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The Healing Power of Sound There’s far more to what we hear than what we hear

Read more Last updated: June 2020
In collection Hearing
Reading duration: 8 minutes

When we hear, there’s also what we feel when we hear, or even what we feel when we can’t hear clearly. Many people, at many times, will have experienced an emotional response to sound. It could be the ecstatic tingle of a song, complete with an urge to move, to raise the volume, to sing. Even if the response is not one of ‘action,’ there will be those who feel something on a physical level beyond what their ears process: a thrill, a surge, a swell, a tightening. Something in the pit of one’s belly that responds, even if the music has not been previously heard, or the lyrics, if there are any, not previously known.

Music matters

In 1990’s Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts showed us that you don’t need to understand the words of an opera to be moved to tears by the passion with which the arias are sung. Beyond Hollywood, scientific research has further demonstrated that music really is the universal language - even when listeners are exposed to different songs from different (and often obscure) cultures, they are able to respond appropriately to what they hear, discerning between music intended to convey love, calm, sorrow and so on. Although an emotional response may be felt when the raw or velvety voice of a favourite singer comes on the radio, such a response may just as readily be had when the listener has no personal, emotional or historical connection with what’s being heard.

Beyond music, there are other sounds that will almost always cause feelings of distress, discomfort or anxiety: voices raised in anger, for example; a phone ringing off the hook; drivers sounding horns in slow traffic. Nature sounds, on the other hand, are almost always associated with creating a soothing atmosphere, and with restoring a sense of peace and calm: the wash of the sea on the beach, for instance; the rustle of leaves, or the liquid sunshine of birdsong.

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Perfect conduct

Why is sound so adept at influencing mood and emotion? One reason is water, a potent conductor of the waves from which sounds are formed. It’s believed that the human body is composed of around 60% water; indeed, the brains and heart, both of which are associated with processing feelings, are made up of a whopping 73%.

Another reason is that everything that exists, everything in the universe - including humankind - is made of energy. According to scientists, every atom - the building blocks of which all matter is constructed - are composed of vortices of energy, each of which is perpetually in motion and transmitting its own specific pattern. Given that sound is also vibrational energy, its powerful relationship with, and effect on, the human body is perhaps unsurprising.

In the 17th century, Christian Huygens, inventor of the grandfather clock, allegedly left a room full of his impressive time-keeping creations, all with their pendulums swinging to their own particular rhythm. A day later, the physicist is said to have returned to find that all of the clocks had aligned and were beating in sync with one another. This phenomenon - of independent entities (whether a grandfather clock, metronome or the human form) synchronising to an external rhythm - is known as Entrainment and is the basis for many sound practices, which look to harness this energetic relationship in a therapeutic way.

Christiaan Huygens Pendulum
Christian Huygens' grandfather clock from the 17th century.
© Wikimedia

Historical roots

Sound practitioners often use chimes, sound bowls or gongs to produce resonance and vibrations, which may help to heal both body and mind. According to Lyz Cooper, founder of The British Academy of Sound Therapy, a sound bath is still beneficial to those with limited hearing, because they are still capable of feeling the vibrations in their body.

Think it sounds far too hippy-dippy and ‘out there’ to be taken seriously? Think again: sound has been used throughout centuries of history and culture to promote balance and wellness, both physically and mentally. The Ancient Greeks, widely renowned for their insights into both culture and science, looked to the god Apollo as deity of both medicine and music; clearly the two were entwined in their collective consciousness. Elsewhere, Native Americans incorporated the flute into their ceremonies, while the Lapland Saami used the hypnotic rhythm of drums and indigenous Australians employed the mesmerising, low-pitched thrum of the didgeridoo.

In all of these cultures - and others besides - sound has been used to bring on states of meditation, relaxation and heightened consciousness, as well as encouraging body, mind and spirit to repair and restore. Despite the vast geographical diversity of these and other groups, there has been a time-honoured recognition of the fact that humans and sound are both, at their most basic level, energy - and that by using various instruments to create this, on a vibrational level, people can be brought back into alignment with their surrounding space and environment.

