We’re surrounded by sound—the low hum of electricity, the shrieks of small children, the neighbor’s yapping dog, and the random clicks, beeps, pings, and whirs of our technological age. We make playlists for road trips and romantic encounters. We let the TV play in the background during dinner. Sound is the backdrop of our days—but it’s more than just noise. Sound affects our experiences in ways that are big, small, spiritual, and specific. Sacred musicians and sound therapists believe we can harness it to enhance our well-being. Here’s how sound can be employed in the name of physical and emotional healing.
Original sound systems
The Hindu originators of yoga believed the world was born from silence, its existence punctuated by a single, holy sound: Om. This sacred syllable is in fact three smoothly linked sounds—ah, ooh, mm—followed by the sound of silence, says Rashmi S. Bismark, MD, MPH, mindfulness facilitator, yoga instructor, and author of the children’s book Finding Om. In yogic circles, chanting Om is said to connect us to the higher power within ourselves and link us to the universe—one of the true intentions of yoga.
When you chant Om, the sounds resonate in different areas of the body, Bismark says. The “ah” rests in the belly, the “ooh” is in the chest, and the “mm” creates a buzzing sensation in the mouth and head.
The idea that sound moves in the body is the theory behind sound therapy, which the British Academy of Sound Therapy defines as “sound, music, and specialist instruments played in therapeutic ways, combined with deep self-reflection techniques to improve health and well-being.”
But how does it work?
What’s the frequency?
“If you listen to a lot of meditative music, you may hear something that sounds like a buzzing,” says Dana Smith, a yoga instructor and sound therapist based in Maryland. The underlying sound may be healing frequency sounds that are laid under other musical tracks.
Sound frequencies are measured in hertz (Hz), the number of vibrations per second. A frequency can be combined with soothing sounds such as ocean waves or raindrops, as well as rhythms and melodies. The underlying tones are almost subliminal, but they may have an impact on your body. For example, studies have found that subjects who listened to music at 432 Hz—the vibration associated with relaxation—had significant improvements in sleep, decreased heart rates, and lower blood pressure.
Smith says specific tones correlate with the various chakras, parts of the body, and health conditions. For example, music tuned to 396 Hz is said to help quell fear, while 639 Hz brightens your disposition. An Internet search will point you to YouTube videos set at various frequencies that promise physical rejuvenation, enhanced sleep, improved focus, creativity, and more.
This is why the owners of New York’s Humming Puppy yoga studio have designed the space to literally “hum.” The ambient sound is a combination of 7.83 Hz, the Schumann resonance, and 40 Hz, which is associated with gamma brainwave activity. The former is the frequency of the earth and is said to be “grounding.” Gamma waves are associated with peak human performance.
Catching the vibe
Being in an environment with both of these frequencies helps you to naturally produce matching frequencies through the process of entrainment, according to Humming Puppy’s website. “Entrainment” is the scientific name for what some people might call “catching the vibe.” The idea is that if you are surrounded by sound at a certain frequency, you can begin to align with that frequency and absorb the benefits.
“Tones and vibrations are thought to entrain our bodies, impacting the ways in which pain signals are perceived, how muscles engage and relax. They affect our brain waves, carrying the potential to help us connect with states of deep relaxation or creative flow states,” Bismark says.
Because the human body is made of vibrating atoms, it responds to external sound vibrations, which in turn can have a significant impact on our mental, physical, or emotional conditions.
“We’re still learning how it works from a scientific perspective, and it looks like there could be different ways sound and music impact our health,” Bismark says. “One way is through the tactile, vibratory nature of sound—whether we are physically receiving sounds or actively participating in vocalizing them.”
We’re still learning how it works from a scientific perspective... there could be different ways sound and music impact our health.
But does sound actually heal?
People who take on the mantle of “sound healers” or “sound therapists” may use a variety of instruments, including tuning forks, gongs, bells, and singing bowls, to create sound vibrations. (They are not to be confused with music therapists.)
For specific ailments, a sound therapist might hold an instrument near or on the affected body part. For example, Smith says, “I use weighted tuning forks directly on the body for anyone experiencing deep physical pain, such as back pain, menstrual cramps, knee issues, or hip pain.”
To promote general well-being, a sound practitioner might offer a sound bath—filling a space with a variety of sounds and tones and leading the client into a state of relaxation or meditation. In a 2016 study, sound meditation using a singing bowl—a metal or crystal bowl that produces sound when the outer rim of the bowl is stimulated—was found to reduce feelings of tension, anxiety, and depression.
When we hear a repeated sound—say with one of the aforementioned instruments—our minds and bodies enter states of calm. It’s key that the sound has a pattern though, so that if our minds wander, they can gently be put back on course by the repetition.
