Sound Waves


This page is dedicated to sharing my learning about sound and how it affects us, especially in a therapeutic capacity. From time to time I will cover a different aspect that helps underpin our appreciation of the potential healing effects of sound. This is not an interactive blog but if you wish to get in touch with comments or questions please email me. I hope you enjoy and benefit from these communications.

Topics covered prior to the latest one: The Richness of the Gong, Our Rhythmical Being and the Power of the Drum; “Retuning Cells” – How Might Sound Therapy be Working?; The Power of Chanting; Brainwave States.

Post 21st December 2013: The Power of OM

Many of us are familiar with this mantra but so often its power is lost through improper pronunciation and intonation yet it has the potential to resonate throughout the body so that the sound penetrates to the centre of our being.

In the Hindu tradition, OM consists of four elements: A, U, M and the silence between each sounding of the mantra. These represent the four planes of consciousness: 

“A” represents normal waking consciousness and the material state and relates to the concept of creation. Pronounce AH (as in “father”) in a low pitch with a wide open mouth using the air in the upper lungs and resonating the sound in the centre of the mouth.

“U” represents the level of dream consciousness, intuitive thinking and imagination and relates to the concept of preservation. Begin to round the mouth and pronounce OH (as in the exclamation) with a slightly higher pitch, using the air in the mid-chest, building the volume slightly and transferring the sense of vibration to the back of the mouth.

“M” represents the realm of deep, dreamless sleep and relates to the concept of destruction, necessary for rebirth. Begin to gently close the lips and hum it, resonating the sound forward in the mouth and feeling it buzzing throughout the head.

The silence represents turiya the ultimate state of consciousness, free from material influence, a “still point of the soul.” Letting the silence sit with you briefly helps you turn inwards before the next OM.

In the mid-20th century, Hans Jenny created the tonoscope, a device involving materials such as sand spread over a metal plate that vibrates in response to sounds, in this case the voice. He demonstrated that chanting OM into his tonoscope produced an image almost identical to the sri yantra – an ancient symbol depicting the vibrational form the rishis (ancient seers) saw during meditations using OM. In Hinduism, the sri yantra is used in meditation for spiritual enlightenment. The circle is produced on the initial ‘O’ (A U sounds) and the triangles on the M – a profound demonstration of sound organising matter.

In the Sanskrit symbol for OM, the long lower curve represents the waking state and material existence, the smaller coiled curve, Polarity Therapy Edinburgh,Sound Therapy Edinburgh to the side represents the state of dreams, the curve above the long lower curve represents dreamless sleep. The dot represents the fourth state, turiya. The small curve under the dot represents the transitory state of consciousness preventing us from reaching turiya.

In use, OM is the most important of the Sanskrit mantras. Mantras generally begin and often end with it. It is the mantra of assent affirming and energising whatever we say after it. It is also the mantra of ascent and causes our energy to rise upwards. It affirms the Divine presence (we all have different interpretations of the Divine). There is no other mantra as resonant in the body. When chanting it repeatedly, it has an intrinsic ability to develop overtones – additional frequencies that occur over and above the fundamental tone. 

Try using the techniques described earlier and I hope you will begin to appreciate the amazing power of OM.

Post 26th October 2012: The Richness of the Gong

The gong is one of the richest sounding instruments in existence, capable of producing a wealth of overtones and a long sustain. This richness is the result of the component metals and the processes used in making and shaping the gongs. Although the gong is thought by many to have originated during the Bronze Age in Mesopotamia (now parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq), the gong’s development and use is associated much more with the Far East. Here, it was used by ancient civilisations for a variety of purposes including healing rituals. Gongs were introduced to the West in the late 18th century when a few composers started to include a gong in some of their compositions. In the second half of the 20th century, they were being used by rock groups.

Far Eastern gongs are usually made of bronze, an alloy of copper and tin. Since the 1960’s, Paiste (Pie-stee), a German company, have extensively researched and developed the art of gong-making. They use a mixture of copper, zinc and nickel. Their particular combination of metals together with their highly skilled and elaborate manufacturing processes (primarily by hand) result in gongs that produce a range of fundamental tones and a vast array of overtones with longer sustains than the more ancient designs. 

