Sound baths: woo woo magic or the real deal?
If you hear the phrase “sound bath” without knowing what one is, you might picture something involving water or floating. You might think people are using sounds to evoke some kind of reaction. You would be partially right, though in reality, the experience of a sound bath is completely dry. A sound bath is a type of meditative practice in which a trained performer (or performers) plays a series of instruments to create certain wavelengths of vibration in a space. Those experiencing a sound bath usually sit or lay on a mat while the music is being played.
The instruments typically used in a sound bath include singing metal bowls, singing crystal bowls (which you can listen to here), chimes, gongs, didgeridoos, and even the human voice in chanting or singing. The music played is not usually melodic, like normal music is, and there is no beat. Since most of the instruments used create long-lasting tones when they are played, the performer is usually adding and layering many sounds at once to create a certain kind of vibrational frequency. Imagine playing a piano, but every time you press a key, the note is played for a minute long. This is the type of sonic palette that is present in a sound bath, where instead of listening to a series of notes played in sequence, you are hearing what happens when notes overlap with each other, creating unique tones of harmony, dissonance, or both at once. If you search “sound bath” on Spotify, you can get a good idea of what this sounds like.
The rationale behind sound baths is both well-understood and not; it’s clear what the effect of sound baths has on people, but not necessarily why the effect occurs. People usually seek out sound baths or sound-bath-similar therapies to relieve stress, anxiety, or pain. There is a whole lot of evidence that sound baths can really help people having a wide range of unpleasant psychological and physical experiences. Even if you’re not going to a sound bath to find relief from something, participants in studies are evidence that it is just straight up relaxing. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about any studies here, because what I really want to talk about is why sound baths do what they do. Sound baths do work for a lot of people, but why?
There are a few hypotheses that I’ve come across about how sound therapy works. When I went to my first sound bath, I had this idea that the vibrations traveling through the air and through the floor of the room were being transferred to all the water and fluids in your body. I thought that maybe chemical (or energetic) imbalances in the brain or other areas of the body (such as lactic acid buildup in muscles or adrenaline buildup in the brain) could be diffused by forcing the chemicals to move around by sort of shaking them in a specific way. That definitely makes no sense, but I was not terribly far off.
One hypothesis for sound therapy, which you might know about if you’ve ever tried listening to one of those 400 hertz or brown noise playlists to study, is that certain frequencies of sound can rewire the way the neurons in your brain fire. There is a TED talk that summarizes this idea really well, but it relies on two principles. The first principle is that any two organisms that can produce some form of noise or frequency will attempt to synchronize the frequencies of their respective emissions when they are in the same space together. The other principle is that neurons (nerve cells) that fire at the same time and near the same location in the brain or body will learn to be associated with each other. This is the reason that you feel happy when you think of someone you like after making positive memories with them.
A lot of disorder can arise when neurons are not firing together, or when there are blocks between neurons that are connected to each other, which happens in many forms of dementia. However, when you are in a room with sound playing at a specific frequency for a long period of time, it is hypothesized that all the cells in your brain start to fire at the frequency that is being played. Since they are all synchronized, they have the chance to form or heal broken connections. This form of healing is highly specific to certain disorders, but nonetheless a positive experience for any brain.
Another hypothesis, not necessarily unrelated to the previous one, is that sound baths allow the body to transition from sympathetic to parasympathetic nervous experiences. The sympathetic nervous system is associated with the fight or flight response and other active responses to stimuli, while the parasympathetic nervous system is associated with rest and calm in the absence of stimulation. While the body is in the parasympathetic state, it has more resources available to enact healing and cease the production of stress hormones. Because sound bath music has no beat or lyrics — no stimuli — it can help transition the body between these two states, and thus result in all of the benefits that people experience after sound baths. Listening to this kind of music is also a deeply meditative experience, and could encourage you to shift focus from things that are bothering you, which could also have benefits for those seeking relief from more specific worries.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the reason that sound baths work is some combination of all that I discussed above, as well as other psychological factors we have yet to consider. And though sound baths are certainly no replacement for clinical medicine, there are very few cases where trying out a sound bath could do more harm than good. If you’re curious about what a sound bath is like, you can go to one for free right on campus by visiting https://athletics.cmu.edu/recreation/groupxregistration and registering for a Scottie Sound Bath performed by musicians from our very own School of Music.