Music Therapy For Self Care
Sound therapy refers to the use of sound to address a variety of physical and mental conditions.
Humans have always enjoyed listening to and creating sounds for pleasure.
Historically, sound has always played important roles in festivals, religious and healing ceremonies.
Think of the Tibetan singing bowls, gospel choirs, chanting, drumming and clapping and the role they have in expressing and heightening human emotions. Music has the ability to express and elevate mood.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the use of sound is also capable of great healing.
Sound therapy techniques vary but they all appreciate that sound waves and their harmonic vibrations are able to impact the health of the human body. This is achieved through the elements of music which include:
- Pitch – are the sounds low or high
- Tonality – are the sounds major, minor, chromatic, modal, pentatonic
- Speed – are the sounds fast or slow
- Dynamic – are the sounds loud or soft
- Timbre – what kind of instrument is creating the sound, is it brassy/plucked/bowed
- Time and Rhythm – is the time even or uneven in nature, is the rhythm syncopated or even
- Melody and Harmony – is there only one line of music, is there a harmony or accompaniment, are there multiple lines of music going at the same time (polyphony)
- Form – are there repeated sections, how is unity created
By altering elements of music, brain activity (brain waves) can be altered, shifting our mood, cognition and abilities.
While this may sound like a New Age concept, the idea of using sound to manipulate health was the famous Greek mathematician, Pythagoras.
Which makes sense given that sound is the audible art of math.
He was also among the first to discover the harmonic relationships between mathematical ratios and different musical chords.
This created the foundations Western music which was employed by J.S Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.
Most notably J.S Bach, who is known as the Father of the Keyboard, wrote two books called The Well-Tempered Clavier.
The title is particularly telling as it suggests that he had written for a (12-note) well-tempered tuning system in which all keys sounded in tune.
The use of an agreed tuning system reinforces the idea that sound could be ordered for a higher purpose.
Proponents of sound therapy argue that this tuning system (known also as the Solfeggio tuning system) is able to subtly alter brain activity by virtue of their frequencies.
396 Hz: releases negative feelings
417 Hz: aids in transformation and resolving fractured situations
528 Hz: miracles and DNA repair
639 Hz: aids in understanding and repairing relationships
741 Hz: thought to help with problem solving and creative expression
852 Hz: spiritual enlightenment
Unlike many other kinds of therapy, sound or music therapy can be employed by virtually everyone and has a great safety profile as it can be used at all times with no fear of interfering with medications.
It has been demonstrated to help address stress, anxiety, high blood pressure, depression, sleep disorders, pain and autism.
Sound therapy may include:
- Listening to live music
- Listening to recorded music
- Making music by playing an instrument or singing
- Using or writing lyrics and songs
Unlike music for education or entertainment, music as a therapy is designed to address health issues such as improving fine motor skills, speech or communication skills or providing an emotional or physical outlet.
- Austmta.org.au. 2021. What is Music Therapy?. [online]
Available at: <https://www.austmta.org.au/content/what-music-therapy#:~:text=Music%20therapy%20is%20a%20research,enhance%20their%20quality%20of%20life.> [Accessed 4 April 2021].
- 2021. [online] Available at: <https://wmich.edu/mus-gened/mus150/Ch1-elements.pdf> [Accessed 4 April 2021].
- MASTER, M., 2021. Healing Frequencies of the Human Body: Full List and Benefits | MIND IS THE MASTER. [online] MIND IS THE MASTER. Available at: <https://mindisthemaster.com/sound-frequency-healing-human-body-benefits/#:~:text=285%20hertz%20is%20also%20one,the%20event%20of%20an%20injury.> [Accessed 4 April 2021].
- En.wikipedia.org. 2021. The Well-Tempered Clavier – Wikipedia. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Well-Tempered_Clavier#Well-Tempered_tuning> [Accessed 4 April 2021].
The Power of Sound
Brain activity fluctuates throughout the day, responding to our environment, emotions and experiences.
This electrical activity is measured in “waves” known as Hertz (Hz). 1 Hertz means one vibration cycle per second.
Brainwaves are grouped into five states according to their hertz:
- Beta waves
14 – 30Hz is the normal state of alert consciousness where the brain is able to sustain focused attention, high level cognition, and analytical processing.
- Alpha waves
9 – 13Hz is the state of the brain when it is relaxed both physically and mentally. This state has been associated with positive thinking and accelerated learning, however, some people also note feelings of drowsiness.
- Theta waves
4 – 8Hz refers to the state of the brain when it is in deep meditation, experiences dreams or is in light (REM) sleep, capable of dreaming. This is the state of the brain when it is at its most creative and experiences profound inner peace.
