The Sound of Healing

What Can Modern Science Do for Ancient Medicine?

Ancient knowledge of the healing power of sound is being enhanced by modern research—around the world. People are, in increasing numbers doing experiments to understand what sound can do. Participants range from audiophiles in their homes, to doctors employing music in a hospital, to scientists in laboratories with cymatics instruments.

Cymatics is the science of visualizing audio frequencies. It dates back more than a century to German physicist Ernst Chladni. The term comes from the ancient Greek word kyma for “wave,” and was coined by Swiss doctor Hans Jenny. He documented dynamic, but ordered, patterns created by sound vibrations affecting fluids and powders.

Many experimenters are not trying to advance science; instead, they are in the do-it-yourself spirit of making art or just having fun—putting water in concave membranes of stereo speakers, cranking up sound levels, and enjoying the three-dimensional flowerlike patterns that rise up out of the water.

Their interest is not surprising, because sensing that sound is important to us is literally in our DNA, and the fact that sound can create beautiful geometries in water or a fine powder is fascinating.

The healing properties of ultrasound—sound significantly above the range of human hearing—have been proven in hospitals and sports-injury clinics. Therapeutic ultrasound supports or speeds healing of soft tissues and even broken bones.

The surprises about what sound can do are in the findings of the scientists who do careful experiments with cymatics by controlling the variables. What they are learning sheds light on how we can improve our health—by doing what comes naturally. Dance, sing, and listen to harmonious sounds. Every cell in your body will thank you.

Humankind has always had knowledge about the power of sound. Consider the writings of different spiritual traditions—the Christian Bible’s, “In the beginning was the Word,” the Vedic culture’s Sanskrit word for sound Shabda; and teachings about the Sound Current. Sound plays a vital role in Buddhism, such as the singing bowls. In India and other countries, sacred chants relax and clear the mind of the singer.

Simon Heather of the UK College of Sound Healing said in an online article that ancient cultures understood the power of harmonics. The sounds of stringed instruments are rich in harmonics. In ancient Greek mythology, Orpheus played the lyre. In India, Saraswati, the legendary goddess of wisdom and music, is pictured playing the veena, another stringed instrument. And the biblical story of David says he played a harp to heal King Saul’s depression.

“Over time, music became more complex in Western society. The singer and musician have to stay more concentrated in their left-brain functions in order to play the different parts of music together,” Simon Heather wrote. “Consequently, we have lost much of the healing power of sound in our modern music.”

From ancient times to now, people have made music without so much left-brain thinking about it.

“There are no cultures of peoples who don’t have dance and music as a vital part of life,” says Dagmar Kuhn of Frankfurt, Germany. She studied Ethnology and Comparative Religion, with a focus including ethnomedicine and ethnomusicology. Ethnology is the branch of anthropology that analyzes relative characteristics of different peoples, focusing on traditional cultures. Ms. Kuhn is also a singer with a repertoire of traditional and spiritual songs in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew, Djudeo-Español, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Azeri, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and German. She has written about overtone singing in Mongolia and Tibet.

I met the multilingual researcher when she translated speeches for an energy conference in the Netherlands and, more recently, encountered her paper titled, “Ancient Knowledge of Healing through Music in Central Asian Tradition and Scientific Research on Sound & Vibration.” She presented it at an international ethnomusicology conference held as part of the 2015 Music of the Orient Festival in Uzbekistan.

She began by referring to quantum physics, which teaches that all matter is vibrating. As a result, light and sound in different frequencies form the basic structure of the universe and the core of our human existence, she said. Furthermore, “words, music, pictures, colors, thoughts, emotions, and prayer create some sort of vibration.”

Dagmar Kuhn adds that the Islamic tradition also explored different aspects of music as being basic to creation. However, in Islam the term ‘music’ does not cover the same meaning as in English and other Western languages. (Scholars will inform you that the Arabic term for music, musiqa, does not apply to all types of artistic vocal and instrumental arrangements of sounds or tones.)

A leading scholar, musician and poet of the Muslim and Central Asian world, Abu Nasr Mohammad Al-Farabi (AD 870–950), wrote about how acoustical vibrations —including harmonics—affect physiology. Dagmar Kuhn quotes him, “The body is sick when the soul is weakened. And he is disturbed when the soul is disturbed. Healing of the body happens through healing of the soul, by restoring her inner strength with the right music and sounds, which have the ability to do it.”

