By Karrie Mowen (Osborn)
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, December/January 2002.
Sometimes we forget how powerful sound really is. Think for a moment of the sounds which have affected you and your life: your newborn son cooing for his mother; the ocean’s soft song of welcome; an eagle’s cry echoing off the canyon walls. There are also those sounds we’d much rather forget: a terrified child screaming ceaselessly for a parent; the relentless howl of a land-stalled hurricane; and yes, the sounds of terror that came crashing through to us via television and radio on Sept. 11, 2001.
Sound is indeed a powerful element in our lives.
I was first exposed to sound as an element of healing therapy from Dr. John Beaulieu at a polarity therapy conference in 1998. I clearly remember the “ah-ha” look on participants’ faces as we experimented with tuning forks and saw resonance in action. The use of sound as a therapy is not a new idea, nor is it one that should really be all that foreign to us. Think of the symphony happening within your body this second: a heart beat, the ebb and flow of blood, lymph pulsating throughout. If the rhythm changes, all pieces of the symphony are affected.
Reflections of Rhythm
There is no denying sound is an important part of our lives; and equally so as it relates to the treatment room. It’s likely many of you use some form of sound as part of a session, regardless of your technique. Providing a calming element, like music or rhythm, helps the client find a restful place where they can be most receptive to the bodywork.
Many involved with sound therapy say we are reflections of the world of rhythm around us. The common element in sound therapy is the concept of vibration. With every thing there is a vibration – the result of electrons moving around the nucleus of an atom. It’s true for the furniture you’re sitting in and it’s true for your body. From vibration comes a frequency – an identification, if you will, that is uniquely our own. My frequency is different from yours, and yours is different from your neighbor’s.
Problems with health, sound therapists say, are the result of an imbalance in that frequency. Where balance comes from all elements of the body vibrating in harmonic frequency, disease occurs when a part of the body vibrates at another frequency. It is the lone musician playing “Flight of the Bumblebee” when the rest of the symphony is playing Stravinsky’s “Rites of Spring.”
The Benefits of Sound
French doctor Alfred Tomatis considers sound a nutrient for the body’s nervous system. A respected leader and innovator in the field of sound, Tomatis believes the first function of the ear is to “govern” growth in utero. After birth, Tomatis says food feeds us cellularly, where sound feeds us neurologically by delivering the electrical impulses that charge the neocortex.
In that sense, just as there are unhealthy, or less-than-nutritious foods, we know from personal experience there are sounds that affect us differently. I recognize the power of sound in how it plays on me. When a stress headache hits, the pulsing of a certain song can make me physically ill (sometimes even without the headache as a catalyst). Yet the quieted rumble of my cat purring as she sits atop my chest is calming and comforting, just as is the music of the ocean’s waves.
So what benefits might sound and music truly offer to seekers of health? According to a 1995 report published in Nursing Times by Felicity Hicks, playing music to premature infants while they were in intensive care settings, has shown improved oxygenation and may also influence brain development. That’s just one of many studies noting improved health and/or function as the result of sound therapy. Old as they may be, 1973 studies showed that persons working in high noise industries have a greater prevalence of cardiac and peripheral vascular disease than those who work in quieter environments. With chronic pain patients, researchers (Anderson Schorr, 1993) have found sedative music (that containing regular rhythm, predictable elements and “harmonic consonance”) had several positive effects, including reduced “heart and respiratory rates, muscle relaxation...lower metabolic rates and a reduction in circulating corticosteroids.” Music has been at the center of many learning and concentration studies throughout the past decade, and has even shown itself beneficial in the improved coordination of Parkinson’s disease patients and an awakening of memories with Alzheimer’s sufferers.
Sound might also be more preventative than once thought, by strengthening the brain’s “braun and muscle.” A 1998 study from the University of Texas showed the brain gets a workout when listening to music — the cerebellum tracks rhythm, the temporal lobes track melody and the two hemispheres of the brain interpret musical notation on the right and language processing on the left.
According to the Casa de Maria Research Center, the benefits of sound therapy also include reduced stress, aid in sleeping, deeper states of meditation, a balance of the energy system, reduction of pain and depression, a clearer mind, and a sense of restoration, relaxation and rejuvenation.
Author Joshua Leeds, in his book The Power of Sound, has an important take on the value of sound that rings true for us all. “Be aware of the power of sound; use it consciously. As with any substance, there can be positive and negative applications.” Consider music and sound as “thinking people’s drugs,” he writes. “They can enhance, arouse or depress. Like food, water, wine, sex and pharmaceuticals, it all comes down to frequency and dosage. The question becomes: How often and how much? Applied to the effectiveness of auditory stimulation, as well as nervous system balance, the answer is always individual. This is the nature of sound: subtle, powerful, personal.” Food for thought the next time you play music during a therapy session.