23 Jan 2024

Sound Healing: Restorative or ringing alarm bells?

From Healthy or Hoax, 5:00 am on 23 January 2024

The idea of using sound for healing seems to have been around for a very long time. But what does it all mean and what does it do?

Stacey Morrison, host of RNZ's Healthy or Hoax podcast, started by joining sound healing teacher and practitioner Kata Mikecz to have her first sound therapy session.

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What happens in a sound therapy session?

Mikecz says she usually assesses a client's body with her instruments before deciding which to use.

"I usually use them intuitively, so there's no set like script," Mikecz says.

"I do whatever I feel drawn to."

She warns that the sounds can sometimes be painful and encourages Stacey to speak up if she's uncomfortable.

"For some people they experience like, you know, a tension in the shoulder or in the muscles. Usually, I recommend to people to stay with the sound, even if it's uncomfortable and feelings coming up, because it means that it started to shift something in your mind or body. So, it's great to stay with the sound, but you don't need to just bear it," Mikecz says.

Before beginning, Mikecz asks Stacey to set an intention or a positive outcome to focus on during the session. Breathing and visualisation exercises come next.

The session lasts 40 minutes and involves Mikecz moving around Stacey with a variety of instruments. These include tuning forks (which have set frequencies), to Himalayan bowls and gongs (which have no precise frequencies or tones), then on to drums and Tingsha cymbals for grounding and dispersing energy.

People can often experience some kind of release, such as crying or having different feelings, during a session. Mikecz says people usually feel relaxed and at ease afterwards.

Stacey Morrison laying down for a sound healing session

Stacey during the sound healing session Photo: Liz Garton

How much does it cost?

A sound healing session is roughly the same price as a massage.

How does sound therapy work?

Mikecz says sound healing works through sympathetic resonance; everything has a vibration, but sometimes external influences can upset that vibration or frequency. Sound healing helps bring everything back into balance, she says, and sympathetic resonance can also retrain the frequency of brain activity. 

When you get an EEG or electroencephalogram of your brain, the activity is shown as a wave form. These different wave forms or frequencies are called things like alpha or beta waves. If someone’s brain is registering a delta frequency – so between 0.5 – 4 hertz – they’re probably deeply asleep or unconscious. If someone has a beta frequency – 12-35 hertz - they’re awake and alert.

"We are not constantly in the same brainwave state," Mikecz says.

"If we go to high beta then things can be stressful. We might feel tense. During the session, I'm going to try to draw your body down to the lower frequencies so your body can rest. Your mind can rest."

Several sound healing instruments such as tuning forks and Himalayan bowls

Sound healing instruments - tuning forks and Himalayan bowls Photo: Liz Garton

Yes, but does it work? What are the therapeutic benefits?

Stacey describes the sound healing as a real treat.

"I feel calmer," she says.

"I feel energised because I thought I was ready to go to sleep. I really enjoyed it. It's lovely."

So, it was nice and relaxing. But could it have been therapeutic too.

Woman playing on a crystal bowl.

Sound therapy practitioners use a variety of tools. Photo: Jozef Klopacka

Is listening to music good for you?

Yes, say Mangor Pedersen and Daniel Shepherd, associate professors from AUT’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience.

Recently, Pedersen and Shepherd were involved in the creation of Benee's song Bagels, created in collaboration with Youthline and ASB, in a bid to give young people suffering anxiety something calming to listen to. 

Pedersen says there’s a lot we don't understand about the brain and music. At AUT’s Akoranga campus, they have all the gadgets, from a sound attenuating chamber to equipment to measure the brain’s electrophysiological activity. This includes gear to monitor things like heart rate and galvanic skin response, or sweating, which is a marker of stress.

Benee performing with the NZ Symphony Orchestra

Benee, pictured here with the NZSO, created a song to give young people with anxiety something calming to listen to. Photo: Garry Thomas

"I'm sure we all have a subjective experience of music. We feel things when we listen to music, so there's got to be lots of changes in the brain. But because this is such a complex organ, it is quite challenging to disentangle specifically what's happening in the brain," he says. 

"There could be many factors like memories, emotions, as well as arousal or in the moment sort of what you feel."

However, Shepherd says there are a couple of universal truths when it comes to relaxing music. 

"The first is usually that we don't want the song to distract attention too much. We don't want it to be irritating or annoying."

He says you also don't want people's minds to wander too much.

"Nature abhors a vacuum and they start ruminating. And of course, someone who is, for example, anxious, we know the content of those ruminations are unlikely to be positive."

Song speed plays a part too, he says.

"We don't want a fast beat because we don't want people sort of being aroused by the song and excited."

Shepherd is adamant that music can be therapeutic.

"Music therapy has been established for probably well over 100 years and research has been done on the ability of music to heal since that time," he says.

"[There is] a lot of evidence to show that it's actually very, very effective in treating a number of different psychological ailments and especially anxiety, depression and the like. And just for general rehabilitation as well after accidents or traumatic brain injury."

Generic pic of someone relaxing listening to the radio

Listening to music is good for you for a range of reasons, scientists say. Photo: Eric Nopanen / Unsplash

So, is sound healing good for you too?

Shepherd is sceptical. 

"Sound healing is probably more an enterprise than a treatment."

He describes it as a complementary medicine or alternative medicine movement that combines meditation with a particular tone.

The tone that seems to be popular is 528 hertz or the Solfeggio frequency - sometimes called the Love Frequency or Miracle Tone.

"The idea is that when you meditate, you play this tone sort of perhaps once every 30 seconds or some regime like that.”

Practitioners say this will help repair DNA, relax listeners, treat anxiety and depression, and generally make life better, Shepherd says, but there is no scientific basis whatsoever.

"It's not based on any sort of numerical calculation from strings vibrating, for example. It just seems to have been plucked out by a particular guru, if you like,"

Most studies usually end with a call for more robust research into sound healing.

A sound therapy healer in action

Healthy, or hoax? Photo: Conscious Design / Unsplash

Is sound therapy healthy or a hoax?

Both Pedersen and Shepherd agree that sound healing is safe. They say that if it makes you feel good and helps you relax, that’s a good thing for your body and brain.

"Sound healing does have the component of meditation," Shepherd says.

"I would put that at the healthy end. The tone in isolation, I would probably put that at hoax.

"We do need to remember, though, that everyone is different, and sound is very subjective. So, so long as a particular sound, be it a nature sound, a tone or music, can transport you to your happy place, then it's going to be good," he says.

"We all use music in different ways, but if it makes you feel good, that's a good thing in the end,” Pedersen says.

"The brain's going to have a good response from taking a timeout, being relaxed and experiencing good emotions." 

While Mikecz likely has more faith in the tones she's using, her philosophy aligns with what the scientists are saying.

"If we let our mind and body relax and calm down a little bit, the self-healing process can start," she says.

"So, I always tell people, it's not me healing anyone or the instruments. It's your body. It's your own body's wisdom."