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The Healing Power of Sound

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From humming to drumming to Tibetan singing bowls – recent research suggests that the influences of certain rhythms, sounds and vibrations can help us resist and recover from a wide variety of ailments.

Sound can set a mood. The soundtrack in aerobics class gets us moving, for example, while the one in yoga promotes quiet concentration. Sound also has a powerful effect on how we feel throughout the day. Our bodies and minds react differently to the unrelenting noise of a jackhammer than to a trickle of water in a creek.

In other words, some sounds simply make us feel better than others. Whether our conscious minds are paying attention or not, our bodies take their cues from these sounds and rhythms, knowing when to get energized and when to slow down.

Now, a growing body of research suggests that when used in a directed way, sound can also help us reduce stress, create a deep sense of well-being and even promote healing. From playing Bach in the nursery to yogic chanting in the oncologist’s office, sound therapy is gaining popularity as both a preventative medicine and as a complement to more-traditional treatments. Good for both the mind and the body, it has been shown to help lift depression, clear sinuses and help cancer patients recover more quickly from chemotherapy.

Good Vibrations

The idea that sound affects the health of the mind and body is not new. Chanting and mantra recitation have been part of Hindu spirituality and the healing power of yoga for thousands of years. Given the recent interest in mind-body medicine, it’s not surprising that this ancient tradition is experiencing a modern-day renaissance.

So what, exactly, is it?

Using the human voice and objects that resonate to stimulate healing (think tuning forks and singing bowls), sound therapy is one of a growing number of subtle-energy therapies that make up the field of vibrational medicine. According to the law of physics, everything vibrates: the chair you’re sitting in, the food you eat, the rocks and trees.

“Whether or not we hear it, everything has a sound, a vibration all its own,” writes Joshua Leeds in The Power of Sound (Healing Arts Press, 2001).

That sound is called resonance, the frequency at which an object naturally vibrates. Each part of our bodies has its own natural resonance, and vibrational medicine is based on the idea that disease is a result of those natural resonances getting out of tune – whether due to stress, illness or environmental factors.

As opposed to the highly focused and fast vibrations used in ultrasound (a technology already employed in hospitals to break up kidney stones and check on the health of fetuses, for example), sound therapy works more gently – but just as powerfully – to return the body’s own vibrations to their natural states.

Getting In Tune

But does it work? Yes, say sound therapists, who have successfully treated everything from stress to Parkinson’s disease to hormonal problems. Jonathan Goldman, director of the Sound Healers Association in Boulder, Colo., has seen tuning forks alleviate many maladies, including headaches and misaligned vertebrae. Diáne Mandle, a certified sound healer in Encinitas, Calif., uses Tibetan singing bowls to bring her clients’ bodies back in tune.

In her article “Sound Healing With Tibetan Bowls,” first published by the Holistic Health Network, Mandle writes that her clients have experienced “relief from pain and discomfort, clearing of sinuses, shifting out of depression, [improved] ability to sleep . . . , revitalization and clarity, feeling of well-being, great connectedness, and deep personal transformation.”

Sounds good, right? And perhaps a little strange?

“Using forks and bowls for anything other than dinner may seem to some people like New Age nonsense,” writes Stephanie Rosenbloom in a November 2005 article in The New York Times. “But healers, sometimes called sounders, argue that sound can have physiological effects because its vibrations are not merely heart but also felt. And vibrations, they say, can lower heart-rate variability, relax brain-wave patterns and reduce respiratory rates.”

Stress hormones decrease under these conditions, which is good news for everyone, but especially for people with a serious illness. That’s one reason Mitchell Gaynor, MD, an oncologist and assistant clinical professor at Cornell University’s Weill Medical College in New York, uses singing bowls with his cancer patients. Gaynor sees sound as part of a broader trend toward the humanization of medicine in which the whole person, not just the part that’s broken, is addressed.

“I believe that sound can play a role in virtually any medical disorder, since it redresses imbalances on every level of physiologic functioning,” he writes in his book The Healing Power of Sound: Recovery from Life-Threatening Illness Using Sound, Voice and Music (Shambhala, 1999).

The Future of Healing

Sound therapy, many experts say, is at the cutting edge of healing. And soon, they insist, like yoga and meditation, it will enter the mainstream.

The truth is, you’re probably already using sound therapy in your life. Several years ago, three out of four people who responded to a Prevention magazine health survey said that they listen to music to ease tension and stress. Of those, 82 percent reported that it brought them significant relief.

So even if you’re not interested in investing in a fancy tuning fork or a singing bowl, sound healing is still available to you. The next time you need a little pick-me-up or mellow-me-out, hum a little tune, or, better yet, go for a walk and enjoy nature’s own healing harmonies.

Karen Olson is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.