Updated: Jan 30, 2020
We’ve all experienced the power that music has to alter our emotional state – it can relax us, pump us up, or even bring us to tears. What is less widely-known is that music and sound can also alter our physical state. The idea that sound can heal the body and mind has been around for millennia. Use of the Tibetan singing bowls, for example, goes back 2,400 years (Shrestha, 2018) and are still used today, including here at Mindful Ways to Wellness in St. Petersburg, FL. The Ancient Greek and Egyptian cultures both used sound healing as well, and religions around the world reference sound in their creation myths (Goldman, 2002).
Modern research has begun to confirm the benefits of these traditional practices; neurological studies suggest that music and sound therapy can provide benefits for those suffering from depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and chronic pain (O'Kelly, Fachner, & Tervaniemi, 2016). Here we will talk about some of the mechanisms by which music and sound affect the body, both physically and mentally, and three ways we can leverage that to heal ourselves.
Tibetan Bowl Tones
One of the most ancient ways to use sound for self-healing is with the Tibetan singing bowls. The benefits of Tibetan bowl sound healing include better sleep, greater focus and attention span, mental and physical relaxation, easing of chronic pain, and greater overall peace of mind. For more information about how the bowls work to heal your body and mind, you can visit our sound therapy page.
Traditional bowls are hammered by hand, made of a seven-metal alloy, and tend to be somewhat polyphonic. Machine-made bowls, on the other hand, are often made with a single metal, have more consistent, one-note sounds, and are more widely available. The bowls are played by striking or rubbing them with soft mallets to create beautiful, rich tones. For self-healing purposes, you can buy your own bowl or set of bowls and play them in a variety of ways.
When choosing your Tibetan bowl, it is best to shop in person so that you can play them, as each bowl’s tone is unique, and so is each person’s preference. You may find the notes of the larger, deeper-sounding bowls more soothing, for example, or want a smaller, lighter bowl if you’re planning to play it in your hand. Find what speaks to you; you can’t go wrong. In the Tampa Bay area, Gopali Imports on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg and The Om Shoppe in Sarasota are great resources for finding quality Tibetan bowls.
To play your bowls for self-healing, remember that, much like when using your voice, your intention is important; with the right focus, any bowl can be used to heal any part of the body. Use your instincts and your healing needs when deciding where to place to bowl – over the heart, the solar plexus, the sacrum, the thigh or calf, in front of your throat, or even on top of your head.
For general stress and tension or headaches, playing a large bowl while it is inverted on your head can be effective (Shrestha, 2018). Hold your head so that the bottom of the bowl stays balanced and stationary on your crown – you can put a towel or cloth on your head first to help hold it in place and keep you comfortable. Once you have your bowl positioned, gently strike downward on the outside of the bowl with your soft mallet and allow it to resonate for about 20 seconds before striking again, and continue for as long as you like. If you have a second bowl, you can hold it up around your throat in your free hand to create an echo chamber for even greater effect.
To heal other parts of your body, simply lie down somewhere comfortable and place your bowl on top of the area you want to work on. With your mallet, softly strike upward along the side of the bowl and allow it to resonate for about 15 seconds. Breathe deeply as it resonates, and feel free to adjust the firmness of your strikes depending on what feels good to you. For even deeper healing, you can fill your bowl about a quarter full with warm water and play it as described; the water will allow the vibrations to resonate even more effectively (Shrestha, 2018).
If you’re curious about the bowls and want to experience the whole-body healing effect of a full set being played, you can join us on Mondays at 7:15 pm for Tibetan Bowl Meditation here at Mindful Ways to Wellness, or book an individual session.
You can even use your voice to heal yourself with sound – the human voice is the most ancient and strongest tool for sound healing (Goldman, 2002). It’s possible to use your voice for relieving pain in any part of your body. Make sure your muscles are as relaxed as possible while sitting or standing, and try making vowel sounds at different pitches. It may seem awkward or silly at first, but pay attention to what sounds resonate in different parts of the body. You can experiment to find what works for you, including humming, singing, or chanting.
