As an Acupuncture, Shiatsu, and Qigong student, I hear a lot about energy movement in the body. Sometimes the mention of energy movement created by resonant frequencies (used in sound therapy) gives me pause, since I really have no clue what the resonant frequencies of my body may be, or why they might be healing. However, I did experience an amazing class of Healing Sound Qigong with Master Liu He, which completely relaxed my abdomen and eliminated my PMS cramps immediately. This struck me as very powerful, yet perplexing. It reminded me of how I feel after playing the flute for a long time; my whole body feels open and relaxed. Is there the possibility that the sound waves themselves are contributing to this good feeling?
Since I have been playing flute in a symphony recently, I have begun to seriously consider the ramifications of having powerful sound waves blasting through the body (mainly from the trombones, and the occasional piccolo). It mostly feels great, and sometimes feels totally weird. By sitting in the middle of the symphony, I can’t help but feel sucked into every emotional variation and tension created by well-played and poorly-played parts alike. If the rehearsal is a bit rough, I may leave feeling disconcerted and need a musical palate cleanser, such as the one below!
The relaxing, happy song by Van Morrison entitled “That’s Entrainment”:
Entrainment in a biomusicological sense occurs when your organism synchronizes with an external rhythm, such as the involuntary foot-tapping associated with listening to this song.
Entrainment is what I experience sitting in the symphony. But it still leaves me with more questions- Is this biomusicological entrainment creating substantial changes in my brain? Perhaps the soundwaves resonate with different tissues and spaces in my body? Why do I feel intense highs and only the occasional discomfort (usually when trumpets are too sharp and strings are too flat, ahem)? Is this more of a physical or mental phenomenon, or both? Let’s first look at the mechanism of action:
The amazing slinky, developed accidentally by a shipyard engineer. It has been used in elementary school science projects to represent wave theory since the 1950s.
Sound is created by compressional (longitudinal) waves which cause each molecule to propagate the compression through to the adjacent molecule, transferring the original pulse of energy which created the compression to the next molecule. This wave has a different sound depending on its frequency. The Acoustics Research Group at The Open University created a nice summary of how sound travels.
So the soundwaves reach the air next to our ears. The compression wave in the air particles transmit the compression wave to the inner ear fluid, or endolymph. The transmission from air to fluid then creates a shear wave, which stimulates special sensory hairs called stereocilia with its movement. As these hairs bend, they trigger the opening of gated ion channels which create an electrical potential that propagates to the auditory nerve which sends a signal to the brain. Wikipedia describes this process of Mechanoelectrical transduction more fully, but you get the idea.
So yes, Ace had the right idea, Go Slinky Go!
Now, scientists are using soundwaves to target specific tissues within the body, in order to vibrate them at a very high frequency until they explode. Sounds brutal, right? But it’s highly focused and the destruction is cell-specific. It is even being referred to as “knifeless surgery.”
Medical practitioners are beginning to use this therapy, called High-Intensity Focused Ultrasound (HIFUS), to treat cancer. HIFUS can ablate (destroy) tissue for the treatment of cancer; it can also provide low-intensity heating for hyperthermia; and it can open the blood-brain barrier to activate enhanced uptake of drugs.
So unless the piccolo starts to act on a frequency that is ultra-sonic, I don’t have to worry about permanent damage to my internal organs- just my stereocilia. But are there beneficial effects of just feeling soundwaves in our bodies, at a frequency that we can hear?
From a historical perspective, people have been taking advantage of soundwaves to alter brainwaves since the practice of chanting began. In India and China (and probably many more places), certain organs or chakras began to be associated with specific sounds or mantras. For example, in this Qigong video, the practitioner uses six sounds to harmonize the Liver and the Lung, as well as to transform anger and stress into peace.
From using tuning forks of specific pitches, to playing instruments, to creating mantras that should be intoned at specific pitches, sound therapy is currently undergoing a revitalization. The Acoustical Society of America holds annual symposiums addressing current research in many applications of the science of acoustics, and many include healing sound therapies. This paper given at a recent symposium outlines an interesting analysis of the structure of sound-based rituals.
The Tama-Do Academy of Sound, Color, and Movement has created an extensive healing system that combines the meridian systems of acupuncture, the chakra systems of ayurveda, sound therapy, and qigong. The founder Fabien Maman has investigated the potential healing effect of sound on hemoglobin cells.
