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Sound Psychology: the Tao of Music

by John Ortiz Ph.D(more info)

listed in sound and music, originally published in issue 29 - June 1998

Home field, ten seconds remaining on the clock… tied game… Ivan stands in possession of the football at the opposite end of the field. “My heart was just pounding,” the team’s premier player later said, “it all felt like a blur, but then the crowd started chanting, ‘Ivan! Ivan! Ivan!’ and suddenly, everything just seemed to slow down, like the whole world was in slow motion and I had all the time in the world. The path between the goal and me appeared perfectly clear, as if there was this secret passageway that only I could see. So I just took it, and scored, it was so simple. For those few moments it felt like I was part of everyone’s energy, just this pure, clear force aiming for the same goal!”

By engaging ourselves in musical activities we imbue ourselves with positive vibrations that help to quiet our worries and lift our spirits.
By engaging ourselves in musical activities we imbue ourselves with
positive vibrations that help to quiet our worries and lift our spirits.

Young Ivan, a 16-year old football player had just experienced a phenomenon known as entrainment. By intoning his name as a mantra, the crowd's concentrated energies took a life of their own, rendering him, their appointed messenger, invincible, if just for a moment, until their goal was realised. The unified, repetitive chanting of the crowd created a mass harmonic relationship, a resonating sound energy, placing Ivan within a cone of balanced power that made the outcome inevitable.


Mantras, chants, toning, and singing are but a few of the techniques that have been used through the ages for achieving personal harmony, health and enjoyment. The ancient scriptures of Tantric Buddhism consider the mantra "aum," or "OM," so powerful that it can lead to enlightenment. As suggested by Berendt in Nada Brahma: The World is Sound; "There is no need to know exactly what a mantra means. It is effective beyond the conscious intellect, and only for that reason is it able to `compel the transcendentation of the mental, rational concept.' You must become pure vibration." (p.36). Rouget, quoting Alain Danièliou, writes about an experience, brought about through tribal chanting, that is reminiscent of our young football star. "After hesitating an instant, the dancers are taken over by this new rhythm without even consciously willing it. In some of them, this provokes a trance state and a complete loss of self control, as though the rhythm were a kind of spirit that had possessed them" (p.81). Singing and toning are other natural ways through which we can facilitate inner harmony, animate our resources and develop a sense of awareness connecting us to the present moment. Through the conscious use of the above techniques we can surround and abound ourselves with positive vibrations that can help us to dispel fears, counter negative thoughts and feelings, reduce anxiety, lift depression, clear our minds and generally enhance our natural abilities to heal and attune to ourselves and the world about us.

Historical Precedents

History is replete with global stories of sound healing. Findings gathered from among the annals of counselling, clinical, and medical literature extending back over 2,000 years supply abundant evidence that music possesses a wide range of characteristics that can be used for prevention and amelioration of various ailments in particular as well as health enhancement in general.

The belief that music embodies the power to create and sustain harmony originated among the early peoples of cultures as diverse as Mesopotamia, India, Greece, China, North America and Rome. Shamans, priests, prophets and philosophers across these diverse cultures recognised the therapeutic value of music and shared the concept of music as a healing force that can be used to cure disease, eliminate mental anguish, and function as a bridge through which individuals can attain a satisfying inter-connectedness (McClellan, 1988). Among the ancients, Aristotle, Plato and Confucius were among those who shared the belief that emotions are affected by melody and rhythm and that music is a force that can be applied to create change and produce harmony. Physicians during the Middle Age and Baroque periods used music to treat a number of physical and psychological ailments. This practice, refined during World War II, became instrumental as a catalyst to improve morale, enhance social skills and assist with the reintegration into the post-war culture (Davis & Gfeller, 1992; Wilson, 1990).

Contemporary Research Findings

More recently, a growing number of industrial corporations, businesses, medical establishments, and the world of entertainment have systematically increased the unprecedented use of music and sound to induce feelings ranging from relaxation and harmony to invigorating physical, mental and emotional rejuvenation. Applicable uses of music to help us meet life's demands extend from premature infants to mature adults. Researchers, for instance, have found that musical lullabies can have an immediate and positive effect on the oxygen saturation levels, heart and respiration rates of premature infants (Cassidy & Standley, 1995). Other studies on premature infants have found that the use of specific, pre-categorised stimulative (Sabre Dance) and sedative (Moonlight Sonata) music compositions may have specific calming and physiological effects, particularly on systolic blood pressure, suggesting a potential tool for the care of this delicate population.

