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Sound as an Alternative to Traditional Medical Therapy

by Andreea Magdalina(more info)

listed in sound and music, originally published in issue 180 - March 2011

Scientists have always been obsessed with breaking matter down to its smallest components; currently they have set the limit to the string level. Ongoing research is still debating about where exactly Einstein's theory leads to; however there is one common link to all relativity theories; that is the fact that down to its subatomic stratum all matter is nothing more than vibration. The strings that form atoms and, respectively, molecules, resonate at specific frequencies. This allows us to uphold that all objects are in fact in constant motion. This assertion has paramount consequences in music therapy because it enables practitioners to make use of a vast range of objects and methods in conveying a therapeutic effect.

Sound therapy is usually associated with non-conventional medicine, however there are numerous practices used by medical institutions worldwide that make use of its applications. One example would be the Lithotripter, a machine that bombards kidney and gallstones with sound waves in order to pulverize them and make it possible for the body to eliminate them through the urine. Ultrasound is another widely used phenomenon with its application in sonography to produce pictures of foetuses in the human womb and in treating the musculo-skeletal system.

Sound as an Alternative to Traditional Medical Therapy

On a more human ear perceptible level, there are abundant cases of music usage in regulating stress processes and pathologies,[1] as well as impressive positive effects of  applied sound therapy on post-operative patients[2] and cancer sufferers.[3] "I have tried to find out how the monochord sounds work on cancer patients during chemotherapy and, as a music therapist, I am currently using archaic sounds in my music therapy sessions, in particular when I am working with cancer patients or psychiatric patients who need relaxation. I use archaic sounds because they minimize previous memory of musical experience which is usually caused by familiar music", discloses Eun-Jeong Lee from University-Hospital of Heidelberg, Germany. Moreover, a multitude of vibro-acoustic uses are reported to improve communication skills, motor control and well-being of handicapped children and the elderly, as revealed by Prof. Phil Ellis from the University of Sutherland.[4]

Attempts to include holistic methods in hospitals and other traditional health care settings have always met with scepticism, yet there is an increasing optimism regarding such ventures. Adrienne Woods, who started her career in nursing with the NHS, has managed to implement her training in sound healing alongside the conventional therapies and settings required by a health service day centre. She admits fearing that her practices might not had been fully accepted by her colleagues, but these fears eventually dissipated: "I have not experienced any difficultly in being accepted and am now considered an integral member of the care team", she writes in an article in February this year for the London College Of Sound Healing.

Media are also becoming more willing to take complementary medicine seriously. Recent press coverage reports several cases in which music has helped patients in their recovery after strokes that left them with brain damage or speech impairments, and in other cases involving chronic bone and muscular pain. Julian Treasure, chair of the Sound Agency firm and author of Sound Business, has given a talk at the prestigious TEDGlobal 2010 conference held in Oxford rehabilitating the significance of sound on a day-to-day basis and stressing the positive effects of restoring our relationship with it.[5] A study conducted by a team from the University of Alberta, Canada in 2006 revealed that music played to premature babies reduced pain and encouraged better oral feeding, resulting in faster weight gain and shorter hospital stays.[6]

Sound has a wide spectrum of therapeutic accounts, from voice toning to playing ancient instruments and brainwave entrainment. In 2002 Elliott Salamon et al. from the Neuroscience Research Institute, State University of New York investigated the mechanism laying behind the process of music therapy and concluded that nitric oxide (NO) is the molecule chiefly responsible for its physiological and psychological relaxing effects.[7] The limbic system of our brain is influenced by sound through pitch and rhythm, and the frequency at which it is played affects our somatic makers by producing cardiovascular alterations and inducing relaxation. An application that is yet to be explored at its full capacity is the effect called binaural beats which occur in the brain and are not perceived by the human ear.

Following a news article from the US in July announcing that pupils in Oklahoma are getting 'digitally high' from music, much controversy has again risen around the subject of binaural beats. Although there is no scientific link to such claims, the state authorities went on issuing a warning to prevent children from trying it. This is far from the truth, as binaural beats are actually explored by numerous neuroscientists and music therapists for their brain entraining properties. Results reveal outstanding healing effects on cancer sufferers and various psychiatric patients.

Binaural beats are not a real sound in itself, but a perception of our brain when the two ears are presented with sounds of slightly different frequency. Hence their applicability to stereo headphones use only. In order for the two frequencies to be perceived together as one tone, the difference between them must usually be below 30Hz, similar to the one of our brainwaves. This way the brain is entrained, that is being 'persuaded' into the desired effect of either relaxation or alertness. Prof Hillel Pratt and his team from Israel Institute of Technology studied the brain's activity when binaural beats occur and compared it to that evoked when actual acoustic beats are heard, concluding that "the effects are similar to the soothing effect of gentle patting on the skin, of soft music, and even of bio-feedback that trains the subject how to concentrate, focus attention or relax".[8]

Alpha waves -between 8 and 13Hz- are known to outline a state of deep calm which we naturally engage in before falling asleep. So, for example, people who have sleeping disorders can be induced a state of somnolence by playing 310Hz into the right ear and 320Hz into the left one. An opposite state of alertness can be obtained if the frequency disparity corresponds to Beta waves which are more than 12Hz. However, a 30 minute session has overall effects for a limited amount of time only, up to two or three hours. So there is great scepticism whether they can aid people with addictions or chronic pains. On the short term, binaural beats are proven to improve memory and learning abilities, reduce anxiety and lower stress levels.