In the 1980’s Paiste started producing Planetary Gongs that have a stronger fundamental tuned to a pitch based on the natural harmonic series derived from the orbital properties of the planets in our Solar system. These frequencies were calculated by Hans Cousto and documented in his book The Cosmic Octave: Origin of Harmony, Planets, Tones, Colors, the Power of Inherent Vibrations.

With one exception, the gongs I use are Paiste gongs, chosen to produce a rich envelope of healing sounds. They are:

24” Symphonic – my first gong. This has a more universal sound structure, being the type of gong originally designed for use in an orchestra. It produces a rich sound that builds layer upon layer and ultimately creates high eerie overtones.

32” Mercury (C#) – a powerful gong, producing a multitude of overtones that pack the sound space, beginning with deep rolling opening tones that continue to reverberate and can ultimately become overlaid with an angelic choir. The effect is exciting and stimulating. Mercury associates with intellect, communication and healing. 

Venus (A) – my gong with the highest fundamental pitch creating strong pulsations that become superimposed with gracious space-expanding overtones. Venus associates with love, relationships, artistic expression, and aspirations for harmony.

Sound Creation Earth (no strong fundamental) – has dark yet warm fundamentals that can be built into the impression of a gathering storm. A gong that demands respect with potentially ground shifting effect.

Sound Creation Moon (A) – sharp and very strong fundamental producing a dark bell-like tone with ringing highs and a very long sustain all with a strong pulsation that envelops and supports. 

And finally there is the 20” Wind (or Feng) gong (bronze) used to create a shimmering effect or highs similar to the clash of cymbals. I often use this to complement the roar of the Earth gong.

Post 11th April 2012: Our Rhythmical Being and the Power of the Drum

The drum is one of the most ancient sound producing instruments. It was used by our ancestors for ritual and healing through altered states of consciousness. In the Western world, we have begun to recognise the drum as a healing tool and much work has been done by HealthRhythms in the United States to promote what they call Group Empowerment Drumming. Although HealthRhythms is sponsored by Remo (renowned makers of synthetic drum skins) it is led by Barry Bittman, a neurologist and Christine Stevens, a music therapist. Group Empowerment Drumming promotes facilitator-led sessions to help group members express themselves through drumming and percussion. Bittman says “It’s time to stop thinking of the drum as just a musical instrument. Start thinking of it as a unifying tool for every family, a wellness tool for every retiree and an educational tool for every occasion.” The beauty of having a clinician involved is that HealthRhythms has carried out clinically-oriented studies to show the beneficial effects of group drumming. These and other studies have shown positive results not just with the population at large but for people with Alzheimer’s, autistic children, emotionally-disturbed teenagers, substance abusers, trauma patients, prisoners and the homeless. 

We are highly rhythmical beings – think of the heartbeat, breathing, blood circulation, hormone cycles, our sleep/awake pattern, walking, mealtimes – we are totally immersed in rhythmic behaviour. Who can resist tapping to a lively musical beat? As well as using the drum in group sessions to lighten our spirits, release tension and promote self-expression, we can use specific drum rhythms to help us tune into mind and body to rebalance when we’re a bit out of kilter. A simple slow heartbeat tapped out on the drum can help bring the heartbeat down to a healthy, calm level. A three-beat waltz can help us switch from a controlled regimented countenance to feeling more like going with the flow. Alternatively, a two-beat rhythmic plod can bring control and calm when we’re “all over the place.” A gentle steady beat at 4 to 4.5Hz per second can put us into the theta brainwave state for deep relaxation and meditation (see post 4th June 2011 re Brainwave States).

Combine drumming with chanting to reinforce the rhythm and allow even stronger connection with mind and body then you have the potential for a very powerful healing tool. (The Power of Chanting is discussed in the 18th July 2011 post.)

Post 4th February 2012:  “Retuning Cells” – How might Sound Therapy be Working?

