Good vibrations: What is sound therapy?

  • Sound therapy uses music and other sounds to help ease pain and restore mental health.
  • Sound has a neurochemical impact on the brain.
  • It can also be used in conjunction with other treatments.

Remember the first time you heard your favourite song? Did it give you goosebumps or speak to your soul? The joy you experienced might have felt like it could heal all wounds.

Music is as old as humanity itself and you might be surprised to know that humans have been using the healing power of sound for millennia – from the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, who used flutes and incantations to "vibrate" their patients back to health, to the orchestral medicine administered by Diogel in the 19th century to lower blood pressure and pulse rate.

Today, sound therapy exists in many forms, from holistic Tibetan singing bowl meditation, to group drum circles and binaural beats for sleep and concentration.

Then there are also more structured sound therapy sessions, like the Bonny Method, where music guides you on a sensory journey through the imagination to better understand your inner self.

READ | Music might help soothe ailing hearts 

What the science says

Healing by sound may not sound very scientific, but a lot of research has been done to assess the effects of music and individual tones on the brain, called the neurochemistry of music. 

In a meta-analysis of studies, music therapy emerged as the next "great frontier".

A lot of evidence has shown that music can trigger certain changes in the brain and, on an emotional level, it has an effect on our oxytocin levels. This calming effect can reduce stress hormones, which are known to increase inflammation and cause disease. 

A study conducted on fibromyalgia patients – a debilitating painful disease that affects mostly women – found that undergoing low-frequency sound therapy twice a week for five weeks led to a decrease in pain and reduced dependence on medication. 

And, in the case of older methods, a study found that singing bowl meditation helped reduce tension, anger, fatigue and depression, especially in people who had never meditated before.

READ MORE | Mastering the violin won't help your child master maths

Findings still preliminary

While studies are promising, there is, however, not yet any conclusive evidence. There have been various issues, such as small sample sizes, musical taste bias from scientists and the question of whether other factors, besides the music, might have influenced the results.

One such case is the Mozart Effect, which claims that listening to classical music increases intelligence. However, the control group in the study sat around doing nothing while the test subjects listened to music – and when the inactive group engaged in literally any activity, the differences between the two groups disappeared.  

Another issue is that many studies are conducted by practitioners who aren't licensed or trained in music therapy. It has also been found that this kind of therapy might work better in controlled one-on-one sessions than through self-administered musical "medication".

It has no side effects and is non-invasive

In conclusion, there are many more upsides than downsides to sound therapy, which is probably why it is evoking so much interest. It's non-invasive, has no side effects, appeals to most people and doesn't involve medication. 

Whether music therapy is used for meditation, pain management or mental health, it's important to work with a licensed sound therapist who has psychological training, and in conjunction with traditional treatment options.

READ | Could high-tempo tunes help maximise your workout?

Image credit: Unsplash

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