Music has also been found to be significantly favourable in work focusing on autistic and mentally retarded children. Recent studies have yielded findings indicating that music tends to promote better pragmatic skills (Buday, 1995) and increase communicative behaviours (Edgerton, 1994), a common deficit among autistic children. Other studies discuss the notions that a number of positive responses to music including increased participation in, and enjoyment of, social activities; augmented positive affect, minimised disruptiveness (Nelson, Anderson & Gonazales, 1984); enhanced focusing, reduced boredom (Morton, Kershener & Siegel, 1990); and improved recall (Ricks & Wing, 1975) have been found when addressing the needs of autistic and mentally retarded children.

While some studies have shown that music helps to increase relaxation and reduce fear and pain among children (Pfaff, Smith, & Gowan, 1989), others discuss how listening to heavy metal music may assist adolescents in finding positive ways of dealing with anger, fear, aggression and feelings of hopelessness (Wooten, 1992; Stack et al. 1994; Gowensmith & Bloom, 1997). Still others, focusing on adults, lend evidence to the many ways in which music can be used to alleviate depression, anger and loneliness (Cordobès, 1997); improve awareness and insight (Wijzenbeek & van Nieuwenhuijzen, 1993); increase motivation, endurance, psychological well-being and physical comfort (Boldt, 1996); increase relaxation, alleviate anxiety (Standley, 1986); and increase pain tolerance (Bailey, 1986; Beck, 1991; Heckman & Hertel, 1993).

Having been subjectively suspected for centuries, and now objectively validated, many of these preventive, ameliorative powers of music and sound can now be taken from scientific laboratories and published research and applied to help ordinary people make positive changes in their lives. Personally, and professionally, I have found that the combined application of music, sound, and Eastern philosophy as adjuncts to psychology can be extremely beneficial in helping people to better deal with day to day demands.

Entrainment as a Sound Psychology Technique

Entrainment is one of the primary Sound Psychology techniques that I often use in combination with more traditional clinical approaches to assist people with managing the ubiquitous, unavoidable stressors encountered through daily living. An easily learned technique, entrainment has wide applicability to many different areas of clinical intervention such as depression, anger, stress, relaxation, physical exercise, anxiety and helping to achieve mental and emotional balance.

Musically, entrainment involves a merging with, or synchronising to, the pulse of the music. Related to the "iso" principle, the process suggests that one's immediate mood be matched to the mood (e.g. beat and rhythm) of the music and then gradually moved into a desired direction.

An individual presenting with a depressed mood, for example, is encouraged to select a number of musical selections that reflect, as closely as possible, his or her present mood (e.g. sadness, low energy, hopelessness). Second, the patient is asked to choose a similar number of selections (e.g. three to five) that "feel" or sound moderately more positive, cheerful or uplifting. In other words, musical numbers that fall somewhere between how they feel at the present moment and how they would like to feel by the end of the exercise. Finally, the person is instructed to choose various tunes that reflect the mood or feeling that he or she would ultimately like to achieve – energised, up-beat music resonating with the type of vibrations that their depression is presently nullifying.

Having discussed these selections the patient is then instructed to construct a hierarchical sequence linking the pieces in the prescribed order, beginning with the melancholy, sorrowful numbers and progressing upward, culminating in songs that reverberate with the positive vibrations exemplified by the more active, stimulating compositions. Quite often, patients report that the mere act of mentally processing selections reflective of their present, and desired mood states, seems to have a beneficial, restorative effect. Further, the dynamic processes involved in the contemplation, search and organisation of these song selections seems to have additional ameliorative qualities that tend to mobilise the person's resources as they find themselves actively taking responsibility for constructing their own therapeutic regimen. Finally, the actual exposure to the sequential use of increasingly active musical vibrations is almost always effective in assisting the individual with moving out of the depressed condition and realising their desired cognitive (e.g. alert, hopeful) and affective (i.e. animated, more confident) states.

An example of an Entrainment, popular music sequence may look something like table 1. Or, in a classical vein, see table 2.



