The Fundamentals of Healing Music:
A Conceptual Overview of Healing with Sound
By Mark Bancroft, MA
The power of music and sound to invoke healing has been well known throughout the ages. Music is commonly associated with its intimate connections to the emotions. In relation to spiritual matters, the union between music and ritual is almost universal (Gaston 20). Because music is a means of nonverbal communication, its ability to influence behavior has been considered mystical and supernatural for thousands of years. Today, such communication is considered mysterious (Gaston 20); if it is considered at all. As Western music evolved into ever increasing forms of complexity, its ability to heal, in general, rapidly diminished (Gardner 103). While Guided Imagery and Music (GIM) incorporates Western classical music with favorable results within a therapeutic modality, the overall capacity of Western music to function as a source of healing and renewal is considerably low with respect to other forms of music.
Classical music is primarily intellectual. It draws forth an ever-evolving arrangement of complex rhythms which, in turn, stimulate the intellect. The style of classical music can be likened to a "tension and release" structure which lures the listener not into relaxation, but anticipation (Halpern 52). Healing music, or music designed to promote relaxation, generally consists of predictable, repetitive rhythms and melodies generated by several instruments rather than an entire ensemble. The different experiential effects generated by classical music and music designed for relaxation and healing might help explain the explosive outgrowth of the New Age genre in today's society which is so indicative of the high-stress lifestyle.
What does appear certain is the revival of music and sound being employed as a healing tool. Because music has the ability to address feelings and emotions in a complete, intense and pure fashion, music possesses exemplary healing powers (Schoen 387-405). The general consensus among 'music healers' is that these powers are being rediscovered and will likely be directed toward serving mainstream society; especially in the area of alternative healthcare and spiritual development. As one healer explains,
"I predict that stress reduction through sound will surface in the near future as a highly viable adjunct to the current techniques, such as drugs, psychotherapy, and bio-feedback (Halpern 52)."
Yet music's healing potential may also be extending much further than mere relaxation: "Today we are realizing once again the potential power of music to integrate the personality and temperament, to awaken us to the soul, and to link us to supernal forces of Light that surround us...To be fed by beautiful music is a necessity (Lingerman 145-46)."
As a field of study, a considerable amount of material is readily available on the effects of music/sound and healing. Furthermore, a variety of methods and techniques for creating a healing musical/sound composition are available as well. The remainder of this section will explore the common characteristics of healing music. Particular emphasis will be placed upon the general themes that emerge, as well as the experiential accounts of those practitioners who work with healing music within the therapeutic setting.
The single most important element in healing with sound is intention; both on the part of the healer and the healed. A certain degree of receptivity on the client's part is required for healing to take place, regardless of the modality. "And, though we often put others in the position of "healer," ultimately we are our own healers (Gardner 9)." The purpose behind creating healing sound is to facilitate the healing process. It is the creation of favorable conditions which engender inner healing; it is the guide that illuminates the path towards greater wholeness. In creating healing music, or in working with it in the therapeutic setting, clear intention is the key for unlocking the transformative powers of music and sound. Kay Gardner explains,
"The first most important element in healing music, then, is the intent with whichit is created and the intent with which it is presented. Intent is all-important when using or choosing live or recorded music to accompany therapeutic and medical procedures. Intent begins and ends the circle of musical healing (8)."
A more poetic and far-reaching portrayal of the power of intent reads,
"The effect of instrumental music also depends upon the evolution of the player, who expresses with the tips of his fingers upon the instrument his grade of evolution; in other words his soul speaks through the instrument. A person's state of mind can be read by his touch upon any instrument (Khan 56)."
"For everything that is created intentionally or unintentionally has a life; it has a birth and so it has a death. In fact it has a beginning and an end (Khan 163)."
It is clear that intention functions as the foundation, or cornerstone, upon which healing music is created. Without a strong foundation there may be music, but chances are it will not be healing . Furthermore, it is this foundation which gives rise to the actual structure of the music. In this respect, intent is the driving force which guides and oversees the entire creative process. It is creativity. It is the essence of the healing composition. Arising out of intention comes the quality and nature which surrounds and infuses each and every aspect of the created work. If the intent is merely commercial, the probability of composing a healing piece evaporates. If, on the other hand, the intent is to serve another human being, coming from the heart of spirit, then each and every segment of the process is guided by divine inspiration. Healing music is created.
