Tuning into the healing effects of music and sound therapy

From shamanic ceremonies accompanied by drums to Shakespeare’s memorable description of music as “the food of love,” the idea that sound can comfort, move, heal and invigorate is time-honoured.[1]As early as 400 B.C., Hippocrates – AKA the Greek Father of Medicine – played music for mentally ill patients, while 13th-century Arab hospitals housed healing ‘music rooms’.[2]

“A person does not hear sound only through the ears; he hears sound through every pore of his body,” wrote Sufi musician and healer Hazrat Inayat Khan. “It permeates the entire being, and according to its particular influence either slows or quickens the rhythm of the blood circulation; it either wakens or soothes the nervous system. It arouses a person to greater passions or it calms him by bringing him peace.” 

If you’ve ever found yourself beaming – heart aglow – listening to live music, experienced the sense of peace meditative chanting can bring, or felt your eyes fill with tears at the sound of a particular song, you’ll know what Khan meant. And yet, how often do we stop to consider that it might be the frequencies of the music, not just the lyrics or melody of the song, that have such an all-encompassing effect on us? 


What are audio frequencies?

An audio frequency is a periodic vibration whose frequency humans can hear. This frequency is measured in Hertz (Hz). The higher the frequency, the higher the pitch of the sound. Birds tweeting, whistles blowing, children shrieking – all these sounds will have a high frequency, while the beat of a bass drum or a bellow of thunder will have a lower frequency.

Most humans can hear audio frequencies between 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz, while dogs can hear sounds as high as 47,000 to 65,000 Hz – far beyond our range.

How do audio frequencies and sound affect our health?

Sound waves can influence our bodies at a fundamental level – right down to our cells and tissues. The vibrations and frequencies of sound can activate a range of biochemical processes that facilitate healing and promote wellbeing. 

Research has repeatedly shown that sound and music can positively influence everything from heart rate and blood pressure to mood and cognitive function. For example:

  • According to research, Mozart’s ‘Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos K448’ activates neuronal cortical circuits related to memory, focus, cognition and problem solving – inspiring the idea of the so-called ‘Mozart effect’.[3] Have a listen to Mozart’s mind-enhancing masterpiece here.
  • In a 2013 study, listening to music de-escalated the body’s stress response, making it easier for individuals to regain mental balance and calm more quickly.[4]
  • Studies show that music therapy (monochord sounds in particular) can have a relaxing effect on patients undergoing chemotherapy, helping to reduce feelings of anxiety.[5]
  • Researchers looking at the effect of music on people who’d had knee replacement surgery found that listening to music in rehabilitation sessions acted as a measurable pain reliever and improved joint mobility.[6]
  • In another study, which investigated music therapy in patients diagnosed with depression, long-term music therapy positively influenced alpha and theta brain waves, resulting in a kind of “neural reorganisation” and a significant drop in anxiety.[7]
  • Playing patients with Unresponsive Wakefulness Syndrome (where the patient regains consciousness from a coma but remains unresponsive) their favourite music for a period of time every day for three weeks was shown to reduce their theta/beta ratio and theta power. This decrease might demonstrate the possibility of recovering “brain integrity”.[8]

However, if not regulated, sound frequencies can also overstimulate our sensory system, making us feel stressed, overwhelmed or negatively impacting our wellbeing. Whether you’re a factory worker of fifty years or a music fan with a penchant for dancing next to vibrating speakers, loud environments can easily damage your ears – causing everything from tinnitus to long-term hearing loss.[9]

“As we continue to be bombarded by outside sounds and frequencies, we are simultaneously seeing the re-remembrance of sound technologies and therapies intended to strengthen, heal and nurture us,” says Conscious Spaces founder Tara Williams.

By delving deeper into the potential of sound, we can unlock a rich and multi-faceted realm of knowledge, healing and expansion.


What are binaural beats, and how might they benefit our health?

Like a soothing audio bath for your busy brain, binaural beats can induce a similar mental state as meditation – but in a fraction of the time. So, what exactly are they, and how do they work?[10]

When you pop on a set of headphones and hear two sounds – one in each ear – that are slightly different in frequency, your brain responds by creating a third frequency (the difference between the two). Instead of hearing the two competing sounds, you hear the third, synchronised tone your brain produces. This tone is called a binaural beat.

For a binaural beat to work, the two sounds need to have frequencies less than 1000 Hz, with the difference between the two not amounting to more than 30 Hz – and you have to hear the sounds separately, one through each ear (hence the headphones!).

