Oceans of Sound: What is a Sound Bath?
Updated: Aug 31, 2020
Oceans of Sound
Sound is a powerful. It has a profound ability to affect our mood, our emotions, and our state of mind. Most of us have songs we listen to to uplift you when we feel down. Or, there are songs to which we listen to keep us moving during a high-impact workout or grueling work day. Or, there are songs that bring us back to childhood memories. For me, I remember my childhood fondly whenever I hear Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire, where my Dad would play along with the horns with our toy horn (appropriately name for this article) the "Bathhouse Brass." On the other side, there are sounds that affect us in negative ways as well. We might cringe at the sound of fingernails going down a chalkboard or jump when we hear a blaring car horn.
Sound as Healer
Since sound is so ingrained into us, it’s no wonder that sound and music have therapeutic potential. In fact, sound has been used in a curative capacity since ancient times. Shamans would play drums meant to echo the earliest sounds we hear, our mother’s heartbeat, or mothers would sing lullabies to their children to calm them. Musical chanting is known to have been part of their medical practices in Ancient Egypt, and physicians in Ancient Greece used the vibration from musical instruments to aid in digestion, treat mental disturbance, and induce sleep. Even then, humans were aware that the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system responds to sound.
In a sound bath, the sound artist (sometimes called a "sound healer") will choose instruments and other sounds with timbres (tone colors) that will help guide listeners into a contemplative mood and active the parasympathetic nervous system. According to The anxiety and pain reducing effect of music interventions in perioperative care; a systematic review by Ulrica Nilsson, RNA, PhD, slowing and flowing music leads to the most relaxation.
You may be familiar with commonly used healing instruments such as Tibetan standing bells, crystal singing bowls, frame drums, gongs, Australian didgeridoos, and the Indian harmonium organ. These instruments can all be used to create a “wash” of sound—long-held tones that change slowly over time. The traditional mediation instruments listed previously along with Western and modern instruments (acoustic guitars, harps, flutes, or electronically generated sounds) are played in such a way as to create this wash effect.
“It appears that the tempo of the music is the most important factor, with slow and flowing music with 60 to 80 beats per minute having positive outcomes on relaxation and pain relief. It has been suggested in the literature that music used therapeutically should be non-lyrical, consist predominantly of low tones, comprise mostly strings with minimal brass or percussion, and have a maximum volume level at 60 dB.” – Dr. Ulrica Nilsson
East Meets West
Not only do, the types of sound or music we listen to have a profound influence on our state of mind, but also, the way in which we listen to them also affects our behavior and mood. Learning to listen to sound mindfully changes how we perceive what we are hearing. A sound bath is one way to change the way we think about sound.
During a sound bath, sounds are played for their own sake. This aligns more with an Eastern idea of musical performance than a Western one. In a traditional Western concert, as a listener you expect the performer to play a set of songs or other musical pieces. These pieces are generally narrative, meaning they tell a story whether or not they have words. In traditional Western harmony, there is a musical syntax with phrases and cadences (musical punctuation) which as listeners we tend to take for granted. Music tends to follow a beat structure. This is especially true with popular music. However, in some types of Eastern music, sounds are not set “on the grid.” They happen when they happen for their own sake, and they are not necessarily meant to relate to the sound that came before or the sound that comes after. Sound is for sound’s sake. In this way, nature sounds are often emulated by instruments or long-drones are played.
“The Zen artist, on the other hand, tries to suggest by the simplest possible means the inherent nature of the aesthetic object. Anything may be painted, or expressed in poetry, and any sounds may become music.” – Fredric Lieberman
This allows you as a listener to listen to each sound in the moment and focus on that sound without judgement. For example, if you hear a long roll of a gong, focus on how that sound changes over time. It is not just one loud crash, but the sound of a gong contains many parts. You will hear its initial attack, the way it vibrates while it is sustained, and how it fades away. There will be low tones as well as high tones. The gong produces a very complex sound. You can listen to any sound in this way–the sound of traffic in the street, the chatter in the coffee shop, the rushing of a stream, or the birds singing in the park. This will lead you to being in a meditative state of mind with no effort.
Riding the Brainwaves
When you listen in this way during a sound bath, you are allowing your brain to experience “entrainment.” Entrainment is "synchronization of organisms to an external perceived rhythm." Your brain waves actually shift along with the sounds you are listening to. First, you move into Alpha state which is associated with creativity and relaxation. In this state, you daydream, you creativity receives a boost, and your mood is elevated. Then, you enter Theta brainwave state which is associated with deep mediation, hypnosis, and R.E.M. sleep. Our brains are wired this way, and they are uniquely attuned to music.
A sound bath is a great tool for anyone seeking a healthful way to relax and/or meditate. Many people find meditation difficult and the idea of sitting quietly for five, ten, or 60 minutes seems impossible. In a sound bath, the sounds help you enter into that state of mind without even realizing it.
To experience a sound bath for yourself, feel free to attend one of my upcoming events. If you are a mental health professional, you are invited to our one day equestrian retreats at Legacy Ranch in Lockport, IL. The next one will be held on October 12, 2019 from 3 to 5 p.m. I will be performing a live electronic sound bath using a combination of synthesizers, sampled nature sounds, and live instruments that will take us through a guided meditation with the theme of autumn.
Bergland, Christopher. Alpha Brain Waves Boost Creativity and Reduce Depression. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201504/alpha-brain-waves-boost-creativity-and-reduce-depression (Accessed 26 September 2019).
Clayton, Martin, Sager, Rebecca, and Will, Udo. In time with the music: The concept of entrainment and its significance for ethnomusicology. https://web.stanford.edu/group/brainwaves/2006/Will-InTimeWithTheMusic.pdf (Accessed 26 September 2019).
Lieberman, Fredric. Zen Buddhism And Its Relationship to Elements of Eastern and Western Arts. http://artsites.ucsc.edu/faculty/lieberman/zen.html (Accessed 26 September 2019).
Meymandi, Assad, MD, PhD, DLFAPA. Music, Medicine, Healing, and the Genome Project. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2766288/ (Accessed 26 September 2019).
Mindworks Team. What Is Gong Meditation and How Is It Practiced. https://mindworks.org/blog/what-is-gong-meditation-and-how-is-it-practiced/ (Accessed 26 September 2019).
Nilsson, Ulrica. The anxiety and pain reducing effect of music interventions in perioperative care: a systematic review. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/247158522_The_anxiety_and_pain_reducing_effect_of_music_interventions_in_perioperative_care_a_systematic_review (Accessed 26 September 2019).
Janae Jean is a professional music instructor, composer, sound healer and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is passionate about tea and creating our own daily rituals. Visit www.PerennialMusicAndArts.com for more about music lessons. Contact her via firstname.lastname@example.org for questions about tea, ceremony, music composition, sound healing, writing, photography, or other relevant topics. (This image is from soundcheck at a sound bath in June 2019 at Legacy Ranch as part of a equestrian day retreat for mental health professionals.)