- Delta waves
Below 4Hz suggests the brain is in a state of deep (dreamless sleep) and is not capable of bodily awareness. This state is best for pain relief, decreasing cortisol production and accessing the unconscious or subconscious mind.
- Gamma waves
Above 30Hz, is believed to be associated with heightened perception, memory recall, high-level information processing and transcendental states.
It is believed that sound has a direct impact on the bioelectrical oscillations of the brain via the auditory nerve which supports what ancient healers of the past have known.
An example of how modern science is using sound therapy may be seen in the use of binaural beats.
Binaural beats occur naturally in the brain when each ear hears a different sound frequency.
For example the left ear may hear a frequency of 200Hz while the right hears 205Hz.
The brain then creates a third tone which is the difference between the two, in this case, the brain would “hear” a tone of 5Hz (205Hz – 200Hz).
The brain will then follow this new frequency and create brainwaves at the same rate, (called “entraining”).
This is known as a binaural beat. The use of binaural beats in clinical use has been shown to positively impact tinnitus, cognition, mood states, sleep disorders, pain relief and post-traumatic stress.
Some examples of sound therapy can be found below:
- Binaural Beats for Pain Relief –
Inflammation Pain Relief Binaural Beats | Healing with Amazing Sound Therapy
- Zen Music with Water sounds –
Relaxing Zen Music with Water Sounds • Peaceful Ambience for Spa, Yoga and Relaxation
- Crystal Singing Bowls
432Hz – 3 Hour Crystal Singing Bowl Healing Sound Bath (4K, No Talking) – Singing Bowls – Sound Bath
- Kučikienė, D., & Praninskienė, R. (2018). The impact of music on the bioelectrical oscillations of the brain. Acta medica Lituanica, 25(2), 101–106. https://doi.org/10.6001/actamedica.v25i2.3763
Appreciating the Sound of Silence
It may sound strange, but there is also a health benefit to silence.
In a world that is constantly demanding more and faster, it is easy to overlook noise pollution and its impact on health.
People take in information in so many different ways, but chiefly through sight and sound.
With modern technology and the rise of social media and video apps, the amount of information that the human brain now has to process is overwhelming.
Noise is now a daily feature of our lives – everything from transport, to increased population density, mobile phones, the use of mobile phones when driving.
For the most part, humans are capable of great adaption.
Described as “unwanted sound”, noise forces us to increase our alertness for potential dangers but when there is a constant increase in noise, we are forced to adapt.
While developing coping behaviours is normal, it does come at a cost.
New research is showing that the relentless onslaught of auditory information is associated with hypertension, increases in stress hormones, decreased memory and impacting reading comprehension in children.
One of the most interesting impacts of constant noise is the rise in feelings of annoyance.
To be specific, loud noises that were of a consistently high frequency were seen to increase feelings of fear and mild anger and were associated with feelings of invasion.
All of this evidence suggests that environmental exposure to constant noise contributes greatly to wellbeing and may be dangerous to health.
Ensuring that there are times set aside in the day for silent mindfulness increases concentration, awareness and decreases feelings of anxiety and restlessness.
In one German study, participants noted that silence was able to increase relaxation, improve mood states and alter the participants’ perception of time.
In another study, participants were encouraged to “just think” and engage with their own thoughts.
When this experiment was first performed in 2014, the researchers noted that some individuals found this to be so challenging they actually preferred to self-administer an electric shock.
This suggested participants did not know how to engage with their inner dialogue and found it more distressing.
When this thinking study was re-visited in 2019, participants were (unknowingly) asked to sit in silence for 6 and a half minutes.
They noted improved mood, increased relaxation and less tension.
It is worthwhile noting that feelings of boredom were hardly mentioned (10.4%).
Silence does not need to be passive to have an effect.
In one qualitative study, therapists saw silence as a tool to convey empathy, allow reflection, challenge patients’ to take responsibility and allow the patient time to process what was said.
Ways to increase mindful silence in daily routines might include using noise-cancelling headphones to ensure concentration is not lost or challenged.
Driving short distances without music may help to lessen distractions and when waiting (queues, for appointments) using the waiting time for mindfulness may prove to be a gift to your health rather than another source of frustration.
For a more prescriptive approach, it may be beneficial to set aside 5 minutes in the morning and another 5 minutes in the evening to devote to mindful silence.
In this time, it is important to let the thoughts come and go, and to be physically comfortable without falling asleep.
Try to pay attention to the sound of your own breathing as you inhale and exhale as well as the physical sensations your body may be experiencing.
- Stephen A Stansfeld, Mark P Matheson, Noise pollution: non-auditory effects on health, British Medical Bulletin, Volume 68, Issue 1, December 2003, Pages 243–257, https://doi.org/10.1093/bmb/ldg033
- Goines, L., & Hagler, L. (2007). Noise pollution: a modem plague. South Med J, 100(3), 287-94.
