A search for the healing power of sound.
Marieke Verhoeven | September 2011 issue
I’m lying in a bed that’s as hard as nails with a series of strings along the sides and two gongs above my head. It’s known as a gong bath, and Gwen de Jong, a practitioner of sound healing at Spirit Connection in Amsterdam, assures me it can help clear my mind. “Just give in to it, and don’t try to analyze it,” she says before we begin.
Then she asks, “What do you hope to achieve?” When I say I want to relax, De Jong puts a mask on my eyes and begins to play. While I enjoy the sounds at first, they soon become unpleasant. The increasingly intense vibrations feel like screeches; my head fills with dark thoughts. I’m this close to ending the session, but I struggle to give in to it. When the vibrations soften, I feel better. A few times, I even reach a mindless state—if only for a fraction of a second.
Afterward—my session lasted 20 minutes; they usually last an hour—Spirit Connection’s founder, Harry van Dalen, comes in and explains that the unpleasant sensation I felt is the internal battle between thoughts and the “I.” “Your ego is resisting. Some people can give themselves over right away; others take longer.” Internal battle or no, I feel remarkably relaxed afterward. Though I usually turn on my iPod after an interview, I decide this time to travel home in silence.
Most people are probably unaware that the body consists of vibrations. External sounds resonate with the sounds in our bodies; think of the sensation you feel near a speaker at a concert. It’s not so crazy, then, to imagine that external sounds might also have a therapeutic, healing effect. Anyone who listens to birds singing knows sound can relax us. But it can also heal, accomplishing everything from reducing stress to helping autistic children.
In recent years, academic studies have investigated the healing power of sound. In 2009, researchers at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland discovered sound waves can improve mobility in older people with bone problems. The application of sound waves reduced cholesterol levels and bone deterioration. That year, research at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, produced equally positive results. Forty patients with Parkinson’s disease sat in physioacoustic chairs, seats with speakers that emit low-frequency vibrations. Afterward, the patients’ symptoms had decreased. Motor skills improved; stiffness and shaking declined
The idea that sound affects the human body is not new. Healing mantras and religious chants are centuries old. The Egyptians described incantations to heal rheumatic pain, insect bites and infertility. The Old Testament records how King Saul was cured of his depression by David’s harp music. Famous composers have also discovered the connection between sounds, music and health. Mozart used this knowledge in his music by having the antagonist in an opera sing in a minor key and the protagonist in a major key. Composer George Frideric Handel once said he hoped his music had not simply entertained his listeners but “made them better.”
Jill Purce in England is a pioneer in the field of modern sound healing. Since the 1970s, she has led workshops worldwide to teach people how to use what she says is the most powerful instrument of all: the voice. She has people sing or chant to increase awareness and dissolve blockages.
Purce grew up with the healing power of sound. As the daughter of a concert pianist and a doctor, she was surrounded by the combination of sound and healing. Rather than study music or traditional medicine, Purce wanted to investigate the healing power of sound. “I was fascinated by forms and vibrations and by the effects of sound. I soon realized that our own voices are the most powerful instruments on Earth.”
A childhood incident played an important role in this realization. Purce and her family were in a small boat when a violent storm blew up. While others worried they might drown, three women on board began to chant. “Almost at once our fear dissolved. Waves of strength surged into us until finally we were overcome with feelings of bliss and enchantment.”
In addition to exploring the effects of sound and vibrations, Purce studied with Tibetan lamas beginning in the late 1960s. The lamas sing in overtones, higher-frequency components of the fundamental note that is chanted. “These monks sang in tones that resonated with their internal and external vibrations.
That’s when I realized that this way of chanting is the most effective way to create peace in the body and to reach a higher state of being.”
In Purce’s workshops, overtone chanting is a central component of discovering the power of sound. “I prefer to work in groups. Then you resonate not only with yourself and with nature but also with each other. That has the greatest effect.”
People with all kinds of health issues, from multiple sclerosis to depression, say Purce’s workshops help them. Purce herself is reluctant to claim any healing powers. “I don’t call myself a healer. What I actually do is help people heal themselves with an incredibly powerful tool: their own voices.” The basic principle underlying sound healing is that of resonance. Every object is in a constant state of vibration, goes the theory. Sound and light can affect matter, just as they affect the vibrations that matter produces. Because the human body is not made of a hard substance such as metal, it is receptive to the energy contained in sound.
The body also resonates. Each of our organs, bones and tissues has a frequency. And just like instruments, the body can get out of tune. When the components of the body vibrate at normal frequencies, we say we are “healthy.” If part of the body begins to vibrate at a nonharmonic frequency, we speak of “disease.” Research has shown that some sounds in our voices are under stress. These sounds correspond to imbalances in the body. Changing our voice patterns changes the frequencies in our brainwaves and reduces illness.
Purce is not bothered by the fact that traditional Western medicine views her methods as airy-fairy. She has another way of looking at it. “My husband is a biologist, so I know scientists want to see proof,” she says. “But I see proof in the doing of it.”
