When a woman of the Himba tribe in Africa decides she wants to have a baby, she steals away to a solitary spot and listens for the song of the child that wants to be born to her. She teaches the song to her husband, and then they sing it as they try to conceive. Throughout her pregnancy, the woman sings the song to her unborn child, and the women of her village sing it to her as she gives birth. A Himba child is born knowing her song, and the tune follows her throughout her life. When she ails or commits some transgression, the tribe gathers around her to sing her song, to remind her who she is.

“It’s not a punishment, it’s a remembering,” says Cynthia Quintanal, sound artist and healer. “Sometimes, the tissues in our bodies can be injured or altered by emotion. The idea behind sound healing is to remember how those vibrations should be.”

Since ancient times, music, chants and rhythmic instruments have been used in healing rituals around the world. The Aborigines of Australia have employed the didgeridoo’s healing vibrations for 1,500 years, and around 500 BC, Pythagorus began using the lyre and flute music for medicinal purposes. More recently, Native American drum circles, Aztec rain sticks, and even windchimes we hang on the front porch have elicited calming responses from both the players and the listeners.

The Sound Connection

 Today, many are returning to the science of sound, as sound baths, drum circles, kirtan gatherings and other audial assemblies become increasingly popular, whether just a handful or a crowd gather to connect, reflect and relax. Sonic events are becoming so commonplace in some areas of the country that they often serve as the first step for newcomers’ overall holistic wellness journeys.

“There’s definitely some kind of evolution happening right now,” says Miriam Zernis, who has been leading heart-opening kirtan (ritual chanting) and sacred music events since 2007. “Many people are starting to awaken to the value of spiritual practice over material goods. They want to open their hearts to feel better about themselves and their lives, and events like a kirtan gathering are truly loving, nonjudgmental spaces for them to do so.”

In its simplest form, sound therapy may mean listening to a favorite album, musician or piece of music to help yourself relax. Most people have a special song they play when they need some cheering up, some calming down or some psyching out.

“We’re all moved by music; therefore, all musicians are sound healers in their own way,” says Quintanal.

What Is Sound Healing?

But sound healers do so much more, intentionally using specific beats and frequencies to adjust brainwaves and alter the listener’s state of mind. Practitioners use voice, gongs, Tibetan singing bowls, crystal bowls, drums, rattles, tuning forks and dozens of other instruments in sessions to coax the brain into its theta, and sometimes even its delta, state.

“Sound healing touches us mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually,” says sound healer Kelvin Young. “It helps us calm the mental chatter; it helps us balance and control our raw, human emotions. It helps relax our bodies and relieve the stress we store there, and it helps connect us to our higher power. Sound, music and vibration do so much on so many levels.”

In sound healing, the energy of sound promotes wellness of the body and mind. It is based on the idea that all matter vibrates at a specific frequency, and those vibrations affect the balance and health of our cells, tissues and bodies. Because our bodies are 70 percent water, they are natural conductors for sound energy, which is why we can feel the beat of a bass drum reverberating in our chests. When our bodies are out of sorts, listening to various frequencies can help bring their vibrations back into harmony.

“But everyone is different, as some frequencies may be good for one person, but they may not be good for another,” says Ed Cleveland, neuroacoustic sound therapist, gong teacher and holographic sound healer. “We are all different, like snowflakes.”

How Does It Work?

 Restoring internal harmony can be achieved through “entrainment”—the concept that when two vibrating entities are in close proximity to one another, the weaker vibration will eventually synchronize itself with the stronger vibration. When we listen to the sounds of gongs, singing bowls, drums or chants, our fluctuating brain waves attune themselves to the rhythm and frequencies we hear, helping the brain shift from its beta state (or normal waking consciousness) to the more-relaxed alpha state. Some may even reach the meditative theta state. Just as we focus on controlling our breath during meditation, repetitive sound frequencies initiate a similar shift in our brainwaves, with similar results.

“I might play a note on a bowl, and when I get to a note where someone’s entire body is vibrating, I know that note is truly resonating with who they are, and that can bring someone back to wholeness,” says Quintanal. Further, practitioners can focus on specific body parts, systems or centers by using the same techniques.

While practitioners agree that the therapeutic benefits of sound are more pervasive when the listener believes in its healing potential, the vibrations and frequencies of the instruments will work on even the most reluctant of subjects.

“Intention makes it more powerful, but sound and vibration work on a cellular level,” says Young. “No matter what you are thinking, sound is still going to move energy through our bodies. It’s still activating our parasympathetic nervous system. On a physical level, it will still do its job. On a mental and emotional level, once you start to relax, and some of the skepticism falls away, it can deepen the positive effect.”

Everybody Make Some Noise

 Young, who began his healing journey in a drug treatment program in prison, says he discovered sound healing after using music as an aid to support his meditation practice. He was having trouble sitting in silence and focusing on his breath, but says that once he introduced ambient music and soundscapes, he was able to still his thoughts. “It was as if I wasn’t in prison anymore; I was focusing on sounds and vibrations, and I wasn’t worried about my daily stressors. It took me to a whole new level,” he explains.

Now Young brings sound healing to institutional setting such as prisons, mental health facilities and schools, to help others who may be struggling with addiction and other challenges. He has found sound healing to be particularly effective in treating addiction, as stress is one of the biggest contributors to relapse.

Additionally, Young says, sound therapy is more accessible and inclusive than other holistic modalities. “As a black man in prison, I didn’t see a lot of people that looked like me practicing yoga and meditation,” he says. “Sound healing is more accessible because music is universal. People can relate to music, so they are more open to trying sound healing.”

A Symphony of Modalities

Additionally, many practitioners are trained in other modalities, which can enhance the effects of sound healing. Composer, singer and sound healer Bradford Tilden, for example, is also a crystal and gemstone healer. He has found that combining a stone layout with sound healing intensifies his clients’ experiences, so he always encourages them to use at least one crystal during a sound healing session. He shares his voice and crystal bowls at yoga studios, healing centers, and public venues, locally and globally. He also offers private sessions and workshops in conjunction with his meditative sound healing journeys and concerts.

Young uses the crystal and Himalayan singing bowls, gong, ocean drum, tuning forks, rattles, hand drum and other healing tools to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Quintanal combines her experience as a craniosacral therapist and energy practitioner with sound guiding, connecting the physical with spiritual and emotional healing work.

Cleveland agrees that “layering” modalities can deepen the experience. “Everything compliments everything else; it’s like putting more spices into your soup,” says Cleveland. “You create a whole, unique flavor, which is important because each individual is different.”

Patricia Staino is the managing editor of Natural Awakenings’ Fairfield County/Housatonic Valley, CT and Greater Hartford, CT editions. She lives near Raleigh, North Carolina, and can be reached at PatriciaStaino@gmail.com.