By Maxim Mower
The idea of ‘Sound Therapy’ or ‘Sound Healing’ often appears to be another product of new-age pseudoscience. I mean, how could something as ethereal as sound possibly have any physical impact on our brains and bodies?
But there’s a surprising amount of science to suggest that we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Sound Therapy as mystical codswallop - it’s actually a very ancient and very natural practice.
Sound Therapy - what is it?
First of all, what even is Sound Therapy? It can essentially be defined as the belief that “our bodies contain ‘energy frequencies’ and that sonic frequencies can be used to reattune these energies when they go off key”. When neurons in the brain interact with one another, they do so through electrical impulses, which in turn form brain waves. Different brain waves have different frequencies, and they can be divided into five main bandwidth categories:
1: Delta Waves (0.5-3 Hz) - the slowest waves, occurring during deep sleep
2: Theta Waves (3-8 Hz) - occur during REM stage of sleep
3: Alpha Waves (8-12 Hz) - occur when meditating or resting
4: Beta Waves (12-30 Hz) - the most common wave pattern, occurring during normal waking consciousness
5: Gamma Waves (25-100 Hz) - the fastest waves, occurring during states of heightened awareness and perception
Similarly, sounds also consist of waves and frequencies. So the thinking behind Sound Therapy is that certain sound-wave frequencies should be able to influence certain brain-wave frequencies.
Dr Suzanne Evans Morris PhD, a speech-language pathologist, explains that if we have two different frequencies coming through each ear, it produces a ‘binaural beat’. The binaural beat is the difference in frequencies between the two sounds. For example, if I have a 100 Hz sound coming through my left earphone and a 110 Hz sound coming through my right earphone, this will produce a binaural beat of 10 Hz.
The goal is to get this binaural beat to fall within one of the aforementioned brain-wave categories. So if you want to induce Theta Waves, then you want a binaural beat that falls anywhere between 3-8 Hz.
But how do we know which brain waves we want and which we don’t? It can seem like a mental minefield, because over-stimulation of certain areas of the brain can lead to anxiety, while under-arousal of certain areas can contribute to depression. But the key is getting the right balance of waves - each mind is unique, which means Sound Therapy can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach.
However, while this inevitable individuality must be taken into account, Alpha Waves seem to be a good starting point. Neuro-electric engineer Dr Margaret Patterson and Dr Ifor Capel explain that Alpha Waves are known to increase the production of serotonin, the ‘feel-good’ hormone. Therefore binaural beats of 8-12 Hz would seemingly have the potential to bring about greater levels of this hormone.
Interestingly, in Eve Rudy Jansen’s book Singing Bowls, she says that Tibetan Singing Bowls produce wave patterns that are comparable to the Alpha Waves produced by the brain. This helps to explain why Tibetan monks find these singing bowls conducive to meditation.
It seems strange to suggest that sounds, which appear so intangible and non-physical, can have an impact on physical processes in the brain. But when you think about it, it makes sense, because all sounds are just vibrations, and we know that vibrations can be felt physically.
Moving away from binaural beats, you might have seen YouTube videos playing loops of frequencies such as ‘432Hz’ or ‘639Hz’ and claiming them to be ‘miracle tones’ or ‘healing frequencies’. Unlike binaural beats, the explanations behind these miracle tones stray away from science and into the spiritual realm. Nonetheless, many people maintain that they can have positive effects on our minds.
432Hz is supposed to represent the natural frequency of the universe, and is believed to have healing powers. The famous ‘Om’ meditative chant used in both Buddhism and Hinduism is supposed to mirror this cosmic frequency, and represents a loss of ego and oneness with the universe. Interestingly, a June 2016 study found that dissonant sounds can cause cell death, while resonate sounds, such as 432Hz, can have a positive impact on cells.
In 2018, Jaden Smith tested this ‘miracle tone’ and released an alternative version of his SYRE album with all the songs tuned to 432Hz. There are also numerous remixes on YouTube of famous tracks that have been retuned to 432Hz (for example, check out this 432Hz edition of Travis Scott’s 90210).
Can you really hear the difference? It’s tempting to come off as a true music aficionado and say that my ears latch onto the subtle discrepancies, and that listening to a non-432Hz song versus a 432Hz song is a completely different experience. Yet, to be quite honest, the only thing you really notice is that the 432Hz version sounds a little off-key compared to the original.
But 432Hz is not the only ‘miracle tone’ out there. 396Hz, for example, is supposed to help with grief, while 639Hz is said to help us with our relationships and connections with others. However, while listening to an hour of 639Hz sound-waves might well calm you down after a day of being belittled by your boss, it’s difficult to see how this ‘miracle tone’ is going to have any effect on the way your boss actually treats you. Relationships aren’t one-way systems.
On the other hand, there’s no doubt that music can have a significant impact on our mental wellbeing. We’ve all seen how music can calm us down, or give us a boost of energy when we most need it. Furthermore, we can identify specific qualities in each kind of music that causes it have these effects.
Calming music, for example, generally consists of lower-pitched sounds, whereas songs with higher-pitched sounds are more stimulating. Think of the synth opening to Chris Brown’s ‘Forever’, which is a lively, club-ready song, as well as the plethora of rattling hi-hats we see in modern Trap. They all combine to create a more rousing, energising experience. By contrast, compare this to Drake’s ‘Jaded’, which is much lower and more muted, and this combines with his laid-back vocals to produce a slower, more relaxing atmosphere.
So does this mean that we should start queuing ‘binaural beats’ and ‘miracle tones’ on Spotify?
In my view, the best way to gauge the effects of these frequencies is to listen and see how they make you feel. They might help some people, but equally others might find them less conducive. For me, listening to an Alpha-Wave binaural beat does feel quite soothing for a few minutes. But after a while the monotony gets a little tiring, and I’ll switch over to some lo-fi Hip Hop or even some tropical Country to relax me. Part of what I love about music is the fact that it isn’t just pure sound, it’s the combination of all the aspects that come together to create a particular experience and atmosphere. Reducing music to a scientific frequency might well uncover some hidden benefits, but at the end of the day, beauty is in the eye of the beholder - or in this case, the ear of the beholder. We learn from exploring the endless nooks and crannies of Spotify or Apple Music which songs and genres we find most relaxing, which ones uplift us, which ones are cathartic, and so on.
We know first-hand that music is healing, in that it can offer us solace and comfort when we are feeling down, stressed or anxious. So it’s up to you whether you want to listen to an 8-12Hz binaural beat to ease your mind, or whether you prefer to turn to Bryson Tiller’s languid croons or Sam Hunt’s assured drawl to take the edge off. Let’s just embrace the variety, accept people’s different tastes, and you know what, let’s just love everyone for who they are…
Hmm, maybe it’s about time I turned off this 4-hour long ‘639Hz Love & Positive Energy Frequency’ video.