Sound healing, sound therapy, and vibration healing are methods of using music, voice, rhythm, harmonics, and digitally-created vibrations to heal and tone the mind, body, and spirit. In this post, you’ll learn about the many aspects to sound healing, from what it is to how it works.
(Please note, if you are experiencing a serious illness or other health challenge, it’s important to seek the advice of a doctor or other licensed medical provider.)
What is sound healing and sound therapy?
Sound healing describes alternative therapies that utilize sound vibrations to maintain or improve physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health and well-being. In a sound healing session, a practitioner uses instruments, music, voice, rhythm, harmonics, and/or digitally created sounds or vibrations to influence vibrations in the body.
There are sound professionals who have an expertise in sound therapies. However, everyday people can also engage in different types of sound healing individually or in groups. For example, an individual could listen to pre-recorded sounds during a meditation. Or a group could join together for a drumming circle.
How Sound Healing Works
All matter in the Universe, including the human body, is comprised of energy that vibrates at a certain frequency. The theory behind sound healing is that by tuning into different rhythms or tones (i.e. different vibrations), we can influence the vibrations in the human body. This occurs at a cellular level, as one vibration affects another.
Practitioners of alternative healing modalities believe that physical problems can have an underlying influence that is energetic in nature. These influences could be mental, emotional, or even spiritual. Thus, those who practice vibrational therapies believe that it can have positive effects on the energy in the human body, which improves health and well-being.
Going Beyond Symptoms and Direct Causes of Illness
Practitioners of conventional western medicine focus on identifying and treating acute causes of illness. Yet today, more medical researchers are studying how mental and emotional states impact physical health. In addition, some scientists are studying how prayer affects health and healing.1
Thus, with this research, we are seeing that the true root causes of illness and methods for healing may not just be a matter of things like genetics, diet, and exercise or treating only the acute aspect of the illness. There could be emotional, psychological, spiritual, or other factors at play that should be addressed.
Reincarnation and Illness
An example of spiritual impacts on health comes from the study of reincarnation. Experts on reincarnation say that we carry karmic imprints from our soul’s experiences in our physical bodies lifetime after lifetime. Thus, an unexplained ailment might not have manifested in this lifetime, but in a previous one. So, how do we address it? Psychological past life regression therapy is one way. Sound healing is another.
Accessing a Deeper Underlying Condition
Whether or not you believe in reincarnation, the premise of sound healing is that it works by accessing a deeper underlying condition beyond just addressing physical symptoms and direct causes of illness.
An example of this could be different treatments for someone who has chronic bronchitis:
- The person could treat themselves by taking over-the-counter cough medicine.
- A doctor might prescribe antibiotics so the person’s immune system gets a break and can put more energy into healing the viral cause of the bronchitis.
- The person might use nasal saline and a neti pot, drink water with lemon, and get a lot of rest.
Where sound therapy could be added into the mix is by playing tones that have a salutary effect on the throat and lungs. For example, the therapist might play tones that affect the chakras that influence the chest and throat: the throat chakra (vishuddha) and the heart chakra (anahata), respectively. (The chakras are distinct energetic centers in the human body, which we’ll get into in more detail later in this post.)
Essentially, the theory is that a chronic condition might have deeper underlying causes, which can be addressed with vibrational therapy in addition to other treatments that only address the acute aspects of the illness.
How Sound Affects the Body and Mind
To better understand how sound vibrations might be able to heal us, here are some basic concepts related to sound frequency, the brain, and the energy in the body – which is also referred to as the energetic body.
As you may know, sound vibration is measured in hertz (Hz). Humans can typically hear sounds that measure in the 20 to 20,000 Hz range. This range of sound frequencies has varying effects on our bodies.2
Entrainment is a condition whereby two frequencies that are similar will move towards vibrating in unison. For example, when two tuning forks of the same note are struck together, the weaker of the two will begin to resonate with the stronger until they synchronize.
This principle applies to the human body as well. Examples of humans responding to vibration via entrainment include:
- Suddenly finding that you are walking “in step” with another person
- A change of breath rate and/or depth while listening to music
- The phenomenon of choir singers harmonizing not only voices, but heartbeats3
Types of Brain Waves
Our brain waves fall into several different frequency ranges, depending on brain activity. Thus, our state of mind has a distinct vibration.