Ms. Kuhn had attended a seminar by ethnomusicologist Dr Rahmi Oruç Güvenç, formerly of the University of Istanbul, who started an Institute for Oriental Music Therapy in Vienna. He said the richly diverse musical culture of Central Asia uses inspiring words and poetry along with spiritual music to uplift the human spirit and enhance its awareness to higher realms of consciousness. The upliftment activates the physical body’s own self-healing properties, he said.

That spiritual music is complex. “Each musical mode—maqam—of Central Asian music carries its unique color and special character with a specific impact on parts of the human body and soul, inducing various states of consciousness and emotions. There is a complex system of attributing the maqams not only to certain organs of the body, but also to elements and cosmic rhythms as time of year, month, and day etc. Certain maqams were even prescribed for therapeutic purposes, such as one which is supposed to affect the head and eyes, thus evoking feelings of calmness and peace.”

Although many maqams have been lost over the centuries, Central Asian music still holds a wider range of modes than Western music today—which is composed mainly of major and minor scales. How is this used for healing today?

Examples of using sound for healing are seen around the world. Dagmar Kuhn found an interesting one in Turkey, where Sufi music decreases stress levels of patients in the intensive care unit of a modern hospital—Istanbul Memorial Hospital. Doctors there can unapologetically play Sufi music to promote the healing of patients. The hospital looks pretty much like your city’s large hospital, but it doesn’t sound like it.

Imagine a well-established doctor with more than thirty years of experience, yet playing traditional Sufi songs on a flute to calm his patients and make them feel better. That’s what a cardiac surgeon in Istanbul Memorial was photographed as doing. He plays one of the oldest musical instruments still in use, the Middle Eastern wind instrument called the ney flute, which has been played for about 5,000 years.

The doctors use different classical Turkish melodies to treat specific conditions. One maqam makes a person sleepy and is also music for meditation. The doctor said that melody is helpful when you go to bed, but you won’t feel like getting out of bed if you listen to it when waking up.

Turkish healing practitioners use other maqams for other conditions, such as increasing appetite, or losing weight. Despite the health results of music therapy, doctors in the Istanbul hospital made it clear that the traditional music is complementary to—not a replacement for—conventional medicine.

In the USA, Roger Gabriel writes for the Chopra center about how to use sound to heal yourself. Gabriel, otherwise known as Raghavanand, mentioned specific effects. “Shamanic drumming can create a trance-like state, marching bands are used to fire-up an army or sports team, and a mother’s lullaby soothes a troubled child.” Various ragas of Indian classical music, attuned to different times of the day or seasons, are intended to harmonize the listener with the rhythms of nature.

The word raga comes from a Sanskrit word that can connote a hue or an emotional state. In regard to ancient Indian music, the term refers to a harmonious note, melody, or building block of music available to a musician to evoke a certain experience in the audience.

Some traditions say that every point of time has its very distinct vibration. One type of Vedic yoga cited by Gabriel divides sound into the external and the internal. The Vedic tradition uses sound vibrations to restore physical and mental wellbeing, and as a path to spiritual awakening. Vedic writings take it further and recognize four stages of the manifestation of sound. The grossest form is normal audible sound including speech. Stages become subtler, and then move within for mental sounds. The transcendental or root level is pre-manifest sound “in its subtlest state as light or pure silence.”

It’s easy to get lost in awe and wonder about this topic, so we’ll get back to the practical. Roger Gabriel says if there is a vibrational disharmony somewhere in your physical body and you know the correct vibration for that area, you can begin to correct the imbalance by chanting or toning that sound silently or aloud and directing it into the area. Researchers such as Gabriel teach specific toning sounds for many parts of the body.


Acoustics in Great Pyramid

Now we get to the scientific experiments mentioned at the beginning of this article. Dagmar Kuhn’s survey of sound-and-healing practices led me to the breakthrough work of John Stuart Reid. He had studied electronics at Northumbria University in the UK, working on high-energy pulse and electron-spin resonance experiments. After university, he founded a sound-engineering company.

John Stuart Reid conducted acoustics experiments in Egypt’s Great Pyramid in 1996 and 1997. In one of his experiments in the King’s Chamber, use of white noise erased a severe pain he had in his lower back. As a result of this seemingly miraculous healing during the experiments, he was inspired to design a new type of scientific instrument that could make sound visible—the CymaScope.