Entrainment popular music sequence

(1) Begin with:

Comfortably Numb
Pink Floyd
In My Room
The Beach Boys
For no One
The Beatles
Only the Lonely; or Crying
Roy Orbison
I Wish it Would Rain
The Temptations
Here Today, or Little Willow
Paul McCartney
Clearer, or Afterall
Garrison Starr
Sullen Girl
Fiona Apple
Patty Griffin
Creep, Paranoid Android, or Exit Music
The Drugs Don't Work; or Sonnet
The Verve

(2) continue with:

It's Over; or Blue Bayou
Roy Orbison
Here, There and Everywhere; or Good Day Sunshine

The Beatles
Good Vibrations
The Beach Boys
I've Been Lonely Too Long
TheYoung Rascals
Another Brick in the Wall
Pink Floyd
Fiona Apple
Galaxy of Emptiness
Beth Orton
Into The Great Wide Open
Tom Petty & the Hearbreakers
The Song We Were Singing
Paul McCartney
Bitter Sweet Symphony
The Verve
I Don't Need You
Jen Trynin
Four Leaf Clover
Abra Moore

(3) conclude with:

The Rolling People
The Verve
Kula Shaker
All you Need is Love
The Beatles
Fun, Fun, Fun
The Beach Boys
Sly and The Family Stone
Let Down
Song # 2; or Movin' On
D'You Know What I Mean?
Beautiful Night
Paul McCartney
It's Alright, It's OK
Leah Andreone
Get Out of This House
Shawn Colvin



Entrainment, classical music sequence

(1) Begin with:

Franz Schubert
Come Sweet Death
J.S. Bach
Second movement of Sonata Opus 10, No. 3

Ludwig van Beethoven
Warsaw Concerto
John Addinsell
Ernest Bloch
Clair De Lune

(2) continue with:

Ave Maria
Franz Schubert;
The Moldau
Bedrich Smetana
Symphony No. 6 (Pastorale)
Ludwig van Beethoven
Air on the G String
J. S. Bach
Suite Espanola
Isaac Albèniz
Nocturne for String Orchestra

Alexander Borodin
Guitar Quintets
Luigi Boccherini
Claude Debussy
Andante from Concerto No. 21 in C Major (Elvira Madigan)

Wolfgang A. Mozart

(3) conclude with:

John Philip Sousa;
Igor Stravinsky
Piano Concerto No. 5, Emperor
Ludwig van Beethoven
Toccata and Fugue in D
J. S. Bach
Fantasia Concertante
William Bolcom
Allegro from Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major

J. S. Bach
Piano Concerto No. 1
Johannes Brahms
Eine Kleine Nachtmusic, K. 525

Wolfgang A. Mozart
Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, K. 492

Wolfgang  A. Mozart
Allegro from Sonata No. 15 in C. Major, K. 545

Wolfgang  A. Mozart
Arrival of the Queen of Sheba

Georg-Friedrich Handel
Golliwog's Cakewalk, from Children's Corner Suite

Claude Debussy


Selecting the Music

As a whole, musical preferences are about as diverse and vast as music itself. Although certain types of music have fairly predictable properties that can be generally categorised (e.g. Baroque largo movements for centring and relaxation) the effects that music may have on different persons can be as variable and unpredictable as moods themselves. In short, the task of selecting music to affect any particular mood state is highly subjective and best when personally determined. Considering the ramifications of objective music pre-categorization the suggestions presented throughout this article are generally meant to serve as springboards for individuals to design their own personal programs based on subjective preferences.

Rhythmic Synchronicity

A second Sound Psychology approach I frequently use involves the concept of Rhythmic Synchronicity. In essence, this concept involves a process through which music may be used to assist two or more persons in developing a shared complementarity, or harmonious, rhythmic relationship. Most of us have experienced circumstances when we feel either "in sync" or "out of sync" with ourselves, others, or the world around us. Engaged in conversation with someone with whom we share common interests, for example, often makes us feel as if we are "in sync" with that person. In those situations the interaction, regardless of topic area, seems to flow effortlessly and naturally. There is no leading or following, only being, and the two conversants feel as if they are in a sense, resonating together. In tune. Conversely, trying to carry on a conversation with someone with whom we have nothing, or very little, in common may often feel like a struggle. For no particular reason one feels uncomfortable and awkward, desperately yearning for a way out of the seemingly endless diatribe.

A number of "psychomusic" techniques based on rhythmic synchronicity may be used to help us establish a complementary rhythm, or mutual tempo, through which we can relax, become centred, establish a desired pace, develop a sense of flow, and improve our engagement in collaborative social interactions. The enhancement of intimate relations, for example, is an area where developing a sense of rhythmic synchronicity, or connectedness, is most welcomed. Aside from providing a romantic, soothing background, music of myriad styles may be used to help establish and maintain any desired pace or rhythm during intimate relations. As in the "depression" example above, an entrainment sequence can be easily programmed into a CD player setting a progressive acoustic backdrop to escort and accompany an adventurous couple through the various stages of lovemaking. As discussed in the above section, the entrainment music can again be arranged to reflect one's own desired pace, disposition, and desired level of intensity. Choosing a musical background that is mutually appetising can serve to enliven the senses, design seductive ambiences and establish creative levels of sensual intimacy that can be as diverse as the music itself.