- Gamma waves are the fastest and occur when a person is deeply focused or immersed in thinking.
- Beta is the wave range where our “everyday” alert thinking operates.
- Alpha waves are slower than beta and are associated with mental rest and observation.
- Theta describes our brain activity during the REM phase of sleep and while daydreaming. However, these waves also occur in trance-like states, and are associated with creative flow.
- Delta indicates the range of our slowest brain waves – those that occur during dreamless sleep.
Following the principle of entrainment, we can see how external sound frequencies can be used to influence brain waves. Essentially, by listening to sounds of different frequencies, we are able to influence our state of mind! An example of this is increasing gamma and beta waves to improve memory and attention. Another is increasing alpha waves to reduce stress.4
Chakras are spinning centers of concentrated energy in the energetic body. When our chakras are clear from blockages, energy can flow freely, resulting in vitality, health, and well-being. As previously mentioned, the general idea behind many sound healing practices is energetic. Thus, a number of sound-related therapies focus on activating, clearing, and balancing chakras.
Although some traditions recognize hundreds of chakras that exist in the body and its energetic field, yogic philosophy typically identifies seven major chakras. (You can read more about the individual chakras in other posts on UniGuide.) Each chakra, or energy center, is associated with a different aspect of the self. Furthermore, each chakra resonates at a unique frequency. Thus, by tapping into different sound vibrations, we are able to relax, balance, or heal targeted aspects of ourselves.
Intent and Beliefs
Some experts believe our intentions and belief systems play a role in healing and the likelihood of a treatment being successful. For example, just as professional athletes use visualization techniques to improve performance, we can use focused thought to heal ourselves.
Renowned sound healer Jonathan Goldman, whom you can read more about in the toning section of this post, believes in using a combination of focused intention (i.e. belief or visualization) and sound therapy to treat ailments. He uses the adage:5
Frequency + Intent = Healing.
History of Sound Healing
Sound healing as a therapeutic field is relatively new. However, cultures around the world have used different forms of sound, rhythm, and music to maintain or improve health and well-being for thousands of years.
Here are a few examples of traditional forms of sound healing:
- Tibetan monks have utilized singing bowls in monasteries and meditation practices for centuries.
- The designers of the great pyramids of Egypt, Gothic cathedrals, Hindu and Greek temples, and Stonehenge all designed them with sound in mind. For example, they designed the structures to enhance specific sound frequencies that would be conducive to prayer and meditation.6
- Many cultures, including those with shamanic spiritual traditions, use drums to alter states of consciousness during meditation, healing sessions, vision quests, and other rituals.
More recently, over the past century, sound healers have developed music-oriented therapies based on concepts like the Schumann resonance7, which is the Earth’s frequency measured at 8 Hz, and Solfreggio frequencies8, which are tones known to affect the body and mind in certain ways.9
Sound Therapy Methods
Just as there are diverse ways of creating different sound vibrations, there are a number of sound healing methods. Some of these include:
During a sound bath, an individual or group of people are fully immersed in specific vibrations, which collectively form a sound bath. Each sound bath is unique. The person conducting the session may use one type of instrument, multiple instruments, their own voice, audio recordings, or any combination of these tools. The resonance of some sound healing instruments can last for over a minute, so it’s also possible to create harmonies or layering effects with several components.
Nada yoga is a traditional path to find union through sacred sound. The Sanskrit word nada translates to “vibration” or “sound.” According to Vedic texts, the cosmos was created as a vibration that resonates as the frequency OM (comprised of the three sounds a-u-m). The reason for chanting OM in yoga practices is that it helps us to harmonize with this universal frequency and, therefore, all of existence.
Nada yoga teaches that humans can access an inherent source of internal music through spiritual discipline. However, the nada yoga practices that focus on external sounds are more approachable. These practices include chanting mantras, singing devotional songs, and playing or listening to instruments like the harmonium, flute, or drums.10
Binaural Beats and Isochronic Tones
Two examples of how digitally-created sound can alter the frequency of our brain waves using entrainment are binaural beats and isochronic tones.
