While noise is often a nuisance, something we see as a negative, it can often be quite helpful. It makes sense: People have used their voices and musical instruments to heal – through prayer, chanting and music – since the dawn of humanity.
And science says there’s something to it. In fact, sound therapy can be especially helpful for improving concentration, alleviating pain, reducing anxiety and enhancing sleep.
Sound therapy and music therapy: Two routes to a common goal
It’s easy to confuse sound therapy and music therapy or assume they’re the same thing. This is likely because they have a common goal: impact physical and mental well-being. They just go about doing so in subtly different yet distinct ways.
Music therapy uses the structure and rhythm of music to actively engage a client in music-making to impact well being.
On the other hand, sound healing uses the vibrational energy of sounds – whether a single toned note, music or chanting – to impact well-being. Jonathan Goldman, a pioneer in sound healing, elaborates:
“The basic principle of sound healing is that everything is in a state of vibration, including our organs, bones, tissues, etc. If these parts of the body become imbalanced they may be healed through projecting the proper and correct frequencies back into the body. This works for imbalances and over-or under-activity in the chakras and the energy fields.”
A more western explanation involves the fact that brain waves and sound waves are both measured the same way, in hertz. Just like a speaker or amplifier, the brain runs on electricity. Neurons fire at varying rates and patterns in response to our physical or mental state. These rates and patterns are termed brain wave frequencies and are associated with different cognitive and emotional states. Of the four main brain wave frequencies, two are associated with a relaxed and/or a meditative state: Alpha and Theta.
The similarity between sound waves and brain wave frequency means you can use sound to impact your mental and physical state.
Jonathan Adams, TEDx speaker Jonathan Adams explains:
“Sound therapy works because our mind has a natural response called the ‘frequency following response’ … when we hear a certain oscillation or frequency or sound, our mind naturally tends to synchronize with that state.”
So, while it’s difficult for us to consciously “tell” our mind to relax, sound can easily and automatically guide it to a state of relaxation. Therefore, if you expose yourself to a sound with a frequency congruent with an alpha or theta frequency state, the Frequency Following Response naturally guides your mind’s vibrational energy to match that state.
Benefits of sound therapy for older adults
Nada Milosavljevic, MD, founder of the Integrative Health Program at Massachusetts General Hospital said, “While sound therapy isn’t a cure-all for most people with severe pain or stress, it’s definitely beneficial.”
Sound therapy for older adults with memory impairment
Because sound therapy directly stimulates brain waves, it can improve mental performance and memory by stimulating the brain.
A 79-year-old from Newport Beach, California, describes how sound therapy has helped her depression and fogginess:
“In the 4 months of listening to Sound Therapy day after day, foggy bottom has cleared almost completely and I am enjoying unaccustomed alertness and vivacity in all my waking hours. As far as I can tell, there was no sudden dramatic breakthrough, but I am grateful for whatever happened.”
However, timing is crucial. Introducing sound therapy early in the dementia process is easier than in the later stages, as the patient will generally associate the sounds with an immediate sense of relief and inner connection and balance. Older adults in later stages of dementia may become confused or agitated by the vibration and sound.
How to try sound therapy for yourself and your loved one
You can access sound therapy in several ways. The easiest way is through the internet: YouTube videos offer the sound of Tibetan bowls or binaural beats. Spotify, Pandora and other similar sites also provide recordings, and InsightTimer is an excellent choice for high-quality recorded sound therapy.
To enjoy recorded sound therapy, first find a pair of headphones that cover the entire ear, then sit or recline in a comfortable position in a darkened room with no external stimuli. Close your eyes or gently cover them with a sleep mask to block out all external visual stimuli. Slow and deepen your breath, and then simply allow your ears to listen. It’s as easy as that. Experts recommend you listen daily for two to eight weeks for cumulative results.
You can also create your own sound therapy within your body by engaging in certain types of sound making or chanting. For example, Brahmari – or “the humming bee breath” – is a breathing technique that uses the vibration of your own humming to calm the mind and body. A very simple step-by-step video guide can be found here. Chanting Aum has a similar vibrational effect, and is a very popular technique. View a step-by-step video here.
For an in-person or more immersive experience, the American Music Therapy Association is a great resource for finding certified music and sound therapists wherever you are. Local yoga studios are also a great resource.
The experience of sound therapy will be very different for every individual, so explore all the options available to you to find the most accessible way for you and your loved one to find peace in mind, body and spirit.