- Jariwala, H. J., Syed, H. S., Pandya, M. J., & Gajera, Y. M. (2017). Noise Pollution & Human Health: A Review. Indoor and Built Environment, 1-4.
- Ladany, Nicholas, Hill, Clara E, Thompson, Barbara J, O’Brien, Karen M, (2004), Therapist perspectives on using silence in therapy: A qualitative study. Counselling and Psychotheraphy Research, 4 doi: 10.1080/14733140412331384088.
- Pfeifer, E. and Wittmann, M., 2020. Waiting, Thinking, and Feeling: Variations in the Perception of Time During Silence. Frontiers in Psychology, 11.
- Eschen, J., 2007. Analytical music therapy. Enskede: TPB.
Sounds and Music for Relaxation
Before exploring how sound can induce relaxation, it is important to understand how sound is created.
Sound is produced when an object vibrates, creating a wave of pressure that causes particles to vibrate.
As the particles vibrate, they impact and move other nearby particles, transmitting the sound further.
The human ear detects sound waves when vibrating air particles vibrate small parts within the ear.
Humans can detect sounds in a frequency range from about 20 Hz to 20 kHz.
(Babies and infants can actually have a larger frequency range, but lose some high-frequency sensitivity as they mature).
Smaller mammals tend to be more sensitive to very high frequencies, but not to low frequencies.
For instance, some species of bats are sensitive to tones as high as 200 kHz.
Scientists believe that this is because small objects, including the auditory structures of these small mammals, are better resonators for high frequencies.
In the animal world, animals use lower frequency sounds for communication (growling, snarling etc.)
It is thought that for humans, long term exposure to lower sounds (sounds with a lower frequency) cause discomfort are associated with an inability to focus and concentrate.
Furthermore, it is suggested that when feeling stressed out, a person may manifest these frequencies and spread them too others.
Therefore it stands to reason that to induce relaxation and wellness, sounds need to be of a higher frequency.
A normal, healthy body has natural frequency between 65 – 75M Hz, however when exposed to higher frequencies, such as those found in frequency healing, the human body is stimulated to heal itself.
According to research, the best sounds for relaxation include:
- Nature sounds
Ocean waves, streams, rain, thunderstorms and birds are all associated with nature and the outdoors. These sounds have consistently shown to decrease feelings of anxiety and impact concentration, mood and sleep quality. A meta study of 36 other studies across 11 countries has demonstrated that listeners enjoyed a decrease in pain, improved tolerance to daily stressors and enhanced positive emotions.
- Classical music
Otherwise known as the Mozart Effect, the use of Western music as a “neurobiological tool” (Yeoh, 2016) to influence mental health and emotions is well known. In one 1993 study, students who were asked to listen to Mozart performed better on their exams and demonstrated an increase in their IQ, suggesting that the sounds were able to lessen their anxiety as well as improve their abstract thinking. In another study conducted by the University of Helsinki, Finland, researchers discovered that 20 minutes of classical music a day was able to modulate the genes responsible for brain function and memory. It is important to note that there is great variety within Classical music and if relaxation is the goal, then listeners should opt for single instrument or chamber music works which may have less tempo variety and a thinner texture.
Some suggestions include: Chopin Nocturnes, Pachelbel’s “Canon in D”, Erik Satie’s “Gymnnopedie No 1”, J.S Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavier” Preludes and Fugues, Mozart’s Piano Concertos or his Sonata in D Major for 2 pianos K448, Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and Etudes. Sidenote: The impact of Western Classical music on health is the result of the tuning system. As all cultures value sound and music as therapeutic tools, it stands to reason that they may each offer some health benefit. One study investigating traditional Indonesian music noted a sharp increase in beta power levels, corresponding to an increase in cerebral blood flow.
The limited scope of pitch, combined with the repetitious rhythm make chanting very easy to relax to. Practitioners of chant music enjoy greater breath control, improved concentration and improved wellbeing. This is thought to be a result of the way repetitive vocal chanting impacts the parasympathetic nervous system, in particular, its ability to slow and regulate breathing, thereby activating the vagus nerve which is responsible for decreasing our fight-or-flight response. Chanting blends mindfulness with sound therapy to produce a total body response that has been universally recognised. The most familiar mantra is that of “Om” or “Aum” which is believed to be the singular sound associated with the highest spiritual and creative power. This is because of the sounds – try it and see: break down “Om” into smaller parts and it begins with the open vowel of “aah” which begins in the stomach and chest before moving to the “ooh” sound which resonates higher in the throat before finishing off with the consonant “mm” which can be felt in the teeth and sinuses. When chanting at a frequency of 528Hz, it is thought that equilibrium, peace and clarity may be restored.