Lead vocals

Yet, as Lyz points out, this recognition of sound as a healing tool does not rely solely on the ability to hear. Indeed, the benefits of vibration to which she refers can also be accessed ‘internally’ and independently. “As humans, we are equipped with one of existence’s most powerful instruments - our voices,” she says. “As such, we are natural sound therapists and, over time, we have evolved to influence our state of mind through sound; using our voices is a key part of that.” Nor is this ability dependent on speech: the sound employed may be a humming or even keening - the Om mantra, for example, which is first seen in a Sanskrit letter dating back to around 1500-1200 BC, reverberates through the body, producing, by way of its thrumming, a vibrational energy that boosts tranquillity and energy.

“There’s a relationship between the vocal chords and the internal organs and nervous system,” says Lyz. “Using your voice stimulates those internal workings. It oxygenates the bloodstream and enlivens the brain, in turn improving concentration. In fact, research has demonstrated that just 20 minutes of vocalising can help to reduce the stress hormone cortisol and improve a sense of calm and wellbeing.”

No wonder we are so frequently advised to ‘let it out’ or to vocalise our feelings. Note the use of ‘vocalise,’ rather than ‘verbalise’ here - one doesn’t need words, nor the ability to ‘speak’, to be able to use sound to promote wellbeing - nor yet perfect hearing. Sound, in this sense, operates in its vibrational and energetic sense, rather than its conventional audible one. Simply ‘making noise’ can be beneficial: ‘holding it in,’ on the other hand, is linked with bodily aches and pains, muscular tension, or nervous system reactions such as sweating, palpitations and breathlessness. Making sounds such as screaming, grunting, keening and wailing are not only useful when emotion makes articulation difficult, but also when physical ability does.

Lyz Cooper
Lyz Cooper
© The British Academy of Sound Therapy

Good vibrations

“Some areas of therapeutic sound that may be especially beneficial for people with impaired hearing is vibroacoustic therapy,” says Lyz. “This is where low frequency sound, usually embedded within music, is played - either through headphones or, better still, through speakers in a chair or mattress. This is particularly good for deep relaxation, pain control and anxiety, and has also been shown to help people with neurological disorders such as MS or Parkinson’s.”

In practice, sound therapy can take a number of different forms. Some practitioners work with gongs and singing bowls, the resonance from which provides a vibrational massage of sound - heard, or felt, by the body, even if not clearly by the ears. Amanda Grant, chief wellness officer at Arizona’s CIVANA Resort & Spa speaks of an activity undertaken by guests, striking a gong hung from a wooden frame. “After striking the gong, the question isn’t ‘what did you hear?’ – it’s ‘where in your body did you feel that?' Interestingly, almost every answer is different.” Tibetan singing bowls, for instance, may be placed on specific areas of the body so that their vibrational activity is more profoundly topical, releasing the blockages around deep-seated physical trauma and, at the same time, encouraging the flow of endorphins, which boost mood and help to minimise both emotional and physical discomfort. For the hearing-impaired community, says Amanda, this is a unique way that sound healing can be experienced.

Different types of sound - and therefore vibration - can be harnessed and utilised in different ways, too. A deep, penetrative pound on a drum may elicit a physical response, while using the same instrument in a different way - gently stroking and thrumming upon its taut skin - may produce a more meditative, cocooning or safely enveloping feel. What’s at play here is how the sound is felt - in the skin, in the blood, in the heart - a tool that’s useful even in the absence of pin-drop-sharp hearing.

Hearing, healing

As well as the fact that perfect hearing is not required for the healing benefits of sound therapy to be felt, it is also worth noting that it may even be possible for therapeutic activity of this kind to improve hearing function - that is, to heal.

“There is some early evidence that the cilia in the cochlea of the ear can regenerate,” says Lyz. “People that I have worked with who have had mild hearing impairment have said that they feel their hearing has improved through targeted listening exercises.” Research has also demonstrated that sound therapy may also increase the efficacy of hearing devices. As Lyz says, “sound is medicine.” It’s heartening to know that it can be utilised, not only regardless of one’s own hearing ability, but also, potentially, to improve it.

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