Some suggested CDs, or audio tapes, for setting an amorous ambience are mentioned in table 3.


Table 3

Suggestions for setting an amorous ambience

Fiona Apple

Gabrielle Roth & The Mirrors

Ike Quebec

Let's Talk About Love
Celine Dion

Let's Get it On
Marvin Gaye

Love Scenes
Diana Krall

Love Songs
Billie Holiday

One Night With You
Luther Vandross


Raising Sound Awareness

The process of raising one's Sound Awareness, used extensively throughout my book, The Tao of Music (Ortiz, 1998), is one that can be applied to a wide range of daily situations to assist us in becoming attuned to ourselves and the worlds that surround and abound us. The art of listening is one that can be substantially enhanced through conscious development of our sound awareness. When listening to others, for example, how mindful are we of common habits such as anticipating what they "should" be saying... or of assuming we know what they are "going" to say... or of hoping that the other person says something in particular? How attentive are we to the various personal filters (e.g. moods, expectations, biases, preconceptions, internal chatter, past experiences) that their message has to cross – theirs and ours – before it reaches our cognitive, and emotional, interpretations? By simply tuning into the underlying sound beneath the message we can often eliminate a lot of the confusion and wasted energy that comes from misunderstanding or misinterpreting someone's attempted communication. Listening "in the future" or hearing "in the past" usually gets in the way of understanding what is being said "in the present." As happens in some cross-cultural communications, volume level, or a high pitch stemming from excitement, for example, can be often misconstrued for anger or exasperation. A soft, relaxed tone, or extended silences, can likewise be misconstrued as indifference, passivity or even a condescending attitude.

A suggested exercise for raising one's sound awareness, and helping to develop our aural acuity to hear particular aspects of sound messages around us, is to take time to focus on, and follow, particular instruments within any given composition. For example, select a song or composition of your choice. Find a quiet, comfortable place where you will not be disturbed. As you listen to your selection, try to focus on one of the "secondary" (i.e. not the lead) instruments. Some instruments that are well suited for this exercise include those that customarily comprise the "rhythm section" (eg. bass guitar, drums) in most rock, jazz and popular songs; or layered backgrounds in symphonic (eg. cellos, violins, harps, pianos), or new age (eg. synthesizers, sweeping choral voices, drones) pieces. Expanding one's range of auditory perception can be readily done with the same compositions by focusing on, or listening for, different instruments, or corresponding melody lines, within a particular piece. One's diversity of auricular observation can be further refined by experimenting with different types of music including styles (eg. Celtic, World Beat, Middle Eastern, Asian) which may be foreign or exotic to us as individuals. Engaging this technique, most of us are pleasantly surprised to find ourselves hearing sounds, musical messages, and sonic textures that we may have never perceived in otherwise perfectly familiar tunes.

By increasing our sound awareness we can enhance our ability to tune into the messages that often lie beneath "emotional static" or "noise" (eg. hollering, profanity, disjointed sentences). When interacting with someone who is angry, for example, our ability to detach from the person's ire, and focus on the source of the person's frustration, can determine how effectively we may begin to assist that individual in moving away from the wrath or animosity and into a more receptive state. Similarly, when feeling stressed, anxious, or even struggling with low self-esteem, our ability to "tune into" (eg. listen actively and attentively without preconceptions, etc.) our own immediate struggle and detach from our immobilising feelings can lead us to creative ways of mobilising our necessary resources.

One way of using music to counteract internal messages that lead to low self-esteem, for instance, is to surround oneself with positive, up-beat music imbued with moving beats, swaggering rhythms and messages of confidence or inspiration. Unlike entrainment and rhythmic synchronicity, when instrumental music is often all that is necessary (eg. the lyrics are often secondary to the sound energy), a Sound Awareness music sequence for improving self-esteem can be broadly enhanced by surrounding oneself with lyrical messages of hope and assurance.

The physiological and psychological effects of music as a healing art are well documented throughout the literature. The potential benefits that can be derived from the conscious application of music and sound extend far beyond those described throughout this article. These range from controlling our auditory environments, facilitating learning and enhancing our immune systems to improving memory, reducing pain and designing creative time management and exercise programs. In effect, it is important that we not lose sight of the fact that music is a nurturing, powerful vibrational energy that has been part of us from time immemorial. Regardless of why, how, when or where we may use it – or what we may use it for – it behoves us to know that it is there, always available for us to enjoy, shape and create, as it, in turn, will forever continue to shape and create us.


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McClellan, R. (1988), The healing forces of music: History, theory and practice. New York: Amity House.
Davis, W.B., and Gfeller, K.E., (1992), Music therapy: An historical perspective, In W.B. Davis, K.E. Gfeller, & M.H. Thaut, An introduction to music therapy theory and practice (pp. 16-37). Dubuque, I. A: Wm. C. Brown.
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Cassidy, J. W., & Standley, J. M., (1995), The Effect of Music Listening on Physicological Responses of Premature Infants in the NICU. Journal of Music Therapy, 32, pp. 208-227.
Lorch, C. A., Lorch, V., Diefendorf, A. O., & Patricia W. Earl, (1994). Effect of Stimulative and Sedative Music on Systolic Blood Pressure, Heart Rate and Respiratory Rate in Premature Infants. Journal of Music Therapy, 31, pp. 105-118.
Morton, L.L., Kershner, J. R., & Siegel, L.S. (1990), The potential for therapeutic applications of music on problems related to memory and attention. Journal of Music Therapy, 27, pp.195-208.
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Ricks, D. M., & Wing, L., (1975). Language, communication, and the use of symbols in normal and autistic children. Journal of Autism and Childhood Schizophrenia, 5, pp. 119-221.
Buday, E. M. (1995). The effects of signed and spoken words taught with music on sign and speech imitation by children with autism. Journal of Music Therapy, 32, pp. 189-202.
Lorch, C. A, Lorch, V., Diefendorf, A. O., & Earl, P. W. (1994). Effect of stimulative and sedative Music on systolic blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate in premature infants. Journal of Music Therapy, 32, 105-118.
Boldt, S. (1996), The effects of music therapy on motivation, psychological well-being, physical comfort, and exercise endurance of bone marrow transplant patients. Journal of Music Therapy, 33, pp. 164-188.
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Beck, S. L. (1991). The Therapeutic use of music for cancer-related pain. Oncology Nursing Forum, 18, pp. 1327-1337.
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Hekmat, H. M., & Hertel, J. B. (1993), Pain attenuating effects of preferred versus non-preferred music interventions. Psychology of Music, 21, pp. 163-173.
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Wijzenbeek, G. & van Nieuwenhuijzen, N. (1993), Receptive music therapy with depressive and neurotic patients. In r. R. Pratt (Ed.), Music therapy and music education for the handicapped (pp. 174-175). St. Louis, MO: MMB Music, Inc.
Cordobès, T. K. (1997), Group songwriting as a method for developing group cohesion for HIV- Seropositive adult patients with depression. Journal of Music Therapy, 34, pp. 46-67.
Gowensmith, W. N., & Bloom, L. J. (1997), The effects of heavy metal music on arousal and anger Journal of Music Therapy, 34, pp. 33-45.
Stack, S., Gundlach, J., & Reeves, J. L. (1994). The heavy metal subculture and suicide. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 24, pp. 15-23.
Wooten, M. A. (1992). The effects of heavy metal music on affect shifts of adolescents in an inpatient psychiatric setting. Music Therapy Perspectives, 10, pp. 93-98.
Ortiz, J. M. (1998). The Tao of Music: Using Music to Change Your Life. Dublin: Newleaf.


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About John Ortiz Ph.D

John M. Ortiz, Ph.D., Director of The Institute of Applied Psychomusicology, is a licensed psychologist, consultant, certified clinical hypnotist and psychoeducational trainer residing in central Pennsylvania. He is listed in the National Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology, and serves on the editorial board of the American Counselling Association's Journal of Counselling and Development. A musician, composer, martial artist, and author of The Tao of Music: Using Music to Change Your Life, Dr. Ortiz conducts workshops and lectures on Sound Psychology at national and international levels. Reflective of his book, his participatory seminars are designed to promote the complementary uses of music and psychology for the purpose of prevention, wellness and holistic healing. Dr. Ortiz's progressive relaxation audio tape, Pulse Entrainment, integrates a number of the techniques he introduces throughout The Tao of Music and combines a soothing, unobtrussive musical backdrop with a hemispheric pulsing technique designed to induce a state of deep, natural relaxation. The tape can be obtained for $12.00, including postage, by writing to Dr. Ortiz at P.O. Box 145, Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, 17001, USA.

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