THE NUANCE

The Promising Science of ‘Sound Healing’

How ‘sound baths’ are effective at countering tension, pain, anger and confusion

Markham Heid
Elemental
Published in
4 min readFeb 27, 2020

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A holistic practitioner holding bells over the face and neck of a person lying on their back with their eyes closed.
Photo: Marilyn Nieves/Moment/Getty Images

IImagine you’re sitting in a quiet room with your eyes closed. Your breathing is slow and even. Your muscles are relaxed. Sunlight filters in through a nearby window, warming the air around you. All is serene. But then, without warning, the shriek of a nearby siren or the blast of a car horn shatters the silence.

For decades, scientists (and horror-movie sound editors) have known that few things are as agitating as a loud and unexpected noise. Research on animals has shown that exposure to noise reliably activates the brain’s stress pathways and triggers the release of related hormones, such as cortisol. The World Health Organization has called noise pollution “one of the most important environmental risks to health” and a promoter of heart disease, mental health disorders, and other stress-associated conditions.

But if certain sounds have the ability to unsettle and even sicken, it makes sense that other sounds would have the power to soothe. And there’s evidence that sound baths, better known as sound meditation, and other sound-based health practices may be uniquely therapeutic. “Sound — and in particular sound healing meditations using Tibetan singing bowls, gongs, and quartz crystal singing bowls — can be extremely calming,” says Tamara Goldsby, a research psychologist at the University of California, San Diego.

For a 2017 study published in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Goldsby and colleagues asked 62 men and women to undertake a one-hour sound bath. This involved lying on a yoga mat and listening to sounds made by a combination of Tibetan and crystal singing bowls, gongs, didgeridoos, and other instruments. No formal meditation was required; the people in the study were allowed to let their minds wander and were told it was okay if they fell asleep.

Before and after the sound meditation session, the study participants completed questionnaires designed to measure their levels of tension, anger, anxiety, depression, pain, and other aspects of physical and emotional well-being. Following the hour-long session, each of these measurables…

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Markham Heid
Elemental

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.