Sound Therapy

Sound therapy covers a range of treatments, from music therapy to sound baths, according to Nada Milosavljevic, M.D., founder of the Integrative Health Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. Like massage therapy, which delivers healing through touch, it’s a form of sensory therapy, and it has been used by various cultural groups for centuries. The most prominent form practiced in the U.S. is music therapy, but the use of individual sounds and frequencies has been growing. Essentially, sound and music are noninvasive, simple, and cost-effective therapeutic tools.

Various flavors of sound healing differ much like other forms of therapy. Sound baths are one of the most common; according to Sara Auster, sound therapist and author of Sound Bath: Meditate, Heal and Connect Through Listening, sound baths use instruments like bowls to initiate “a deeply immersive, full-body listening experience.” There’s music therapy, which uses therapist-guided sounds to enhance memory and alleviate stress. Binaural beats, yet another form, involves playing two separate tones in each ear, which are perceived as a single, almost euphoric tone by the brain. Other forms of sound therapy work much in the same way—sound eases, energizes, and empowers us.

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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.

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.