Neuropsychologist Brigitte Forgeot, director of the Mentis Portae Institute Paris, has done extensive research on binaural sound waves and is now examining cognitive remediation as an alternative and/or complementary treatment to drugs for children with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). In an interview for the company Digital Reality she has given positive reviews about the process: Sounds of this type also allow the two hemispheres of the brain to synchronize, as Foster demonstrated in 1990. This brings about a feeling of well-being, improves mood, boosts attention span and memory, helps us process emotions and reduces anxiety. Digital Reality has recently launched the Ubrain application that allows users to put binaural beats as background sound while listening to their own music on mobile and PC. Because these tones usually consist mostly of 'white noise', it makes it more user-friendly and pleasant to our ears.

The Internet is crowded with pros and cons both by experts and amateur users. So what do other people think about these much debated beats? Simon Heather, secretary at the College of Sound Healing, says perhaps there is also the power of auto-suggestion attached to their efficacy: I have tried some CDs with binaural beats on and although they may be relaxing I couldn't detect anything more. Tibetan ting sha cymbals seem to have a more powerful effect for me. They are supposed to use the same principal. Maybe it is because you hear them live and not recorded.

Despite their discovery dating back to 1839 and considerable research ever since, people are still sceptical when presented with the theory that sound can interfere with their neuronal clockwork. I would blame this on the various pseudo information there is online, much of it only trying to sell you suspicious devices or CDs supposed to 'improve your life'. Nevertheless, with an increasing number of mystics worldwide, it seems this type of sound therapy is becoming more popular by the day.

Apart from binaural beats, more powerful digital audio methods to alter your mind's state are monaural and isochronic tones which broadcast a single frequency, the latter at an increased pulse speed. They are easier for the brain to handle, since there is no need for a balancing of the tones that you are hearing. For some reason, these sounds have not caught people's attention as their counterparts.

Similar theories are applied in visual therapy, where viewers sit with eyes closed in front of a device that flashes light at various speeds matching our brainwaves. Multi-awarded Canadian documentary film FlicKeR written and directed by Nik Sheehan features artist Brion Gysin and his Dreamachine that uses this theory. In spite of its fascination, the invention is dangerous for children and people with photosensitive epilepsy or other nervous disorders, as they are prone to experience a seizure. This is not the case with binaural sound waves, where the only dangers are a hearing discomfort, nausea or migraines at worst if they are played at frequencies the brain is not used to.

What is more, sound and vision can also go together in a therapeutic fashion, combining the benefits of both in order to obtain an ever more powerful effect. I had the pleasure of meeting Rosella Longinotti, a certified healer who trained with Simon Heather and uses the techniques of voice healing and toning forks together with her Mandala art. She became a sound healer more than a decade ago and only started drawing in 2005, having no formal training in art: "Sound is what triggered my passion for drawing. I was going through a very intense phase with sound healing, practising it very often on myself, private sessions with patients and in workshops and at a certain point I just felt this urge to draw the shapes that were appearing in my mind during the sessions."

Sound as an Alternative to Traditional Medical Therapy

According to Rosella, "the moment we are stressed about something an energy knot is created, which is a forerunner to sickness." During her healing sittings, the sounds she is making with her voice locate that knot and bounce against it, in an effort to untangle the cluster. After experiencing such a session myself, I cannot deny the benefits following our meeting. She remembers two patients diagnosed with cancer and, respectively, HIV who were having difficulties in being still or relaxed, and who admitted a deep state of calmness after a sound healing session. Rosella confesses working on an intuitive basis, "feeling drawn to the energy knot" and stresses the importance of intention when dealing with alternative therapies.

Perhaps the benefits of positive intentionality are what conventional medical care sometimes lacks, with so many doctors only performing their duty as it is, a paid job. Whether alternative sound therapies will ever be used in mainstream medicine is still to be discussed; however the proof they do have beneficial effects cannot be denied even by the fiercest sceptics.


1    Salamon E, Kim M., Beaulieu J, and Stefano GB. Sound Therapy Induced Relaxation: Down Regulating Stress Processes and Pathologies, BioSonic Enterprises.   2002.
2    Good M. Effects of relaxation and music on postoperative pain: a review. Journal of Advanced Nursing, Volume 24 Issue 5: 905-914. November 1996.
3    Kaliyaperumal R and Subash JG. Effect of music therapy for patients with cancer pain, Int J Biol Med Res. 1(3): 79-81. 2010.
4    Ellis P. Improving quality of life and wellbeing for children and the elderly through vibroacoustic sound therapy, Computer Science. Volume 3118/2004, 626, DOI: 10.1007/978-3-540-27817-7_61. 2004.
6    BBC Health. Music nurtures premature babies, BBC -  May 2009.
7    Salamon E, Kim M, Beaulieu J, and Stefano GB. Sound Therapy Induced Relaxation: Down Regulating Stress Processes and Pathologies, BioSonic Enterprises. 2002.
8    Pratt H, Starr A, Michalewski HJ, Dimitrijevic A, Bleich N, Mittelman N. A comparison of auditory evoked potentials to acoustic beats and to binaural beats, Hear Res. 2010 Apr;262(1-2):34-44. Epub  Feb 1 2010.


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About Andreea Magdalina

Andreea Magdalina, originally from Romania, is a science journalist, currently in her third year at University of Westminster. She has benefited from complementary medicine since a child and has come to realize the importance of keeping it alive and informing people about it. Her strong belief is in a fusion between science and what is considered to be fringe.
Apart from journalism, Andreea is involved in the arts, working as an event manager for Transylvania Calling festival in Romania -  Andreea may be contacted via  and followed at weScoop -  and The Red Nose -

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