Sound affects us. It can excite us, or soothe, nurture and calm us—something that practitioners experienced in sound healing already know.
We’ve all experienced that moment when sound lifts us up; when that song you love comes on the radio just when you felt down and needed to hear it, or the sound of crashing ocean waves helps you fall asleep, or the “Om” you focus on during a meditation session brings you closer to a state of inner peace.
“Music has been a medium of therapy for centuries, and there are numerous examples of the curative or healing powers of music in the historical records of different cultures,” notes a 2010 article in the journal European Psychiatry.
Note that some people use the terms sound healing and music therapy interchangeably; they actually describe two different, but related disciplines. Both use instruments and the voice in order to produce a positive benefit, but sound healing is based on the frequency of sound, whereas music therapy relies on the structure and rhythm of music to bring about change. (Music therapy requires specific training and certification.)
For the purposes of this article, we will focus on the type of sound healing that can be done as part of a massage therapy session.
Types of Sound Healing
The human voice is often used in sound healing, as are several types of instruments: singing bowls, pan flutes, tuning forks, rattles, harps and drums. Practitioners believe that the sound and vibration each creates can resonate with specific parts of the body, dispelling negative energy and creating a positive effect.
The body of research in this area is relatively small, but anecdotal evidence is plentiful. One observational study, the results of which were published in 2016 in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine, tested meditation with singing bowls.
“Following the sound meditation participants reported significantly less tension, anger, fatigue, and depressed mood,” the study’s authors wrote.
Susan Cossette, a massage therapist and National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork-approved education provider in Appleton, Wisconsin, built her knowledge of sound healing mainly via self-study.
“One of the things that really touched my passion was reading Mitchell Gaynor’s Sound Of Healing book, because he had really studied how patients with cancer were incorporating crystal bowls into their recovery,” she said. Gaynor, who died in 2015, was an oncologist and author who was a proponent of using complementary and alternative methods to supplement traditional medicine.
Based on her studies, Cossette created a workshop, Sounds of Healing, and says about 75% of her attendees are licensed massage therapists, nurses, chiropractors and others already in health care fields.
Tonia Lach, also an NCBTMB-approved education provider and massage therapist who practices in Sonoma, California, has studied acupressure and traditional Chinese medicine. She got into sound healing after receiving a crystal bowl as a gift, and experimenting with a chime on her own body. After seeking additional training, she developed a continuing education course in adding sound healing to massage sessions.
What a Session is Like
Like massage therapy sessions, sessions with sound therapy vary from therapist to therapist, and can be customized to each client’s individual needs.
Cossette’s sound healing sessions follow a progression. She usually begins with Tibetan tingshas, also called healing bells or cymbals; they produce low-frequency sounds that, like meditation, are intended to calm and focus the brain. She then will use other instruments, such as crystal bowls and tuning forks, to help the body release energy that is contributing to dis-ease or disharmony in the body.
“As that energy is released, we don’t want it lingering to settle back into the body,” Cossette said. “The tingshas bring it back to neutral so whatever they’ve released … doesn’t settle back into their energy field and their physical body.”
Cossette noted that there are many ways to incorporate sound into a massage session; she says she often plays a crystal bowl toward the end of a session, to clear the energy released during the session and send the client back out into the world with calm and positivity.
Lach has created her own signature offering called The Body Journey Massage Experience; it typically lasts 90 minutes to two hours, even to two and a half hours, giving her plenty of time to incorporate sound healing and hands-on bodywork.
“Typically, I will begin the session with crystal bowls or rattles or chimes,” Lach said. “After the sound, then we’ll work whatever modality is necessary physically, whether it’s deep tissue, acupressure, Swedish, lymphatic, reflexology, whichever is called for.”
Lach described one session in which her client had just had eye surgery. “After soothing her upper back, neck and shoulders with my chosen modalities, I decided to offer sound to the eye area to assist in releasing fear and promote healing,” she said. “With a light cover over her eyes, I got about three or four inches away and toned what sounded like a whispering bird tone over her eye for around three to four minutes.
“After the session, she expressed how it felt like there was more space around her eyeball and that she felt more hopeful about the healing of her eye,” Lach said.
The practitioner also benefits from sound healing; for one thing, it’s easier on the hands and body than providing massage therapy, and is not draining the way massage therapy can sometimes be for the therapist.
Also, “When I tone in a session then I feel like it … vibrates my body as well as the client’s, so I’m going to have sound healing as well just from the act of toning,” Lach said.
What the Research Says
Research on the subject of sound healing varies in quality and is relatively young, but studies do show that some sounds and frequencies seem to have a positive effect on the human body. The exact mechanism of action is still largely a mystery, but anecdotal evidence for the healing power of sound is plentiful.
In this article, we’ll look at some recent research on sound as a healing modality, focusing on one major benefit it offers healthy adults—drug-free relief from stress and anxiety. (Note: Sound healing, or sound therapy, is distinct from music therapy, which has to do with the structure and rhythm of music rather than sound frequencies, and requires its own training and certification. This article addresses the kind of sound healing that can be done in the massage session room, or practiced as self-care.)