The academic world is, in fact, already acquainted with the positive effects of sound. In the mid-1960s, French physician Alfred Tomatis explored the relationship between sound pollution and hearing damage. He spent years researching the interplay between the voice, the auditory system, the body and the mind. According to Tomatis, the ear is a generator that feeds the brain with energy during the prenatal phase (when the baby is in the womb). During prenatal development, the ability to listen can be damaged without damage to the baby’s hearing.
Tomatis’ therapy, which is now used primarily for children with dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, consists of re-experiencing the development of the ability to listen. Children treated by this method are fed music containing high tones through headphones. These are either Mozart’s symphonies or Gregorian chants, and using a special device, the “electronic ear,” they are filtered down to the level of sound in liquid, as a baby in the womb would hear them. During therapy, the child will also be exposed to his or her mother’s voice. The high tones (16 to 20 kHz) are the primary source of the method’s healing effect. Research has shown that these tones stimulate the brain in such a way that concentration and the ability to learn are enhanced. The subject responds with greater alertness and has more energy. Though the technique offers no guarantees, the results are positive. After treatment, children are able to listen and read better.
Aaltje van Zweden is well aware of sound’s positive effects on children with mental disabilities. She and her husband, violinist Jaap van Zweden, founded the Papageno Foundation 15 years ago. Papageno employs music therapists who help autistic children communicate through music. The couple’s experience with autism introduced them to the healing power of music, sound and rhythm.
“When our son was 5, he responded strongly to certain music. Whenever I played the song ‘Jesus to a Child’ by George Michael, he became very upset. He couldn’t talk then, but years later he told me that the song made him sad,” Van Zweden remembers.
Although her son is 21, he still meets with a music therapist. “Our therapists always come to the children at home. My son looks forward to it, though he usually isn’t interested in anything. During last week’s session, I even heard him describe his week in the form of an opera!”
Music can also stimulate quicker recovery in people who have had strokes. Researchers at the University of Helsinki came to this conclusion by measuring what patients were able to do one week after a stroke. Then researchers had stroke victims listen to music, audio books or nothing. Three months after their strokes, verbal memory had improved by 60 percent in patients who had listened to music.
Physical therapy also makes use of sound. Physical therapists, podiatrists and manual therapists use tuning forks to diagnose nerve problems. For example, manual therapist Petra de Lange of the Open Hart bodywork practice in Enschede, the Netherlands, works with phonophoretic sonopuncture, a therapy that uses tuning fork vibrations. According to De Lange, this method can regulate physical, emotional and mental discomfort and stimulate meridians, chakras and nadis, the channels of energy and consciousness in traditional Chinese medicine. “All matter, color, bodily parts and organs are made of vibration,” De Lange says. “This is no airy-fairy alternative nonsense but something you can simply measure with technological instruments. Just like waves in water, vibrations affect each other.” Tuning forks can go deeper than hands. “The vibrations from the tuning forks affect muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints. The therapist can see whether the body picks up the tuning fork’s vibration.”
Sound waves are used primarily to make diagnoses and perform prenatal ultrasound testing, but studies into the use of ultrasound waves to treat cancer are in full swing. Researchers at the Eindhoven University of Technology and the Academic Medical Center in Amsterdam have recently begun using a new technique for detecting prostate cancer. The method employs ultrasound and microbubbles. The gas-filled microbubbles are administered intravenously and react differently to ultrasound waves than do human tissue and blood. Because blood vessels in tumors display a different pattern than those in healthy tissue, tumors are easy to recognize in these ultrasound images, and researchers can determine how aggressive a cancer is by looking at the blood vessel pattern.
“Whether we’re aware of it or not, our moods are determined by the vibrations present,” says De Lange. “Think of the times you’ve walked into a place and felt something in the atmosphere. ‘There’s something in the air,’ we say. That something is vibration or frequency.”
Harry van Dalen has also discovered the power of sound—not from an academic or spiritual viewpoint but a technical one. For years, he has sold audiovisual equipment; then he started to see the need to go deeper. “About six years ago, I visited Tibet,” he says. “I went through a special initiation using mantras that completely overturned my life. I can’t explain it, but in 10 seconds my whole life passed before me. Back home, I landed in a kind of identity crisis: Who am I, really?”
Van Dalen began to explore spirituality and meditation techniques. While studying Buddhism and Gnosticism, he discovered that sound plays a crucial role in healing. He founded Spirit Connection with De Jong and Jansen to explore that idea in the West. The practice not only offers classes but incorporates gong baths, Himalayan singing bowls and Ohm forks, all tools that work with sound, vibration and the energy of the body. Most of his clients have stressful jobs. “People under a lot of stress use sound therapy techniques to learn how to relax and how to better deal with specific situations. To really reach a higher level of consciousness, you have to achieve inner silence. And, paradoxically enough, you achieve that silence the fastest through sound.” But while Van Dalen is a firm believer in the power of sound, he won’t promise miracles. “I won’t claim that you can fight cancer with gong baths. But I do believe stress makes people sick. And if you can fight that stress using sound, why wouldn’t you try?”
Photo By: jikatu via Flickr