The next most important ingredient in creating healing music is the understanding that the voice is the instrument of choice. Healing energy and the power of intent is carried on the expression of the voice. Its effects are audible and inaudible. An impression is made not only upon the physical plane (auditory), but all other planes as well (Khan 93). Throughout the ages, the voice has been and shall continue to be the preferred instrument of choice for healing purposes.
"The human voice is the most powerful and effective musical instrument, or tool, for holistic healing of the human organism. Whether it is one's own voice or the voices of others, a healing vocal sound touches us not only in our bodies but in our souls as well (Gardner 34)."
While machines, such as the Cymatic Instrument, can be used to generate precise healing tones, the voice is likely to remain the most effective instrument or tool to employ for creating healing sounds. It is important not to forget that the voice is the ideal mechanism for transmitting intent to another human being. Because frequency + intent = healing, it is advisable not to lose the voice-mechanism in favor of 'scientific' machines and apparatuses simply because they are more aesthetically appealing within the institutional setting (Goldman 94). Like most technology, wise use entails conscious recognition of when the technology is being used constructively or destructively. For healing purposes it may be advantageous to use the precision of a machine in conjunction with the human voice, as long as the voice retains its position as the principal healing agent.
The next primary consideration in creating healing music involves the approach, or type of music that will be composed. Several common themes emerge in this area with respect to what kind of music generates relaxation and produces healing results. Aside from technical debates, the preferred type of music for producing a state of relaxation is the minimalist approach.
Minimalist music, started in the late 1960's by Terry Riley, is characterized first and foremost by its repetitive nature. Noncomplex phrases are continuously repeated which have the effect of relaxing the listener. Kay Gardner explains,
"Just as the listeners are lulled into complacency, one note of the progression is changed, thus subtly beginning a new progression. The effect is almost jarring, but it can also move the listener into an altered state of consciousness (57)."
Because the progression change is so minute, the music is characterized as being in a state of constant regeneration while the composition's overall substance remains unchanged (Hamel 142). The nature of minimalist music is described as:
"Everything proceeds as though the principle of repetition had no other purpose than to hypnotize the listener. At a first hearing, such music sounds 'primitive' and monotonous; yet as soon as one gets the feel of it a deep self-experience becomes possible (Hamel 143)."
The most probable reason why minimalist music helps induce an altered state of consciousness (ASC) is due precisely to its repetitive quality. The unconscious likes repetition (Bonny and Savary 34). This quality of the unconscious mind can be seen in the effective use of repeated affirmations, and in the majority of hypnotic inductions that rely extensively upon the hypnotist using a monotone voice. It may also help explain why classical music, and Western music in general, is considered ineffective as a means by which to induce relaxation or an ASC (Gardner 73). Its complex nature runs contrary to the simple repetition preferred by the unconscious mind.
Another important theme that emerges in this particular area has to do with incorporating nature sounds into the healing composition. It is well understood that the sounds of nature played an important part in past cultures and civilizations. Nature sounds inspired early peoples to incorporate and imitate them in their ritual rhythms and chants (Gardner 130). In healing sound work, nature sounds are highly effective. Many New Age albums, designed of course to produce the experience of relaxation, include the sounds of nature: wind, ocean waves, mountain streams, the songs of birds, whales, and even dolphins. While somewhat trendy, the approach does appear to work in the West:
"Entire albums of environmental sounds such as rainstorms, meadow birds, surf, or crickets have become available and are very effective for soothing listeners. Because so many of these sounds in Nature are "white noise," containing all frequencies of sound, these recordings integrate and center listeners by toning all their auric levels (Gardner 209)."
A comparative study of the relaxation capabilities between nature sounds and that of an optic-acoustic mind machine revealed that, "the mind machine seems to be useful in inducing relaxation, but is no more effective than the relaxing nature sounds used in this study (Brauchli 179-193)." Psychotherapist Ernst Flackus has done considerable work in the area of music and relaxation training. Like Gardner, he found Western music to be ineffective. His subjects paid too much attention to the music instead of the relaxation process. Some were emotionally triggered by negative childhood memories concerning music lessons when pianos and violins were heard. The sound of the church organ brought religious hauntings for some. Success came from, "tapes on which experiences from nature, such as the pattering of rain with the sun coming out, were represented electronically (Hamel 169)."