Sound and Frequency
At its most basic, sound is vibration—invisible, physical waves that move through the air and are interpreted by the brain via the ear. The loudness of sound is measured in decibels (dB), while the frequency, or size of the waves, is measured in a unit called a hertz (Hz); the higher the number of hertzes, the higher-pitched the sound.
The human ear can detect a range of anywhere from 20 to 20,000 Hz, the average adult hearing range being about 2,000-5,000 Hz. It’s finding the right frequencies, sound healing expert Jonathan Goldman told MASSAGE Magazine, that can have a positive effect on the human brain and body.
“There are two basic ways that sound can affect us,” said Goldman, the founder of the Sound Healers Association and co-author of The Humming Effect: Sound Healing for Health and Happiness (Healing Arts Press, 2017). “One’s called psycho-acoustics, and that’s where sound goes into our ears, into our brain and affects our nervous system, our heart rate, our respiration, our brainwaves, [our] blood pressure,” he explained. “The other is called vibro-acoustics, and that is where sound goes into the body, affecting you on a cellular level.”
Sound healing, he noted, may work via the concept of entrainment, a physics term for the fact that two vibrating objects in proximity will come into resonance with one another, the lower frequency moving up to meet the higher frequency. If cells in the body are not vibrating at their natural, healthy frequency, sounds that match that frequency can help restore them to proper balance, he explained, thereby bringing about physiological change.
One of the most promising applications of sound healing, suggests recent research, is in the area of stress relief.
Sound vs. Stress
A 2019 study looked at the effects of a 30-minute sound meditation using the didgeridoo, an Australian wind instrument that produces a low, droning tone. The research, published in the journal Global Advances in Health and Medicine, divided 74 college undergraduate students into two groups, one of which experienced the didgeridoo meditation and one that underwent a 30-minute silent meditation.
After the intervention, while both groups reported increased relaxation and decreases in negative arousal, tiredness and acute stress, the didgeridoo group achieved significantly more relaxation and less stress.
“Didgeridoo sound meditation is as effective as silent meditation for decreasing self-perceived negative arousal, tiredness, and energy and more effective than silent meditation for relaxation and acute stress reduction in undergraduate students,” the study’s authors concluded. “Further investigation into didgeridoo sound meditation is warranted.”
Another study, published in 2017 in The Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine, studied the effects of Tibetan singing bowl sound meditation on mood, anxiety, pain and spiritual well-being in 62 men and women.
After the meditation session, participants reported “significantly less tension, anger, fatigue, and depressed mood,” as well as increased spiritual well-being, the study’s authors wrote, concluding that “Tibetan singing bowl meditation may be a feasible low-cost low technology intervention for reducing feelings of tension, anxiety, and depression, and increasing spiritual well-being.”
More research into the area of sound and stress is needed—and the studies mentioned here are just a few of the pieces of research that show its efficacy—but existing results suggest sound healing may help reduce stress by reducing cortisol, the stress hormone, and increasing oxytocin, the body’s feel-good hormone. (Salivary cortisol and oxytocin levels were not measured as part of the above-mentioned sound healing research, but these levels have been formally studied and found to change positively in response to some music therapy interventions.)
A 2020 research review article published in the journal Integrative Medicine, concluded that sound healing, along with several other ancient healing modalities, presents “considerable potential for stress reduction globally.”
Try Out Sound Healing
While much more research remains to be done to replicate and expand the results of current sound healing studies, the field is moving in a positive direction. Nasiri Suzan, managing director of the Sound Healers Association, told MASSAGE Magazine about the success she has had using tuning forks with hospital patients to help lower blood pressure and reduce swelling—and musician and scientist Anthony Holland has even been studying certain frequencies’ ability to “shatter” cancer cells.
The National Institutes of Health has currently funded research into sound and music therapy, Goldman noted, so new developments may be on the horizon—and in our increasingly fast-paced, living-with-COVID world, people are eager to learn about interventions for their stress and general health, especially those that are natural, inexpensive, drug-free and available outside a physician’s office.
Build Your Own Sound
We all innately understand the power of sound; it is present from the very beginning of our lives, when in the womb we can hear the sound of our mother’s voice and heartbeat. Sound has the ability to excite us, soothe us and evoke emotions and memories in us—and many believe certain sound frequencies even have the capability to heal us.
Cossette’s number-one piece of advice for massage therapists interested in adding sound healing to sessions is to choose their instruments carefully. She says that over the internet, it’s difficult to determine the quality of an instrument; she recommends buying them from an experienced practitioner so you can try them out first.
It’s important, she added, to find instruments that personally resonate with you. “Sometimes a bowl may sound beautiful if someone else is playing it,” she said. “Then you go to play it and go ‘whoa, that doesn’t resonate with me.’”
Lach agreed that trying instruments before you buy is critical. She suggested starting with a small chime with good resonance, and working your way into other instruments. She also recommended getting comfortable with using your voice during sound healing sessions.
“The most powerful instrument that we have is our human voice.”
About the Author:
Allison M. Payne is an independent writer, editor and proofreader based in central Florida. Her recent articles for MASSAGE Magazine include “The Self-Employed MT’s Guide to Getting Health Insurance (April) and “Are You (and Your Data) at Risk? 10 Cybersecurity Steps You Need to Take Now.”