In case you were curious, here is a commonly used Chakra-Association Chart for Sound and Color:
The chakra-association table shows the beautiful simplicity of sound-therapy associations in one tradition. Now in these “modern times” we can measure the effect of soundwaves in our bodies with fancy sensors other than our own neurons, and sound-based therapy is changing along with the new ideas. The Heart Math Institute has studied music’s effect on salivary IGA and positive emotional states. They have also studied the benefit of synchronizing or entraining the heart to match the brain’s frequency or vice versa; that study can be found here. In the latter study, meditation and visualization allowed the wavelength entrainment to occur; in the former study, certain musical patterns helped meditation to be more effective in producing a positive emotional state.
To take this music-heart connection a step further, check out this project in which musician Milford Graves attempts to alter the beat pattern of a heart by stimulating it with certain sounds! From the NPR article:
Graves says a healthy heart — like a good jazz drummer — emphasizes the triplets (1-2-3, 1-2-3), not the eighth notes (1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4).
“If you’ve got a stiff heartbeat, that means your blood is like ‘squirt, squirt.’ Not a nice flow,” Graves says. “I want to look at that and see what’s happening.”
If Graves thinks something is wrong, he’ll manipulate the sound, perhaps by speeding it up or slowing it down on his computer. He’ll then use this counter-rhythm to try to nudge the heart back toward a more normal pattern. The manipulated sounds are put back into the volunteer’s body, either through acupuncture needles or through their ears.
Harvard Medical School professor Baruch Krauss says what Graves does isn’t so different from what emergency physicians try to do for patients with abnormal heartbeats. Krauss stresses that Graves’ work isn’t ready for patient therapies, but he calls it “exciting, extremely original and innovative.”
Fascinating stuff, even if we are still in the experimental stages of this sound therapy.
If sound influences humans so strongly, surely it effects the rest of the natural world at the same level (or possibly more so?) To prove this, Bernie Krause has been recording the sound profiles of ecosystems throughout the world for 40 years. He hypothesizes that within every ecosystem, all the wavelengths will be filled by some type of sound, and when a species leaves or goes extinct, the system tries to adapt to fill that empty wavelength. Krause calls this collective sound voiced by non-humans in a certain location the “biophony.” To take the application of biophony a step further, he theorizes that in the past, humans could sense this symphony of sound and recognize small variations in the environment just by listening closely (like picking out whether an oboe is playing, or if the 3rd violin is absent). Yes, you could even imagine Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf as a simplified version of this idea.
Here is a great interview with Krause, from Studio 360:
Studio 360 Interviews Bernie Krause about Biophony
Now sit back, relax, and listen to this birdie-symphony from the outback, as recorded by the excellent Listening Earth:
Compare those patterns to Beethoven’s 6th, or Pastoral Symphony:
1st movement: “An unusual aspect of the movement is the use of a microscopic texture, obtained by multiple repetitions of very short motifs. As Yvonne Frindle has said, “the infinite repetition of pattern in nature [is] conveyed through rhythmic cells, its immensity through sustained pure harmonies.”
2nd movement: “Toward the end of the movement, in the coda that begins at measure 124, there is a cadenza for three woodwind instruments that imitates bird calls at measure 130. Beethoven helpfully identified the bird species in the score: nightingale (flute), quail (oboe), and cuckoo (clarinet).”
So what have I determined about the effect of sitting within a huge morass of varying types of vibrational frequencies onstage during a symphony rehearsal? Besides breaking off a few extra sensory hairs here and there, I believe that it will help attune my sensitivity to picking out subtle pattern variations in other settings too. I will report back about the heart-brain entrainment and chakra-clearing, after I have had a chance to investigate them further. I hope to gain a greater understanding of sound therapy, and even if I don’t regularly utilize tuning forks and chanting, or chakra-color-specific slinkys, at least I will have found some relaxing music to play in the treatment room!
Hopefully I will avoid this kind of situation:
What kinds of questions does this article bring up for you? Is there one area of sound therapy or biophonics that seems more interesting or promising than another? Do you think we can use the scientific method to improve on the ancient chanting practices? What level of acceptance does this type of therapy garner in popular culture (i.e. how high on the woo-woo scale)? Would you be more willing to try acupuncture or sound therapy for the first time?
Gratuitous Bird-Song reference from The Be Good Tanyas: