It’s no secret that music can heal; parents have always sung their children lullabies, and every teenager has turned to breakup songs in the course of young love. Yet the use of ambient sound—void of songwriting or narrative—has long been overlooked as an important part of music’s emotional impact on human well-being.
It may be surprising then, that sound therapy is choosing now of all times to blow up worldwide. In a time when technology has taken over all aspects of our lives, everyone—from young students, busy parents, to big-wig CEOs alike—is seeking out ways to escape from sensory overload. One solution has been with more technology in the form of wellness apps; software designed to act as virtual gurus, leading users through therapeutic rituals.
Take Headspace: the mindfulness app promises to deliver “meditation for everybody” and currently boasts over a million paid subscribers. Previously seen as catering to a small and niche market back in 2018, the app has now expanded to cover the topics of adult sleeping, exercise routines, and music playlists. Their competitor Calm, and hot new startups like Endel, are also capitalising on the new-found trend of “personalised sound”.
So what exactly is sound therapy, and does it live up to the hype? The practice of connecting and healing via sound has been around long before the term “sound healing” existed; it has ancient roots all over the world, from the didgeridoo in Australia, and Native American songscapes, to Tibetan and Himalayan singing bowls. Syrian philosopher Iamblichus wrote about “musical medicine” more than two thousand years ago—but it’s only in the past couple of decades that modern medicine has caught up and started to take these ancient wisdoms seriously.
In one study amusingly titled Hey Mister Tambourine Man, Play a Drug for Me: Music as Medication, a certain doctor R.H. Howland outlined the promise that music shows in treating everything from depression, anxiety, and physical pain, to even stroke recovery, schizophrenia, and dementia.
It sounds like drum circles and chakras aren’t just for the hippies anymore, but have their foot firmly planted in the door of actual healthcare. One major domain that’s attracting a large following is the practice of voice therapy, which focuses on the use of breath, vocal harmony, and guided visualisation (which is already used today in cognitive behavioural therapy) to induce subjects into a deep state of relaxation and meditation. You can easily find millions of voice therapy-related videos on YouTube, with many of them under the trending keyword of “ASMR”.
An acronym for “autonomous sensory meridian response”, science is starting to prove that these amplified, intimate sounds—such as whispering, gentle scratching and tapping on a mic, or soft crinkling—triggers the release of endorphins and oxytocin, relaxing the body and reducing blood pressure and heart rate.
Similarly, therapeutic percussion and sound baths are complementary domains where a facilitator uses parts of the body (such as clapping) or instruments (like drums or singing bowls) instead of the voice to create sounds that resonate with a participant’s emotional state. An experienced and skilled therapist takes their listeners through a journey of highs and lows by layering sounds, tones and harmonics at different paces and volumes. Sometimes the experience is accompanied by yoga and body movements, but most commonly the participants get comfortable with pillows on the floor and let the sound waves wash over them.
Today, you can find an endless stream of these videos on YouTube as well—but for those seeking the real in-person deal, sound baths are increasingly easy to find and participate in; from Carnegie Hall to hospitals and community centers, the practice is quickly saturating our environments.
But even right now, right at this moment, you can pick up your smartphone while lying on the living room couch and plug into another world of crystal bowls and deep meditation. As our current culture looks ever farther back to ancient practices for inspiration, these new waves of old rituals are a refreshing change of pace from our fast, tech-forward world. Will sound therapy just be a fad or a lasting shift in how we live life in the 21st century? Only time will tell.
Cover Credit: Cottonbro/Pexel
Writer | Cynthia Chou
Cynthia is a Canadian writer and recent transplant to Berlin. She also likes to paint and sing and eat and drink and stuff while traveling the world.