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Sep 13, 2021
4 min read

Sound therapy: what is it and how does it work?

Sound therapy dates back centuries, and is used for everything from relaxation and stress reduction to reduce ringing in the ears. Using specific frequencies and tones, sound therapy works by affecting hormone release and possibly brain waves.

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

In case you haven’t heard, sounds can have a serious impact on your health.

History books report its value for promoting well-being since ancient times. For over 40,000 years, aboriginal tribes in Australia have used instruments in spiritual ceremonies meant to heal. 

Today, sound therapy is used as a complementary therapy for certain health issues including tinnitus, fibromyalgia, and stress. 

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How does sound therapy work?

Science is still working out the details of how sound therapy works, but we do know that different sounds produce different chemical reactions inside the body. 

Some sounds release stress hormones, while others trigger mood-enhancing hormones––both of which impact the nervous system (Chanda, 2013; Kraus, 2012).

Types of sound therapy are also helpful in meditation practices. In one study, Tibetan singing bowls, gongs, and crystal bowls were used to create a feeling of being immersed in sound. You may have heard this referred to as a sound bath. Research has found that sound baths increased feelings of deep relaxation, resulting in decreased stress (Goldsby, 2017). 

How exactly does this work? One theory involves binaural beats produced by certain instruments. A binaural beat is when the brain hears two different (yet specific) frequencies as one completely different tone.

Brain waves then synchronize with this new tone, which happens to be the same frequency our brains tap into for deep focus and concentration (Wahbeh, 2007).

What conditions is sound therapy used for?

Sound therapy has been around for centuries, and researchers today continue to explore it as an alternative treatment for medical conditions.

For example, music is used routinely in clinical settings to help with pain management and psychotherapy. Studies have shown these musical interventions lead to chemical changes in the brain, which promotes relaxation and overall well-being (Chanda, 2013).

Let’s take a look at some of the other conditions that may benefit from sound therapy as a complementary treatment (Shahid, 2021; Wang, 2020). 

Tinnitus

One of the most popular uses for sound therapy is treating tinnitus, which is a continual ringing or buzzing in one or both ears. 

Working and socializing are very challenging for people who suffer from this condition. How tinnitus is treated depends on the cause. One treatment method is called modulated wave therapy. This creates a frequency that matches an individual’s buzzing or ringing tone, which may help suppress symptoms for some (Wang, 2020). 

Alzheimer’s disease

Animal studies suggest that the combined use of light and sound may improve areas of the brain associated with remembering and recognizing objects––the same spots affected by Alzheimer’s disease (Martorell, 2019).

Fibromyalgia

Low-frequency sounds (30–120 Hz) may reduce chronic pain in those with fibromyalgia, a common pain disorder associated with fatigue and sleep disruption.

One study on exposure to low-frequency sounds (around 40 Hz) reported that those with fibromyalgia used less pain medication, had an improved range of motion, and could sit or stand longer without pain (Naghdi, 2015).

Benefits of sound therapy

During sound therapy, therapists host sessions where a harmonious combination of specific sound frequencies, imagery, and visuals is used to benefit the body’s deeper aspects. It can have a positive impact on both physical and emotional health (Shahid, 2021).

Emotional and spiritual benefits

Mood disorders like depression and anxiety may respond well to sound therapy. 

In one study, mindfulness meditation combined with the sounds of singing bowls seemed to decrease tension, anxiety, and depression while promoting feelings of spiritual well-being (Goldsby, 2017). 

Physical benefits of sound therapy

Research suggests that guided meditations with the sounds of Himalayan singing bowls may help lower blood pressure, heart rate, and promote feelings of calm (Landry, 2014). 

Music therapy, which may involve listening to music, a single sound, or playing a musical instrument, may also improve attention and focus (Shahid, 2021). 

No matter what type, sound impacts daily life––sometimes in unnoticed ways. Although there is much to be unraveled surrounding the use of sound healing as therapy, research in this realm is promising. 

From musical sound waves to binaural beats, intentionally using sound as therapy is something you can even try at home to help heal the body, mind, and spirit. 

References

  1. Chanda, M. L., & Levitin, D. J. (2013). The neurochemistry of music. Trends in Cognitive Science, 17(4), 179-193. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2013.02.007. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23541122/
  2. Goldsby, T. L., Goldsby M. E., McWalters, M., & Mills, P. J. (2017). Effects of singing bowl sound meditation on mood, tension, and well-being: an observational study. Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine, 22(3), 401-409. doi: 10.1177/2156587216668109. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27694559/
  3. Krause, K. S., & Canlon, B. (2012). Neuronal connectivity and interactions between the auditory and limbic systems: Effects of noise and tinnitus. Hearing Research, 288(1-2), 34-46. doi: 10.1016/j.heares.2012.02.009. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22440225/
  4. Landry, J. M. (2014). Physiological and psychological effects of a Himalayan singing bowl in meditation practice: a quantitative analysis. American Journal of Health Promotion, 28(5), 306-309. doi: 10.4278/ajhp.121031-arb-528. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23941101/
  5. Martorell, A. J., Paulson, A. L., Suk, H. J., Abdurrob, F., Drummond, G. T., Guan, W., et al. (2019). Multi-sensory Gamma Stimulation Ameliorates Alzheimer’s-Associated Pathology and Improves Cognition. Cell, 177(2), 256–271. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2019.02.014. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30879788/
  6. Naghdi, L., Ahonen, H., Macario, P., & Bartel, L. (2015). The effect of low-frequency sound stimulation on patients with fibromyalgia: A clinical study. Pain Research and Management, 20(1), 21-27. doi: 10.1155/2015/375174. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4325896/#__ffn_sectitle
  7. Shahid, S. K. (2021). Sound therapy in children. Hong Kong Journal of Paediatrics Research, 4(1), 1-5. Retrieved from http://www.hkpaediatricjournal.com/HKJPR_202141_01.pdf
  8. Wahbeh, H., Calabrese, C., & Zwickey, H. (2007). Binaural beat technology in humans: a pilot study to assess psychologic and physiologic effects. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 13(1), 25-32. doi: 10.1089/acm.2006.6196. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17309374/
  9. Wang, H., Tang, D., Wu, Y., Zhou, L., & Sun, S. (2020). The state of the art of sound therapy for subjective tinnitus in adults. Therapeutic Advances in Chronic Disease, 11, 1-22. doi. 2040622320956426. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7493236/