Interestingly, research suggests that listening to binaural beats regularly could help ease stress and anxiety, improve sleep, focus and memory and boost mood and creativity.[11]

Accessing binaural beats is easy. Head to YouTube or Spotify to find thousands of binaural beats audio files, and prepare to drift away to a calming sound sanctuary.


Could changing the frequency of music boost our wellbeing?

440 vs 432: which would you back in the battle of the musical frequencies?

Currently, most musical instruments are tuned to the same frequency: 440 Hz. However, a growing number of musicians and theorists believe that if we tuned them to 432 Hz instead, we would experience greater wellbeing and beneficial effects.

In a 2019 study, 33 volunteers entered a room to listen to 20 minutes of music from a movie soundtrack. The next day, they returned to the same room to listen to the same music. The difference? On the first day, the music was tuned to 440 Hz. On the second, it was tuned to 432 Hz.[12]

After listening to the 432 Hz tuned music, the volunteers’ heart rate was markedly lower than after hearing the music tuned to 440 Hz. There was also a slight decrease in participants’ blood pressure after listening to the 432 Hz tuned music, and they described feeling more focused and generally “more satisfied”. 

While more research is needed, this study makes a compelling case for reassessing musical frequency.


Do nerves transmit sound, not electricity? 

The widely accepted theory that nerves transmit electrical pulses ­­is wrong. That's what a group of researchers from Copenhagen University attempting to explain the longstanding mystery of how anesthetics work say – arguing that nerves use sound waves to relay signals from the brain to the rest of the body instead.[13]

From tapping your toe to blinking your eyes, textbooks tell us that nerves use electrical impulses to send messages. "But for us as physicists, this cannot be the explanation," says Thomas Heimburg, an expert in biophysics from Copenhagen University. "The physical laws of thermodynamics tell us that electrical impulses must produce heat as they travel along the nerve, but experiments find that no such heat is produced."

Heimburg and his team suggested that anesthetics change the melting point of the nerve membrane, making it impossible for their theorised nerve sound pulses to grow and spread – numbing an area and stopping you from feeling pain. If the scientists are right, their study could encourage new thinking and innovation in sound frequencies and medicine.


Tuning into the ancient art of sound healing 

Sound healing has a long and rich history, dating back thousands of years. From ancient Egypt to Greece, India and China, the power of sound and music to heal and restore has been understood for millennia and amongst many different cultures.  

The ancient Chinese art of acupuncture and sound vibrations 

The use of sound as medicine in Chinese culture dates back thousands of years. 

In traditional Chinese medicine, energy channels in the body known as 'meridians' form a network through which qi (life force energy) flows. When a person feels unwell or has an ailment, Chinese medicine states that the flow of qi along the different meridian points – each associated with the specific organs and body systems – must be disturbed.[14]

Acupuncture involves the insertion of thin needles into specific meridian points on the body to stimulate the flow of energy (or qi). And, from singing bowls to gongs, practitioners often incorporate the sound vibrations of therapeutic instruments in their sessions – creating a powerful synergy that helps stimulate and encourage extra flow. 

Meanwhile, in the ancient Chinese system of movement called Qi gong, six healing sounds accompany a set of poses and exercises, purportedly helping to purge the major internal organs of toxic and stagnant qi by cleansing and cooling them.

Ancient Egypt and its reverberating religion temples

From hieroglyphs depicting harps and lyres to chanting in temple rituals and the music of healing ceremonies, it's clear that ancient Egyptians understood the power of sound and its potent effect on the human body and mind. 

Used in religious ceremonies in the Hathor Temples of Dendera to ward off evil spirits and promote healing, the 'Sistrum' was a percussive musical instrument made of brass or bronze. 

With its massive columns and lofty ceiling, the Dendera Temple's Hypostyle Hall has a reverberation time (how long a sound lasts after the source has stopped) of up to seven seconds, creating a lush and enveloping sound that takes longer to fade – and making the space particularly suitable for chanting or singing. Researchers have suggested that the columns in the Hall could have acted as resonators, amplifying particular sound frequencies for even greater healing effects.[15] 

Pythagoras’ principle of resonance

Pythagoras, the famous ancient Greek mathematician, philosopher and musician, used sound and music to heal the body and mind. An early proponent of the principle of resonance, he believed that different musical notes corresponded to particular body parts – and that playing the right notes could restore balance and wellbeing.