- Binaural beats are composed of two tones listened to together, one in each ear, to achieve a certain frequency. They are based on the premise that the difference in tone between each ear will have a distinct effect on brain wave frequency. Essentially, the brain compensates for the difference in tone and creates a third frequency (the binaural beat). Because of the nature of binaural beats, it’s necessary for the listener to use headphones.
- Isochronic tones are tones of a certain frequency spaced apart at intervals so that they sound like a beat or pulse. They are often combined with binaural beats to enhance a desired frequency. Since the rhythm is composed of only one tone, isochronic tones can be used without headphones.
Binaural beats and isochronic tones can be created to achieve a variety of outcomes.11 For example, a quick internet search can provide tracks for reducing physical pain and stress, supporting deep sleep or lucid dreaming, enhancing meditation, or attracting your soul mate. These types of tracks are often embellished with transient music, colorful geometric patterns, sounds of nature, and words of affirmation, which can add to their positive effects.12
Vocal toning (sometimes referred to as chakra toning) is a sound healing technique that uses the voice to make different vowel sounds to relax, balance the body, and connect to a deeper level of consciousness. The sounds are sustained as long as possible, and generally, a person will produce one tone for each deep breath.
Sound healer Jonathan Goldman popularized a toning system that uses specific vowel sounds to correspond with each chakra. However, toning practices have existed throughout time in various cultures around the world. In fact, the concept of chakra toning is very similar to the ancient yogic practice of chanting a one-syllable “seed sound” (or bija mantra in Sanskrit) for each chakra.13
According to Goldman, “When we have learned techniques for harmonic toning, the human voice is able to create nearly every frequency, at least within the bandwidth of audible frequency…”14
As referenced earlier, he offers the simple formula, “Frequency plus Intention equals Healing.” If we can find the right sound frequency coupled with the right intention then healing will occur.
You can experience Goldman’s version of toning by following along with this video:
An Immeasurable, Indescribable Force
In 1993, author and anthropologist Carlos Castaneda said, “In the universe there is an immeasurable, indescribable force which shamans call intent, and absolutely everything that exists in the entire cosmos is attached to intent by a connecting link.”15
In essence, both Goldman and Castaneda were referring to what others might describe as being in flow with God, source, or universal collective consciousness. When we are in sync or in harmony with the source from which we all originated, we can achieve miracles.
Instruments Used For Sound Healing
Sound healers can utilize a variety of instruments and other tools to create sounds in healing sessions. These include:
Singing bowls of different shapes, sizes, and materials can all be used in sound healing. For example, smaller bowls, which produce higher tones, can be played in the hand. Larger bowls, which produce deeper frequencies, are generally played on a mat or thin cushion. Some singing bowls are designed to resonate at specific frequencies. In addition, bowls can be placed in specific arrangements to achieve desired effects when played.
- Tibetan singing bowls are either cast or hammered from alloys of up to seven precious metals: tin, lead, iron, copper, mercury, silver, and gold. A practitioner will strike the bowl with wooden mallet. Or they might play it using a circular motion to produce a “singing” or humming effect.
- Crystal singing bowls are molded from quartz and are often crafted to correspond to the seven notes in the western musical scale and our seven chakras. Some sound healers believe that crystal bowls are more effective for healing than Tibetan bowls because quartz is said to balance the human electromagnetic field and the cellular structure of the body.16
Tuning forks are just what they sound like (no pun intended). They’re metal forks that help to tune other instruments. Similar to singing bowls, practitioner will use tuning forks to immerse different parts of the body in different sound vibrations. Practitioners of Chinese medicine use them to increase and direct the flow of chi – a term for universal life force energy.17
Throughout history, in cultures around the world, people have used gongs as healing instruments. Because of their large size, gongs produce longer, deeper tones. These elongated tones seem to resonate more profoundly in the body than other sound healing tools. Thus, practitioners will play them using strikes of different volumes and intervals to create “gong baths.”