“This repetitive process of anchoring the attention into listening helps to regulate the nervous system and can engage physiologic changes in the body consistent with relaxation,” Bismark says. A few of the benefits the body can enjoy include slowed heart rate, decreased blood pressure, and slower breathing.
Lift every voice
You don’t have to rely on instruments. Your voice can also be a powerful healing tool, says Gina Breedlove, a sound healer, vocalist, composer, and writer. (She played the role of Sarabi in The Lion King on Broadway). Breedlove says she grew up instinctively singing to herself to calm her mind in stressful or traumatic situations. She was also moved by the voices of women in church.
“I would hear them moaning…singing and humming and moaning,” Breedlove says. She understood that this is how they soothed one another.
One day, in an attempt to calm someone who was in the midst of an emotional breakdown, Breedlove explains that was moved to “sound into” them the way she had seen church mothers do. It helped. Now Breedlove offers her services in one-on-one sessions and workshops to help people learn to use their own voices to incorporate healing sound into their daily lives.
A different kind of strength can come from making sound with someone else. A study conducted at Macquarie University in Australia suggests that chanting in a group is associated with feeling more connected to the people you are singing with. It also enhances your mood.
The collective benefit of group chanting may be why the tradition has persisted and is practiced in many yoga classes. While we may participate in a kirtan—Indian devotional singing—for the joyful camaraderie that comes from joining voices with others, studies show we may also benefit from improved cognition, better sleep, and stronger memory, as well as reduced depression and pain.
Music can regulate your mood and emotions, as well as impact heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration.
The sound of music
For some people, sound—music in particular—is an essential part of the yoga experience, whether it is chanting, reciting devotional mantras, or singing during a kirtan. It can be part of their asana practice as well.
“I tried to do yoga practice without the music and it just felt like somethings was missing,” Smith says. “But adding the music immediately relaxed my mind, relaxed my body, and really ignited something in my spirit.”
Linda Cadle, a Maryland-based yoga teacher, can relate. “Your mind can be very busy, so [music] just helps to ease that and get you a little more relaxed,” she says.
At the end of yoga sessions, yoga instructor and musician Rocky Heron likes to play live guitar or put on his album of kirtan music. “I find it effective at promoting relaxation,” he says. “Singing at the end of a class is also my way of offering something nourishing and soothing.”
“Whether listening to music, chanting mantra, singing kirtans, or silently letting meaningful words repeat and resonate within the heart, sound can be an integral part of yoga,” Bismark says. “It’s a sensory experience that can be used in nourishing ways to invite relaxation in the body, calm the mind, and inspire well-being.”
Breedlove calls sound an adaptogen that enhances your resilience to physical and emotional stress. “It moves through your bloodstream to heal and love you forward,” she says.
Sound is always present—shifting us, moving us, changing us. Even silence is seldom silent. It can be an abundant gift with tremendous power if we take the time to stop and listen.
Music as medicine
Since ancient times, music has been recognized for its ability to heal. Ancient Egyptians used chants as medicine. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras (yes, the one you learned about in math class) taught his students to use sound to calm and heal themselves. Indigenous healers used songs revealed to them in dreams to care for ailing tribe members.
The ancients knew: Music works wonders. Modern science proves it. Research shows that music can create shifts in brain chemistry and structure that can impact physical and mental health.
Enter music therapy, defined by the American Music Therapy Association as the use of music interventions by credentialed professionals to address physical, mental, and emotional health issues. Music therapy (MT) includes singing, playing instruments, and listening to or moving to music.
Music therapy helps patients manage stress, ease pain, improve memory, communicate better, and build stronger motor skills. You’ll find MT programs in hospitals, rehab centers, schools, and other settings because of research-supported benefits:
- In pediatric hospitals, music therapists work with children to help them improve motor skills and rehab from injuries, as well as to ease pain, fear, and stress.
- A 2013 study published in Pediatrics found that hearing live music—including lullabies—influenced premature babies’ heart and respiratory function and improved feeding and bonding.
- School counselors may employ music therapy techniques to help students with communication, mood regulation, and behavior.
- Music helps reduce anxiety for patients in coronary care units and in cancer pain care.
- Patients who have multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, dementia, and those who have suffered strokes or brain injuries may benefit from MT.
- Psychiatric hospitals and mental-health centers use group music therapy to reduce anxiety and depression symptoms, and to calm psychological and behavioral disturbances. It’s also been known to improve mental health.
- Research shows that music therapy helps improve communication, the expression of empathy, and social and interpersonal skills.
While you may not need the services of a trained music therapist, you can use their methods—singing, playing an instrument, moving to music, or just listening to it—to improve your own well-being.
Brooklyn White is a writer and editor based in New York, where she serves as the senior editor for Essence’s platform, Girls United. She is writing the official biography of Grammy-winning artist Missy Elliott.
From Spring 2022