Why nature sounds are so effective at helping to induce a state of relaxation is uncertain. One possibility is that nature sounds are an expression of something much greater than just noise. It could be thelanguage of spirit which, when listened to, generates a harmonic effect upon the soul. Perhaps it is the conjunction between primitive hu-man and modern man by means of the collective unconscious. The possibility that nature sounds are an expression of something much greater is brought to light in the Amphion myth whose core insight is:
"That Nature is ultimately responsible not to the common-sensible laws of cause and effect which seem to rule the material world, but to transcendent principles which have a perpetual existence in a higher order of being (Godwin 5)."
Whatever the reasons, nature sounds do have a calming effect upon most listeners- when the listening is done with some degree of receptivity! Nature sounds aid relaxation efforts and produce favorable results in hypnotherapy clients. Their inclusion in a healing composition is appropriate.
The next considerations involving the creation of healing music relate more directly to therapeutic work which utilizes altered states of consciousness. One primary characteristic of ASC work is the heightened acuity of the senses, especially hearing. Even in normal waking consciousness the sense of hearing is extremely accurate; it is even referred to by some as the parent of all senses (Godwin 5). Experiments have demonstrated that the sense of hearing is more accurate than sight (Hamel 98). In harmonics, such precision is considered to have the capacity for integrating the intellectual and spiritual spheres (Hamel 98).
Because this highly accurate sense becomes hypersensitive during ASC work, particular attention needs to be paid toward vocal, music, and recording quality. The ability of the listener to detect the most minuscule glitches or errors in the recording requires excruciating attention to detail in the production process. More important is the message being conveyed; if the composer is not authentic and sincere in his/her presentation it willbe readily detected.
Another important consideration arises from the "electronics-are-not-spiritual" debate currently taking place. Many purists claim that electronically composed music cannot be healing for it is not spiritual. Others, especially those who work with electronic musical instruments deny the allegation. The cultural context in which the music will be heard rarely comes up. Practitioners working with alternative modalities in the West rely heavily upon electronically composed music. Why? Because it works:
"Ernst Flackus finds Classical Zen music and a range of electronic works most useful for his exercises in self-absorption and meditation. They are 'perceived virtually as abstract sounds' and thus make it easy for the subjects 'not to listen to them, but merely to half-perceive them in the background and in this way to allow them, so to speak, to flow into them' (Hamel 170).
Other practitioners agree and conclude that it is the intent behind the music that determines its abilities to facilitate healing. Indian musical philosopher Jaidev Thakur Singh states that in the hands of a conscious person, the effect could very well have a spiritual effect (Hamel 138). In creating music intended for meditation purposes, the use of electronic instruments remains a consideration. Ultimately, its effect will depend upon the person. For many people in Western society electronically composed music can be healing, inspirational, and spiritual.
Silence is a consideration with respect to healing music being used within ASC therapies. The spiritual significance of silence is extraordinary, especially in Eastern religion. For many westerners silence is an all but alien encounter which, when it does occur, sparks feelings of restlessness and anxiety. In meditative practices, or conscious listening exercises, silence is the doorway to the infinite. To hearrequires a letting go of all that permeates and bombards the mind. In order to hear one has to listen, and, "listening begins with being silent (Berendt 146)." Because of this, work done using guided meditation, or another ASC technique designed to access the spiritual or transpersonal levels has to consciously integrate the constructive use of silence. Hazrat Kahn writes, "The more words are used to express an idea, the less powerful they become (112)." An awareness of how and when to use silence represents another key ingredient in successfully developing a healing composition.
The final primary consideration is perhaps the simplest one of all: consideration of the spiritual. It is easy for this all-important aspect of healing work to become buried under the multitude of facts and figures regarding how the work should be done. The tendency to focus upon detailed analysis and logical step-by-step sequences needs to be kept in check with the greater significance of spirituality- the whole which is greater than the sum of its parts. What part transforms a pile of mechanical pieces into a bicycle, or a car, or a healing music composition? Forgetting this is like forgetting to add yeast in the bread dough. Without it, nothing will happen; with just a little amount (of awareness) all the ingredients come together to create something far greater than the sum of their parts. And so it is with music, sound, and healing.
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Schoen, Max. "Conclusion: art the healer." Schullian, D.M., & Schoen, M., Music and Medicine. 1948; (22:4457); 387-405. PsycINFO 22-04324.
Mark Bancroft, MA, CHT
Nevada City, CA