According to Yogi Bhajan, who popularized kundalini yoga, the gong is one of the most powerful devices for finding inner peace. He asserted that the sound of the gong is the sound of creation and that, “The mind has no power to resist a gong that is well played.”18
Those who favor using drums in sound therapy say that listening to the consistent beats of drums or rattles can increase your attention span and facilitate a meditative state. This leads to a deeper level of awareness and other conditions that can help your body to relax and heal.19 In fact, people who beat on a drum or who participate in drum circles will attest that the experience has therapeutic benefits.20
Though not as common as the frequency-based instruments mentioned above, a sound healer may also use traditional musical instruments, like the guitar, flute, or harmonium, during healing sessions. They might use pre-recorded ambient music, tones, or tanpura (Indian drone) sounds as well. Not to mention, music lovers everywhere will attest that music is one of the greatest healing forces in the Universe.
During a healing session, practitioners often sing, hum, chant, channel sounds, speak, or create other intentional sounds. Voice is also a powerful tool for self-practice because, by using our voice, we can strengthen our connection to our own truth. Similarly, participating in group vocal exercises strengthens our connection to others.21
What Happens in a Sound Healing Session
Before a sound healing session, the participant shares details with the healer about issues they want to address in the session. The healer will then plan the session, determining which sounds and instruments to use based on the participant’s needs.
During most sound baths or personal healing sessions, the participant lies on their back on a mat or padded surface. The sound healer might provide pillows, bolsters, blankets, eye masks, and/or essential oils or incense in the session. This provides comfort and reduces unwanted stimulation from physical surroundings.
The healer will give an overview of what to expect during the session. They may also guide the participant through gentle relaxation exercises before starting the healing session.
Some sound healing practitioners play instruments and sounds in the room. Others might play pre-recorded sounds that the participant listens to on headphones. In addition, a healer might play instruments very close to or directly on the sound recipient’s body. In this case, the healer generally gives advanced notice so they don’t startle the participant.
Healing sessions may last for 15 minutes or a few hours, and participants may return for repeated sessions.
Benefits of Sound Healing
Those who believe in the power of sound healing say that it can provide support for nearly any ailment of the body or mind. To date, scientists have not conducted enough research on the effects of sound healing. However, practitioners and participants claim that it offers the following benefits:
- Deep relaxation and inner peace
- Reduced anxiety, stress, and feelings of anger
- Relief from pain, headaches, and other physical discomforts
- Improvements in how the digestive, circulatory, and lymphatic systems function
- Increased energy
- Feelings of physical and/or emotional detoxification
- Balanced energy and the feeling that the body’s energetic centers are clear
- Feelings of peace and joy
- A profound feeling of unity, a connection to the divine, and/or alignment with one’s purpose22
Scientific studies do show, however, that sound vibration stimulates the vagus nerve.23
When stimulated, the nerve triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which governs states of rest, thus reducing stress.24 The vagus nerve also plays a role in regulating hormones and blood glucose levels. As a result, people see improved sleep and better performance at work. In addition, they enjoy overall improvement in health and well-being.
Additionally, sound therapy practices that are voice-based serve to deepen the breath, strengthen the respiratory system, stimulate the pineal and pituitary glands, and reduce stress, leading to improvements in emotional states.25
Difference Between Sound Healing and Music Therapy
Sound healing sessions can involve musical instruments and song. However, it’s important to distinguish between the fields of sound healing and music therapy.
Sound healing is based on the ancient principles of using vibration, resonance, and energy to heal and promote relaxation. Music therapy, on the other hand, uses modern-day, clinically-developed psychological methods for improving mental, emotional, and physical health. Music therapists tend to focus more on musical instruments, dance, and song vs. distinct sounds. In essence, they utilize the musical arts in psychological therapy.26
A Low-Risk, Easy Way to Find Balance and Feel Better
Regardless of whether you’re looking for a spiritual transformation, pain management, or simply some time to relax, sound healing is a low-risk and easily-accessible way to experiment with the body’s ability to heal and balance itself.
As Sufi master and musician Hazrat Inayat Khan wrote, “Divine sound is the cause of all manifestation. The knower of the mystery of sound knows the mystery of the whole universe.”
Now that you have a general understanding of what sound therapy is, perhaps it’s time to take the next step and experience it for yourself!