As sound therapists we believe that healing sounds can help retune the body but we do need proof that will convince the scientific and clinical communities. In the meantime we can theorise about how the retuning might be working. Let’s think about the principle of resonance. If you have two tuning forks tuned to the same note and cause one of them to vibrate physically close to the other which is stationary, the second will begin vibrating “in sympathy.” This is called sympathetic resonance. We know that our bodies can receive frequencies via special corpuscles in the skin. (Think about the renowned percussionist Evelyn Glennie who is profoundly deaf yet she can very precisely sense vibrations from her instruments and consider also the fact that Beethoven’s hearing rapidly deteriorated yet he continued to compose, conduct and play.) It may be that cells that are out of kilter on a vibratory level, when exposed to their natural frequency are stimulated to vibrate at this frequency once more through sympathetic resonance.

On a more scientific level, fascinating research is being done by Cymascope (a company set up by John Stuart Reid, an acoustics engineer, on the possible mechanism for the effect of sound waves on cell membranes and in particular involving ion channels.

We should also consider the vagus nerve, one of the most important nerves in the body. This nerve is attached to both sides of the ear drum. It innervates every major organ in the body – every sound we hear can potentially affect our internal organs in some way on a vibratory level even before we think about the emotional and psychological audio effects. 

Fabien Maman is a French jazz guitarist and composer who won the Grande Prix de Composition Française in 1980. He also trained as an acupuncturist and found that by using tuning forks instead of needles for acupuncture points he could achieve just as good and sometimes better results. He suggests that the vibrations from the tuning forks (the stimulation for change) are not only connecting with the energy pathway (meridian) in the body but the energy field around it (so enhancing the effect); so here we have a suggestion that sound frequencies can have a fundamental healing effect via Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) meridians.

We can use sound tools to put us into a very relaxed state of being, the ideal state for the body’s innate healing powers to function. One of the reasons why we need a good night’s sleep to stay healthy.

The healing effects of sound are highly likely to be working as a result of a variety of mechanisms.

Post 18th July 2011: The Power of Chanting

Spiritual traditions from around the world have used chanting as part of their worship and healing rituals for thousands of years. Now we have clinical studies to show that chanting can stabilise heart rate, reduce blood pressure, improve circulation, produce endorphins (the body’s natural painkillers), nourish DNA, and stimulate our immune system. 

The pioneering work documenting physiological benefits from chanting was done by Alfred Tomatis, a French physician involved with research into hearing and sound. In the late 1960’s he was called to a French Benedictine Monastery to find out why the monks had become inexplicably exhausted in the preceding months. Due to Vatican Reforms, the new abbot had decreed the brothers abandon their traditional Gregorian chanting of 6 to 8 hours a day to pursue more tangibly productive activities. Tomatis realised the chanting energised the monks. It was resumed and within 5 months the brothers were fully recovered.

Other pioneering work was done by Laurel Elizabeth Keyes and published in her book Toning, the Creative and Healing Power of the Voice in 1974. In this instance the chanting involved toning (the conscious elongation of a vowel). 

Neuro-scientist Marian Diamond at the University of California has shown that chanting helps block the release of stress hormones and increases immune function. It also keeps our muscles and joints flexible for a long time. 

An 8-week study at the Samarya Center for Integrated Movement Therapy and Ashtanga Yoga in Seattle involved people with mild-to-severe depression. The results showed that chanting helped participants increase control over their breath and expiratory output level. In addition, participants claimed that chanting reduced their anxiety and improved their mood. Researchers concluded that if done at least once a week, chanting is an effective means of enhancing people’s moods in the short and long-term.

In the early 1970s, Dr. Herbert Benson of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Harvard Medical School experimented with Sanskrit mantras. Benson found that subjects who repeated the mantras, for as little as ten minutes a day, experienced reduced heart rate, lower stress levels and slower metabolism. Repeating the mantras also lowered the blood pressure of those who had high blood pressure and generally decreased the subjects’ oxygen consumption (indicating that the body was in a restful state). 
Subsequent studies documented in Benson’s Timeless Healing found that repeating mantras can benefit the immune system, relieve insomnia, reduce GP visits and even increase the self-esteem of high-school students. Benson and his colleagues also tested prayers, including “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” and found they had the same effect. 

A study by Travis et al. (Maharishi University of Management, Iowa) showed how reading aloud Vedic Sanskrit verses significantly reduced skin conductance levels (a measure of stress) in subjects, even when they had no understanding of Sanskrit. There were also increased levels in Alpha power (see my 4th June entry re brainwave states) and brain coherence (left and right brain hemispheres are working well together).