However, bear in mind that the intention behind the sound is an important factor in its ability to heal (Goldman, 2002). Consider that the same words will have a different effect if they are said in anger or fear, versus if they are said with love and kindness; think of your healing vocalizations in the same way.
It could take a while to figure out the most helpful tones or style of vocal self-healing, but keep experimenting to find what works for you. Then you can start to use more intention to focus the sound on specific parts of the body. With time, you can alleviate your pain by using just your voice.
A Playlist for Health
The simplest way to use sound for self-healing is something you may already do to some extent: using a personal playlist. You probably have different songs you like to listen to at different times – some are motivational, great for a workout or psyching yourself up for a big presentation, while others may be melancholy, like the singer knows the exact pain of your breakup. It’s also possible to curate a playlist for calmness or happiness, based on your needs; if you’re struggling with stress, anxiety, or chronic pain, aim for calming music.
If you’re dealing with depression, find songs that make you feel happy, and steer clear of sad songs if you're dealing with a mood disorder like depression. If you’re not frequently experiencing low mood, listening to sad music while feeling down can be constructive; it can be comforting and allow the listener to better understand and process their feelings. Those who are depressed, though, may end up pushing themselves further into a depressive, isolated state by choosing sad music. Generally speaking, music that diverts the depressed or anxious listener away from negative emotion is more effective in improving symptoms than music that expresses the emotion the listener is feeling (Carlson, et al., 2015).
You can think of this as similar to venting or ruminating on your feelings - it might feel good at the moment, but not much is resolved; in fact, those negative feelings can become stronger because you're focusing on them. On the other hand, listening to happy music when you're depressed can have a sort of "fake it 'til you make it" effect. You might not be able to relate to it at first, but the more you hear uplifting tones or positive lyrics, the better you'll start to feel.
Start building your playlist by paying attention to what the music you listen to on a regular basis makes you feel, and pick out the songs that bring about whatever you’d like to feel. The genre isn’t important; even a style as extreme as heavy metal can have a positive impact on mood if it's the type of music you enjoy (Sharman & Dingle, 2015). You can also start to experiment with different styles, including nature sounds – you never know what might speak to you.
For calming anxiety and reducing stress, try gentle acoustic music or sounds of flowing water; to counteract depression, find inspiring lyrics and songs with a higher number of beats per minute to help rev you up. Much like a scent can take you back to a time and place, so can music. A song that has an established positive association for you – one that reminds you of a relaxing vacation you took, a person you love, or just a time in your life when you felt great – may be helpful. Be sure to mix in new songs and sounds as well; novelty can help keep you engaged with the music (Dragulin & Constantin, 2016). Creating a Pandora station based on your favorites is a great way to find new music that fits your sound healing goals.
It may not be the first way you think about addressing your mental and physical ailments, but sound is a powerful tool for healing, backed up by thousands of years of wisdom and modern science. If you’re in the St. Petersburg or Tampa Bay area, our Tibetan Bowl Meditation and individual sessions at Mindful Ways to Wellness are a great way to experience the sensation of sound therapy, but remember – with your playlist, your voice, and your own bowls, you have the tools to heal yourself with sound as well!
Carlson, E., Saarikallio, S., Toiviainen, P., Bogert, B., Kliuchko, M., & Brattico, E. (2015). Maladaptive and adaptive emotion regulation through music: A behavioral and neuroimaging study of males and females. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2015.00466
Dragulin, S., & Constantin, F.A. (2016). Choosing the Right Music -- an Important Step in Music Therapy. Bulletin of Transylvania University of Brasov, 9, pp. 105–110.
Goldman, J. (2002). Healing sounds ; The power of harmonics. Rochester, Vt: Healing Arts Press.
O'Kelly, J., Fachner, J. C., & Tervaniemi, M. (2016). Dialogues in Music Therapy and Music Neuroscience: Collaborative Understanding Driving Clinical Advances. Frontiers Research Topics. doi:10.3389/978-2-88945-137-1
Sharman, L., & Dingle, G. A. (2015). Extreme Metal Music and Anger Processing. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience,9. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2015.00272
Shrestha, S. (2018). How to heal with singing bowls: Traditional Tibetan healing methods. Boulder, CO: Sentient Publications.