This list is by no means exhaustive but serves to demonstrate the scientific merits behind popular sound and music therapies.
Given the scope of music genre’s it is ultimately up to personal preference to also guide what music is going to induce relaxation.
For example, someone who only hears classical music at the dentist may have negative associations with classical music and listening to it may actually cause stress!
- Method-behind-the-music.com. 2021. The Physics of Sound. [online] Available at: <https://method-behind-the-music.com/mechanics/physics/> [Accessed 4 April 2021].
- Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al., editors. Neuroscience. 2nd edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001. The Audible Spectrum. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK10924
- Nishida K., Oyama-Higa M. (2014) The Influence of Listening to Nature Sounds on Mental Health. In: Pham T.D., Ichikawa K., Oyama-Higa M., Coomans D., Jiang X. (eds) Biomedical Informatics and Technology. ACBIT 2013. Communications in Computer and Information Science, vol 404. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-54121-6_30
- A synthesis of health benefits of natural sounds and their distribution in national parks
Rachel T. Buxton, Amber L. Pearson, Claudia Allou, Kurt Fristrup, George Wittemyer
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Apr 2021, 118 (14) e2013097118; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2013097118
- Yeoh, Miranda. (2016). Effects of classical music and preferred music on mental health: an interview with Dr. Miranda Yeoh. Electronic Physician. 8. 10.19082/Music-Health.
- Coast, S., 2021. The effects of classical music on the brain | Symphony Central Coast. [online] Symphonycentralcoast.com.au. Available at: <https://www.symphonycentralcoast.com.au/classical-music-effects-on-brain/> [Accessed 4 April 2021].
- Kučikienė, D., & Praninskienė, R. (2018). The impact of music on the bioelectrical oscillations of the brain. Acta medica Lituanica, 25(2), 101–106. https://doi.org/10.6001/actamedica.v25i2.3763
Introducing Music Therapy into Daily Life
As explored earlier, music is the result of different elements working together.
These included pitch, tonality, speed, dynamic, timbre, time and rhythm, melody and harmony and form.
This article explores how to use these elements throughout the day to relieve stress and improve focus and concentration.
Having explored the benefits of silence, it would be wise to first see if that would be a good first option.
Often when the world becomes too noisy, an initial reaction is to make just as much noise and yell.
While this does have its benefits, it may be more beneficial to move away from the noise (noise cancelling headphones work too!) and focus on re-centring yourself.
The next step is to consider chanting.
The use of the “Om” or “Aum” works to improve deep breathing and moves the breath from the belly through to the head and directly impacts the parasympathetic nervous system via the vagus nerve.
This repetitious mantra uses pitch (as it is spoken-sung) to create a feeling of safety that is reinforced through its moderately soft dynamic and moderate speed.
The use of the human voice, particularly your own voice, is soothing compared to harsher electronic sounds.
Another way to incorporate music and sound therapy into daily life is to appreciate your environment when it is quiet.
Try to go for a walk in the early morning and pay attention to the sounds of nature.
The sound of the wind going through the trees, the sounds of neighborhood dogs, the sound of birds.
If you are able to, listen to the flow of water as that is always particularly soothing and relaxing.
Wooden wind chimes may make a nice addition to outdoor garden spaces to improve the ambiance.
Nature sounds are random in their tonality, speed, dynamic, and may lack time and form but there is still a therapeutic benefit to be gained.
When listening to music, consider how you are feeling and how you would like to feel – do you want to feel energized, relaxed or focused?
If you want to feel energized, listen to slightly louder music that has a strong beat, heavy drums, a fast pace, and a repetitious form will increase alertness.
Consider Queen’s anthem “Bohemian Rhapsody” with its soaring highs and rumbling lows, use of melody, and contrasting harmony that never fails to engage people.
If you want to feel relaxed, listen to slower tempo music with gentle melodies and simple harmonies.
Solo instruments such as piano and cello work particularly well due to their mellow tones.
For example, Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” with its repetitious ascending arpeggio introduction in a lower register easily evokes a sense of calm solitude.
For music that will help you to focus and study then consider something with a strong sense of structure that doesn’t feature too many dynamics or tempo changes.
Consider having a Mozart piano playlist (there are plenty available on YouTube).
For more specific healing frequencies, you can also listen to Tibetan singing bowls through YouTube or, even better, consider purchasing some yourself.
They are simple to use and the frequencies generated from these bowls are said to resonate with our own frequencies to elicit greater health.
Other sound tools may include gongs, cymbals, tuning forks, or drums.
If you are musically inclined at all, you can also start to hum, sing or drum out little rhythms throughout the day.
As you become more familiar with creating the sound you will be able to expand your creativity and explore how sound is able to impact your health as an individual.
Simple instruments to consider having on hand might include triangles or a xylophone which require minimal training or skill.