His work with the CymaScope led him to conclude that the popular concept of “sound as a wave” is incorrect. Dr. Reid says instead that all audible sounds are spherical in form, or spheroidal—sphere-like but not necessarily perfectly spherical. To keep it simple he calls the spheres “sound bubbles.”

He learned that, as the frequency of sound rises beyond the upper range of human hearing, such as to high frequencies used by dolphins, the sound bubble becomes increasingly flattened until it resembles a searchlight beam. The shape can even resemble a laser beam when it gets to the even higher frequencies classified as ultrasound.

He developed a new version, a miniature CymaScope that is so small it fits under the lens of a powerful microscope. The results of making sound visible in the microscopic realm have led him to exciting conclusions. For instance, the microscopic imagery revealed the role of a cell’s membrane in sound healing. And sounds emitted by cells can also inform scientists who use the instrument. “The song of a healthy, living cell compared with the song of the same cell when stressed—seen on an acoustic analyzer—(supports) the Cyma Technologies, Inc., model of sound therapy,” he said.

Reid’s instrument is featured in a scientific study regarding the relationship of sound and form. The study was published in the October 2017 edition of Water Journal, a new journal started by the author of the breakthrough book The Fourth Phase of Water, Gerald Pollack, Ph.D.

Rupert Sheldrake and Merlin Sheldrake had rigorously investigated Faraday Waves—the scientific term for cymatics—by using Reid’s instrument. Their paper, “Determinants of Faraday Wave-Patterns in Water Samples Oscillated Vertically at a Range of Frequencies from 50–200 Hz,” takes the study of Faraday waves into new territory.

Using novel techniques, the Sheldrakes’ precisely controlled the acoustic energy entering the CymaScope’s visualizing cell, so they could study a spectrum of pure frequencies.

Faraday waves are, not surprisingly, named after the British scientist Michael Faraday. He began his acoustic experiments in 1831, so he would probably be pleased that they are being continued almost 200 years later and that “crispations,” as he named this class of phenomena, are beginning to be applied to various branches of science. Faraday is known for pioneering in electromagnetism, and he was trying to gain insights into the nature of vibration.

Like today’s amateurs but intent on developing a theory, Faraday explored the effect of sending sounds and their harmonics into sand and water on a glass plate. He saw beautiful acoustic figures when he put a candle below the plate and held a screen of tracing paper an inch above the plate.

The Sheldrakes’ paper mentions Dr. Ralph Abraham, professor of mathematics at the University of California Santa Cruz, who says the CymaScope instrument can be considered a form of analogue computer that can be used to explore many different forms of vibrational phenomena.

Reid came from England to Atlanta, Georgia, to give a presentation on “Sound Healing at the Cellular Level” at a conference last year. He said that in recent years his Cymatic Technologies, Inc., has developed audible sound therapy for treating a wide range of physical ailments, and the company documented numerous cases in which people benefited from sonic therapy.

In a video on his cymatics website, Reid says that whenever sound interacts with a membrane it creates an imprint, an energetic pattern. Think about that. What are we doing to our cell membranes?

The imprint is usually invisible, Reid said, “but just as we might sprinkle a fine power on an invisible fingerprint to render it visible, we can reveal sound prints with a sprinkling of fine sand or other revealing media.”

After working with the first CymaScope, he knew that three-dimensional images would reveal much more than the two-dimensional images created with powders. The latest model uses pure water as a medium, which creates a very sensitive membrane for showing three-dimensional effects of sound.

Sounds contain holographic data and can reveal structures. Stethoscopic sounds of a heartbeat were put into the CymaScope, and some of the resulting imagery showed what appeared to be heart valves.

Researching the effects of sound on water molecules is important, if cellular water throughout the body is organized by sound. Unpleasant sounds, such as a car engine, manifest as ugly, skewed patterns, Reid said, but harmonious music by a master, such as Claude Debussy, manifests on the surface of our cells with great beauty. The maxim, “beauty in equals beauty out” is always proven to be true by the CymaScope.

John Stuart Reid’s research may well explain why white noise from waterfalls and ocean surf feels healing. Moreover, it shows that we are vessels in which the sounds around us constantly show up.


For more on the amazing properties of sound, see Julie Loar’s astrology column on page 48 in this issue.


CAPTION: Sound generated cymatics pattern in water.

By Jeane Manning