In conclusion, chanting can have a significant role to play in helping with our health and well-being and Sanskrit Mantra chanting can add an extra dimension. Please watch my Group Sound Sessions page for scheduled Sanskrit Mantra workshops.

Post 4th June 2011: Brainwave States

Brainwave frequencies reflect electrical activity in the brain and were first identified by researchers in the 1930’s and 40’s. We record and measure these via an EEG (electroencephalogram). The unit of measurement is Hertz (Hz) in the same way we measure sound waves. A basic understanding of these states and how they affect us can help with our actions to improve our health and well-being. There are four major categories:

Delta, 0.5Hz to <4Hz: deep sleep, the body is healing and repairing itself and growing thanks to human growth hormone (hgH). The body also produces melatonin (a powerful antioxidant) and more DHEA which helps our immune system, is a precursor to most hormones and acts as a buffer against our stress hormone, cortisol. In meditation there may be a sense of suspended animation.

Theta, 4Hz to <8Hz: extreme relaxation, dreaming sleep, integrative experiences or “ah-ha” moments. The state allows access to information stored in the unconscious and much of the brain’s normally unused areas can become active. In meditation there may be visionary experiences or spiritual insight.

Alpha, 8Hz to 13Hz: alert but focussed as when reading a good book, when on the point of drifting towards sleep or in quiet meditation. The state facilitates an increased ability to learn and store information and produces greater feelings of joy and happiness, love, well-being and personal fulfilment.

Beta >13Hz to 40Hz: alertness, the brain is actively engaged in mental activities. Too much high beta leads to anxiety, worry and stress with cortisol being produced in damaging amounts associated with age acceleration, interference with learning and memory as well as negative effects on our immune system.

Our overall brain activity is a mix of these frequencies, some in greater quantities and strength than others.

Recent research has shown significant occurrence of extreme brain wave frequencies in those highly practised in meditation such as Tibetan monks. They are Epsilon, <0.5Hz – ecstatic states of consciousness, out-of-body experiences; Gamma, >40Hz to <100Hz – extremely high levels of perception and consciousness; Hyper-Gamma (100Hz) and Lambda (200Hz) – similar experiences to Epsilon states.

We can use sound healing modalities to help alter our brainwave states for the better. Soundbaths can lull us into a very relaxed alpha and even theta state. Drum journeying with its persistent single beat at around 4Hz to 4.5Hz can help shift us into the theta brainwave state. This may be through someone drumming for us, our own drumming or by listening to a drum journey recording. In recent years, products using the phenomenon of binaural beats have been developed.

Binaural beats 
These occur when two pure tones of slightly different frequencies (<30Hz) are played using stereo headphones. For example, 400Hz in one ear and 410Hz in the other would produce a binaural beat of 10Hz. The binaural beat is not heard in the ordinary sense as the brain’s auditory range is 20Hz to 20,000Hz but research shows that the brain will entrain to the frequency of the binaural beat when within the range of brain wave frequencies. The activity also causes the right and left brain hemispheres to synchronise, a phenomenon associated with profound insight and “Eureka” moments. The occurrence of binaural beats was first discovered by Heinrich Wilhelm Dove in 1839, explored by Gerald Oster in the 1970’s and developed by Robert Monroe (Monroe Institute of Applied Sciences) and later Bill Harris (Centrepointe Research Institute). These organisations developed recordings to create binaural beats designed to beneficially alter brainwave states.

Another innovation is specially designed tuning forks (brain tuners) used in pairs and tuned to slight differences in pitch to create the binaural beat effect when each fork is held to an ear.

Binaural beats should not be confused with beats where we actually hear the difference between two similar frequencies as a beating effect as they go in and out of phase. These can be heard when striking a good quality pair of tingshas where each cymbal is tuned slightly differently to the other or a quality Himalayan bowl when struck (due to the multiple but similar tones) or when two crystal bowls of similar frequencies are rimmed. Such effects form part of the mix of pulsating mesmerising sounds we use in soundbaths to move us towards the relaxing and highly beneficial lower brainwave states.