Sound Healing 101: The Science Behind Sound Healing

How sound healing can boost relaxation and help your creative flow.

By Silvi Demirasi

For many people, sound healing is a concept enshrouded in an ethereal layer of ancient Eastern spirituality. (Cue thrumming gong reverberating high up in the Himalayas.) Indeed, some sound healing practices can be dated back as early as 40,000 years. Even so, sound healing circles continue to crop up locally, and the practice is commonly employed as a subset form of meditation today. A low-cost, low-risk alternative to medication with far-reaching results, is sound healing is worth its salt as an effective self-care practice? 

Let's take a closer look...

What is sound healing exactly? Sound healing, or sound therapy, is the practice of using music to improve your health and general well-being. It uses the vibrations of sound to lull us into a meditative state. It has been purported to improve various physical and mental symptoms; most commonly cited are stress management, anxiety, depression, and pain management. 

Sound therapy encapsulates a wide range of techniques and instruments, including but certainly not limited to tuning forks, “singing” crystal bowls, gongs, drums, and even the use of voices. Often as a prelude to the actual sounding event, individuals will be taken through a short meditation to relax any tension in their bodies and ease into the present moment. This type of meditative priming opens up the individual, allowing them to be more receptive to the vibrational energy released by the instruments. 

While there are a couple of theories behind sound healing, the predominant one is brain entrainment, the phenomenon in which the rhythmic wave patterns of an external instrument (often in the form of sound or pulsing light) can induce specific brainwave patterns in an individual. Generally speaking, our brains are constantly emitting brain waves at all times of the day, and the frequency of those brain waves differ depending on what activity we’re engaged in. (We’re even emitting these brainwaves when we’re unconscious.)

("Music Touches The Brain", image from Science Nordic

The theory follows that by “tuning” our brainwaves to a different frequency, we’re able to evoke different mental states. Specific frequencies are associated with specific cognitive states. For example, the neurons in our brain emit alpha wavelengths when we’re in a more relaxed and calm state of mind, while theta wavelengths are associated with an even lower frequency exhibited in meditative and dream-like states. 

While there’s limited research on brain entrainment itself, there are a few studies that position sound healing as a promising alternative to traditional medication. At the foremost of the list of purported benefits is a lessening of anxiety and stress and mood improvement.

A 2016 study conducted by the University of California San Diego has shown singing bowl meditations to do just that. Following the sound meditation, the participant group (N=62) reported significant reductions in tension, anger, and an improvement in mood. 

A meta-analysis of fourteen studies also generally showed a significant decrease in depression in older adults living with chronic disease after listening to music, playing an instrument, singing, or any combination of them.

Given the mind-body connection, it might not come as a surprise that sound healing also helps manage the physiological symptoms of certain diseases, such as the pain that frequently manifests in fibromyalgia. 

The University of Toronto conducted a small study in which 19 female participants were administered sessions of low-frequency sound stimulation twice a week. Over five weeks, the group reported significant pain reduction. These results were corroborated by 74% of participants significantly reducing their pain medication with one-fourth of the group discontinuing it altogether.

One study shows an even stronger impact is possible when the person is the one participating in the “sound-making,” as is the case with exercises involving chanting or “vocal toning.” 

While some of these findings are promising, the research is still only exploratory and limited due to small sample sizes and an absence of control groups. Nevertheless, due to the low-cost and non-invasive nature of sound therapy, there’s no harm in trying it out if you have options nearby.

Explore Vocal Toning

Vocal toning is the practice of producing a sustained humming sound with one’s voice for therapeutic and meditative intentions. Sustained humming can “clear” your body, dissipating any tension or tightness residing within. Aside from an especially effective sound healing technique, it can conveniently be practiced within the confines of one’s home. If practiced thoughtfully, it could yield just as impactful results one might receive in a class.

If you’re looking for an at-home option to tap into the power of sound healing, below is a brief guide on executing the vocal toning technique on your own. 

  • Prep. Relax your facial muscles. Release any tension in the jaw area. Have your lips slightly parted. 
  • Inhale deeply through your nose.
  • Commence humming in one tone as you begin to exhale, and continue humming until you complete your exhale. (The frequency of the tone does not matter as long as you keep the tone consistent. Vocal toning videos are also available online if you’d like to follow the guidance of an instructor.) 
  • Repeat 4-5x.
  • Allow for some quiet time to notice the mind-body effects of your vocal toning.