WTF Is Sound Healing, Really?

Sound baths are all the rage, but sound healing goes deeper than just those feel-good mental health benefits.

close up shot of a Tibetan singing bowl being used
Photo: Getty Images/microgen

You already know the benefits of sound: The right music can help you sleep, improve your mental well-being, or pump you up and make workouts feel easier. And sound baths, which have cropped up across the country in recent years, are a cool way to meditate and ease anxiety — but sound therapy isn't just about those feel-good mental benefits. The gist: You can actually use different sound frequencies to "hack" your brainwaves and potentially promote physical healing.

By using specific rhythms and frequencies, you can shift your brainwaves from the beta state (normal consciousness) to the theta state (relaxed consciousness) and even the delta state (sleeping). To get more technical about how it works: "Everything in the universe has a vibrational frequency," says Mark Menolascino, M.D., an integrative and functional medicine practitioner. "We're hard-wired to have sound be part of us. In the brain, all our neurons fire at different frequencies based on the data they receive from things around us. Those vibrations interact with every cell in your body," he explains.

So, is sound healing really all it's hyped up to be, and should you try it? What to know, below.

How Sound Healing Works

The sound waves or vibrations created by certain tools, such as gongs, tuning forks, and singing bowls, can actually alter your brainwave frequencies. Vibration is measured in units of hertz (Hz), the same unit in which sound is measured — humans hear frequencies from 20 Hz up to 20,000 Hz, but that doesn't mean those outside the limits don't affect us. And "when you have two vibrating entities next to each other, the stronger vibration will affect the weaker one; eventually, they'll synchronize. That's basic physics," explains David Perez-Martinez, M.D., an integrative psychiatrist, psychotherapist, and sound healing practitioner at Psychsonic in NYC.

Then there's basic anatomy: "In your ear, there's the vestibulocochlear nerve, which connects to the vagus nerve, the major parasympathetic nerve in the body," says Dr. Perez-Martinez. (Reminder: Your parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for "rest and digest" activities such as reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, and relaxing muscles.) "This vagus nerve helps control hormone release, digestion, blood glucose levels, inflammation, heart rate, and blood pressure, he says.

"And there's a little branch of the vagus nerve that goes right to the tympanic membrane [also known as the eardrum], which vibrates in response to sound waves. So that means that every sound that you process through your ears sends that information to the vagus nerve," explains Dr. Perez-Martinez. Why does that all matter? An inactive or blocked vagus can mean bad news for your health, and stimulating it via the right frequencies could help.

What Science Says About Sound Healing

Sure, all of this sounds a little woo-woo and New Age-y (right up there with healing crystals). Add to that the fact the sound healing industry isn't exactly regulated, and you'll find a lot of practitioners surrounded by singing bowls promising all kinds of lofty claims. But there is some science to back up the physical benefits of sound healing.

There's some research suggesting that tuning forks — two-pronged steel devices that vibrate at a specific pitch when placed at certain points on the body — may help relieve muscle and bone pain. A 2016 study found that singing bowl meditation helped lower blood pressure, improve breathing and circulation, alleviate aches and pains, and strengthen the immune system. And a recent study on vibroacoustic therapy — when sounds and vibrations are applied directly to the body to penetrate you on a cellular level — found that the practice could be an effective treatment for chronic pain and injury recovery.

While the exact mechanisms behind these benefits are still being researched, one of the main things sound healing does is put your body into the parasympathetic state. When you're in the sympathetic, or "fight or flight" state — whether that's from stress or pain — your body is surging with cortisol and inflammatory molecules, and that's not healthy for the body, says Dr. Menolascino.

Being in a parasympathetic state affects you on an emotional level and a physiological level, says Dr. Perez-Martinez. "It increases antibody production for better immunity, it helps decrease cortisol, which helps you decrease high blood pressure, and it increases alpha and theta waves so you can be more alert during the day and go into a deeper sleep, where healing really occurs," he adds.

"Using different sound frequencies can stimulate cell production of nitric oxide, a vasodilator that opens up blood vessels, helps cells be more efficient, and mediates your blood pressure at a cellular level," explains Dr. Menolascino. "So anything that helps nitric oxide will help your healing response, and anything that calms your mood down will reduce inflammation, which also benefits your health," he adds.

The Bottom Line On Sound Healing

It's hard to cut through the hype of sound healing since the science hasn't quite caught up with people's hopes. But the beauty of these treatments is that they're not invasive and they're typically not expensive — which means there's no danger in giving it a try if you're interested. One-on-one sound therapy treatments are also increasingly being offered at all kinds of wellness centers, therapist's offices, spas, and even yoga studios, making it easy to find an option near you with a simple Google search.

Bottom line: "If listening to Tibetan singing bowls or using a tuning fork makes people feel better, whether they have a broken leg, multiple sclerosis, or cancer, anything that puts that person in a more calm state will promote better healing," says Dr. Menolascino. "As a doctor, I just want to know: What's the data that this benefits you? If there's not enough data, is there any risk or harm to you? It not, I support it — as long as you're not doing it in place of other proven treatments, like chemotherapy," he says.

And, of course, there's always the placebo effect. If you believe something will help you heal faster, it just might. Does sound healing shrink tumors or reverse autoimmune diseases? Eh, that's TBD (and unlikely). But using it as a part of a holistic health program certainly won't make anything worse.

When the Beach Boys sang about good vibrations, they definitely weren't talking about how frequencies affect your health. But you don't need science to back up the idea that surrounding yourself with good vibrations — whether that means people you like or sounds that make you feel good — makes you feel better.

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