acupuncture, only it uses non-invasive vibrations instead of needles. There is a small amount of research to suggest it can help with muscle and bone pain.
Gong mediation is another form of sound therapy based on vibrational healing. Also called gong baths, it is a form of guided meditation where a patient would lie on a meditation mat surrounded by gongs. An instructor guides the session and plays gongs with progressively increasing volume; however, it never gets too loud. They are called “gong baths” because participants are bathed in gong waves, reportedly to help with stress.
Another form of sound therapy is guided meditation. This type of therapy relies on chanting or repeating mantras. It may offer benefits including stress reduction, less anxiety, better memory, lower blood pressure, and pain reduction.
Neurologic Music Therapy
This type of therapy uses music to reduce stress and anxiety. Research has shown that it can help calm nerves prior to surgery, as well as aiding the healing process. Treatment can include creating, listening, singing, or moving to music, and can be used for pain relief and physical rehabilitation.
Potential Health Benefits of Sound Therapy
Sound therapy is used to treat a number of symptoms and conditions, such as:
- Anxiety disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Cognitive decline/memory
- Behavioral disorders
- Pain associated with medical conditions
It might also encourage relaxation and relieve stress, which may make it useful as a sleep aid, while helping it battle stress-related symptoms like joint pain, inflammation, high blood pressure, and weight gain.
What to Expect in a Sound Therapy Session
Sound therapy sessions will be administered by a professional in a one-on-one setting, and exactly how it works or is conducted will depend on the type of therapy. You will likely be sitting down and either listening to sounds through a machine—like a vibroacoustic therapy system, speakers, etc.—or instruments like tuning forks or gongs. You may also be required to chant, sing, or play an instrument.
Final Thoughts on Sound Healing Therapy
Scientifically speaking, there may be some benefit to sound therapy. There is research supporting various types of sound therapy to benefit a number of symptoms and conditions, and early results are promising.
Whether you use music therapy on your own to help you feel better or hire a specialist for therapeutic sessions, it is a non-invasive and relatively inexpensive way to potentially achieve relief. There is also no denying how music makes us feel in the moment. If you’re looking for stress relief, pain relief, or more, sound therapy might be worth your while.
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