Evidence of utilizing sound, music, and chants to promote physical, emotional, and spiritual healing is found in the societies of thousands of years ago. Ancient Egyptians used vowel sounds in healing remedies because they believed vowels were sacred. Native Americans incorporated drumming and chants in their rituals. Austrailian Aborigines held ceremonies where the unique sounds and vibrations of the didgeridoo were thought to bring healing to both the listener and the musician. Tibetan monks sprinkle the almost hypnotic vibrations of singing bowls and gongs throughout their practices.
Psychoacoustics is the name given to the branch of science studying the psychological and physiological responses associated with sound, including noise, speech, and music. There is even a branch of medicine dedicated to using sound to heal. Psychoacoustic medicine is the science of how music and sound impact the nervous system, psychologically and physiologically.
Although the terminology is relatively new, the idea of using song and sound as a catalyst to stimulate health and healing in the body and mind is not. While a lot of the claims on the celestial-themed websites playing ambient music don’t have solid scientific evidence, science is showing that sound can benefit your mind, brain, and body in many ways.
How Your Brain Hears Sound
Of course, it all starts with your ear. The human ear is an amazing instrument. Although it’s working parts take up less than a cubic inch of space in your head, it’s capable of distinguishing between 300,000 and 400,000 slight variations in tone and intensity. It can detect the drop of a pin or tolerate a sound a trillion times more intense.
According to the article, What You’re Missing When You’re Not Listening, we know that how hearing happens in your ear, but we still don’t know how your brain turns nerve impulses into sound:
When the eardrums vibrate in response to sound, the tiny piston-like stirrup bones of the middle ear amplify the vibrations. This motion is passed along to the snail-like chamber of the inner ear, which is filled with liquid and contains some 30,000 tiny hair cells. These fibers are made to bend, depending on the frequency of the vibration—shorter strands respond to higher wavelengths, longer strands to lower—and this movement is translated into nerve impulses and sent to the brain, which then, somehow, ‘hears.’”
Recent research did identify the first brain cells that respond to sound which appear to play a role in the early functional organization of the cortex. This could explain the early link observed between sound input and cognitive function, often called the ‘Mozart effect.’
The Healing Sounds of Nature
Research has proven that spending time in nature has brain benefits, including improved memory, focus, and attention. After just one hour of interacting with nature, people’s memory and attention span improved by as much as 20 percent. Part of this effect may be due to the sounds of nature.
Experiments showed that just playing ‘natural sounds’ affected the bodily systems that control the flight-or-fright and rest-digest autonomic nervous systems which, in turn, influenced the resting state of the brain. This resting state of your brain is called the default mode network (DMN).
Research shows that the DFM is a predictable pattern of neurological activity that’s your brain’s go-to state when it’s not focused on anything in particular or actively engaging with its environment. The DFM for many people is rumination. Worrying is ruminating. Replaying the pain of the past is ruminating. It’s when your mind grabs hold of something and goes over and over it without any productive outcome. Studies confirm that people who spend a lot of time ruminating are much more likely to develop mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
Researchers observed that:
When listening to natural sounds, the brain connectivity reflected an outward-directed focus of attention; when listening to artificial sounds, the brain connectivity reflected an inward-directed focus of attention, similar to states observed in anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder and depression.”
The Vibrations of Your Own Voice
When you make sound, such as chanting or singing, you create internal vibrations which affect your physical and emotional states.
Science shows that singing releases endorphins, your brain’s feel-good chemicals, and stimulates the production of the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin enhances feelings of trust and bonding and has been shown help alleviate stress and anxiety. Group singing, in particular, has been found to lessen depression and loneliness.
The article Singing Changes Your Brain explains:
The benefits of singing regularly seem to be cumulative. In one study, singers were found to have lower levels of cortisol, indicating lower stress. A very preliminary investigation suggesting that our heart rates may sync up during group singing could also explain why singing together sometimes feels like a guided group meditation. Study after study has found that singing relieves anxiety and contributes to quality of life.
Chanting a mantra, repeated sounds, words, or phrases which may or may not have literal meaning, such as “om or aum” has benefits for your brain and body as well. As a type of meditative practice, chanting would induce the positive neurological and psychological effects of meditation, ranging from improved concentration and attention, reduced anxiety and depression, to a younger-looking brain with increased volume. Go here for a beginner’s guide to different matras and their meanings and here for a how-to perform mantra meditation.
The article, Your Brain on Om: The Science of Mantra further explains it like this:
Mantra is a Sanskrit word for ‘sound tool,’ and Om is one of myriad such mantras. Sanskrit and some other ancient languages such as Tibetan, prototypical Egyptian and ancient Hebrew evolved as complex systems of onomatopoeia, where the sounds evoke movements of energy. This evocation is qualitative and subjective and is linked with interoception (inner body sensations) and emotional sense of self, both predominantly represented in the right hemisphere of the brain. Conversely, the narrative strand of sounds in which we give them meaning is done predominantly through the left hemisphere. What is fascinating about mantras is that from a physics standpoint, the sounds themselves, before they are assigned meaning, will resonate in different parts of the body and mind, creating actual interactions or events.”
Auditory Beat Stimulation
Science is showing auditory beat stimulation (ABS) to be a promising tool for influencing cognitive processes and mood states. Auditory beats are amplitude-modulated signals, which can be generated by the superposition of two auditory sine waves with neighboring frequencies, in one of two ways.
Monaural and binaural beats are generated when sine waves of neighboring frequencies and with stable amplitudes are presented to either both ears simultaneously (monaural beats) or to each ear separately (binaural beats). Monaural beats are physical beats, which are objectively heard when the combination of two sine waves at neighboring frequencies (e.g., 400 and 440 Hz) are summated and presented to each ear at the same time resulting in an amplitude modulated (AM) signal. The beat corresponds to the difference between the two frequencies. Binaural beats are generated when the sine waves within a close range are presented to each ear separately.
Experiments have determined that ABS can influence memory, attention, creativity, anxiety, mood, and alertness. Results are isolated and even contradictory regarding the impact of ABS. Many factors, such as beat duration, background noise, and frequency can affect outcomes. While it is clear that ABS is not a one-size-fits-all enhancement technique and useful applications are still being explored, several studies consistently report that binaural-beat stimulation can successfully lower anxiety levels.