The principle of resonance is a well-established phenomenon in acoustics – occurring when an external stimulus (such as sound waves) forces an object to vibrate at its natural frequency with increased amplitude. 

Pythagoras may have observed the principle of resonance in action as the strings of his lyre vibrated in response to the sound waves generated by an external source, like a blacksmith's hammer. This observation may have contributed to his understanding of the mathematical relationships between musical notes, which he famously expressed as ratios of whole numbers. [16]

India and the yoga of sound

Nada Yoga, or the yoga of sound, has been used in India for thousands of years to promote healing and spiritual growth. Since ancient times, Indians have employed mantras, ragas, and other forms of sound meditation to purify the mind, balance the chakras, and promote overall wellbeing.

Ragas are melodic structures used in Indian classical music – a set of notes arranged in a specific order and played in a certain way to create a particular mood or feeling. Each raga is associated with a different time of day, season and emotion and has a distinct character. 

Traditionally learned through oral transmission, students memorize the melody and rhythm of a particular raga by listening to a master musician's performance. The practice of improvisation is also an essential component of Indian classical music, and ragas provide a framework for musicians to create their own unique interpretations and variations.[17]

Sound as supreme healer and Spirit connector in indigenous cultures

Indigenous cultures also have a deep-rooted understanding and appreciation for the power of sound. Across the world, from the Americas to Africa, Australia and Asia, indigenous peoples have used sound for healing, celebration, preparation, and communication. 

One of the best-known examples of sound in indigenous healing practices is the use of drums and rattles by Native American tribes. The rhythmic beat of the drum can lock people into the present moment, inducing a highly meditative, trance-like state of theta wave consciousness. In this mental space, a person feels connected to 'Spirit': an omnipresent supreme life force. 

Rattles, meanwhile, are typically used to clear energy. Indigenous tribes believe that repressed and unprocessed emotions can block our energy field, causing disturbances and distress. Clearing sounds – like the rattle and certain vocal pitches – help create a pattern disruption in the energy field so movement can resume. Flutes, on the other hand, are used to draw someone into harmony. They act as storytellers of the emotional state of the tribe.[18]

The Inuit tribe is known for their Throat Singing, where women sing multiple notes in tandem, using the human voice as an instrument and creating resonant harmonies of unique, guttural vocal sounds. Similarly, Pow Wows and Ceremonial Sweat Lodges have songs at their centre and take place in group settings to amplify the healing and honouring effects.[19]

Sound is also used in many native cultures to honour life's rites of passage, guiding the student through one state of being into a new one in special ceremonies.  

Music, singing, and dancing are ways in which these cultures find the purest connection to Spirit and each other, where connection and healing occur energetically, beyond words.

Modern-day sound therapies

From singing bowls to sound baths, ceremonial gongs, tuning forks and innovative new technologies, the Western world is re-remembering the ancient use of sound for healing.

As we’ve explored in this article, in recent years, music therapy and sound healing have become popular complementary therapies – and, in some cases, recognised treatments for various physical and mental health conditions. 

Although sound healing is seeing a re-emergence, it has always been a fascinating topic for researchers and healers alike.


COMING SOON: The next installment of our frequencies series, all about the awe-inspiring frequencies found in the natural world…



[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4010966

[2] https://explainmusictherapy.weebly.com/history.html

[3]  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26036835/

[4]  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3734071/

[5] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23131371/

[6]  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29254373/

[7] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22983820/

[8] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26159769/

[9] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8073416/

[10] https://www.healthline.com/health/binaural-beats

[11] https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/acm.2006.6196

[12] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31031095/

[13] https://www.livescience.com/1357-controversial-idea-nerves-transmit-sound-electricity.html#:~:text=Nerves%20transmit%20sound%20waves%20through,mystery%20of%20how%20anesthetics%20work.

[14] https://stevecosteracupuncture.co.uk/the-sound-of-chinese-medicine/

[15] https://www.google.com/books/edition/Hathor_Rising/nogGGM_vqOwC?hl=en

[16] https://www.sensorystudies.org/picture-gallery/spheres_image/

[17] https://www.darbar.org/article/ragatherapy-indian-music-s-healing-powers

[18] https://musicworxinc.com/2021/11/25/the-power-of-native-american-instruments-in-music-therapy/

[19] https://www.quarkexpeditions.com/gb/blog/inuit-throat-singing-a-mesmerizing-experience#:~:text=What%20is%20Inuit%20Throat%20Singing,away%20on%20long%20hunting%20trips.

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