What are the health benefits of sound baths?
The world of sound is the lifeblood of earth.fm. While our archives of soundscapes promote engagement with and conservation of the natural world, numerous studies also cite the health benefits of listening to natural sounds (see here, to give but one example). In that spirit, it has been difficult to ignore the increased prevalence of sound-based meditation and therapies in recent years, both in real life and online. We therefore invite you to come with us on a journey into the world of sound bathing, starting with the question:
What is a sound bath?
Sound bath sessions are led by a practitioner who uses a range of instruments – such as gongs, bells, and singing bowls – “to facilitate meditation, relaxation and, ultimately, healing”. The techniques employed in these sessions foreground the way that “the experience of sound manifests not only through hearing but through tactile physical vibrations and frequencies”. Fair Observer characterizes these environments as “coherent sonic environments” which “recalibrate moods and nervous systems”.
If it sounds outlandish that these sessions could have a bearing on health, it may be instructive to consider the role sound plays in mainstream medicine. For example, in therapeutic ultrasound and lithotripsy, a procedure for the treatment of specific kinds of kidney stones)” – though this may be a false equivalence, as these examples both use soundwaves as a physical tool (eg, to physically break up kidney stones), but this does demonstrate that forms of sound can have practical applications.
In the context of earth.fm’s natural soundscapes, it seems noteworthy that California-based sound bath facilitator Anne Bergstedt describes what she does as “recreating sounds I […] find in nature”. Given that natural sounds have been shown to have wellbeing benefits, by “physically alter[ing] our brains’ connections”, it seems logical that sound baths could have similar effects. Participants’ experiences range from the mental to the bodily, from states of deep relaxation to tearfulness or eureka moments. They may also experience negligible effects, or simply nod off.
What are the effects of sound baths?
One particular report, published in 2017, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, and the monitoring of heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, metabolism, and digestion, to establish the physiological effects of listening to soundscape recordings of both natural and artificial environments.
The fMRI results showed that listening to artificial sounds generated “patterns of inward-focused attention”, which are associated with psychologically stressful states such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. On the other hand, nature sounds led to external-focused attention, a decreased bodily sympathetic response (reducing the fight-or-flight impulse), and increases to reaction times and to the parasympathetic response which relaxes and reduces the body’s activities (think “rest and digest” and “feed and breed”). These positive impacts were most pronounced in those participants with the highest sympathetic responses, which suggests that they were experiencing the highest levels of stress at the outset.
Similarly, another paper – ‘Effects of Singing Bowl Sound Meditation on Mood, Tension, and Well-being: An Observational Study’, published in the Journal of Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine – found that “participants reported significantly less tension, anger, fatigue, and depressed mood” after Tibetan singing bowl meditation.
As to the reasons for this effect, a clinical study investigating the effect of low-frequency sound stimulation on fibromyalgia patients posits a range of justifications – though none of them are fully understood. For example, the ability of music to reduce pain perception may occur due to its provision of “distraction, stress and anxiety reduction, and aesthetic pleasure”. Music also “affect[s] the release of endorphins, dopamine and serotonin, and decrease[s] cortisol levels”; a “review of 400 published scientific articles investigating music as medicine found strong evidence that music has effects on brain chemistry, has […] benefits on management of mood and stress reduction, and that […] rhythmic stimulation […], rather than the melody, […] has the greatest antipain effect.” Music could also combat pain “through the vibrational tactile effects [it has] on the whole body”.
There is also the concept of ‘binaural beats’: an “auditory illusion” which occurs when different tones of slightly different frequency are heard in each ear, causing the brain to process “a beat at the difference of the frequencies”. This binaural beat effect was discovered by Prussian physicist and meteorologist Heinrich Wilhelm Dove (1803–1879) in 1839. However, it wasn’t until 1973, when psychologist Gerald D Oster published an article entitled ‘Auditory Beats in the Brain’ in Scientific American, that the phenomenon began to gain its modern traction, deriving from his conviction about binaural beats’ positive implications for cognitive and neurological research.
According to Heathline, it is claimed that binaural beats “induce the same mental state associated with a meditation practice [and therefore its attendant benefits], but much more quickly”. It is theorized that binaural beats may be able to generate “the frequency needed for your brain to create the same waves commonly experienced during a meditation practice”. This relates to ‘brain entrainment’ (AKA neural entrainment) – entrainment being “the synchronization of the neural activities across the brain”. Exposure to certain frequencies has been theorized to synchronize and change one’s brainwaves.
However, a 2015 review of studies established “that most studies in this area [of ‘auditory beat stimulation’ (ABS)] are limited or contradictory, and that there’s evidence of diminishing impact over time”, further stating that “the underlying neural mechanisms [relating to the effects of ABS] are still yet to be unraveled”. WebMD also asserts that “some studies have linked binaural beats to increased feelings of depression […] [and] short bursts of anxiety, anger, and confusion.”
Are there any equivalents to sound baths?
Other forms of sound healing are also possible – for example, forest bathing (a translation of the Japanese shinrin-yoku; alternatively, “taking in the forest atmosphere”). For the majority of homo sapiens’ 200,000-300,000 years of existence, “our nervous systems calibrated themselves just fine […], because the outdoor sonic environment we evolved for was simple, natural and three-dimensional: wind sounds, rain sounds, twig-snaps, people.” Since the industrial revolution and, more recently, the increasing prevalence of computer and mobile phone screens, biophony and geophony has had to compete with day-to-day anthropophony, while artificial lighting disrupts our circadian rhythms: “Our delicate […] nervous systems become de-calibrated not just by the sounds we call ‘noise pollution,’ but also by the artificial sounds we call ‘entertainment’.”
In the face of these challenges, natural environments can have a recalibrative effect. Forest bathing is a form of ecotherapy which came about in response to burn-outs caused by the tech-boom at the latter end of the Japan’s ‘economic miracle’. It is perhaps a logical development for a country with two-thirds tree cover where the majority of the population “live in crowded city conditions”, but is equally applicable anywhere where natural spaces of this type are accessible.
Forest bathing “is not exercise, or hiking, or jogging. It is simply being in nature […]. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world.” Health effects of time spent in a forest are reported by Dr. Qing Li, “the world’s foremost expert in forest medicine”, to include reduction of stress, anxiety, depression, and anger; the “strengthen[ing of] the immune system; improve[ment to] cardiovascular and metabolic health; and [a] boost [to] overall well-being”. Further studies by Li have “indicate[d] that a forest bathing trip can increase NK [natural killer immune cell] activity” and that middle-aged men experience reduced pulse rate and scores for depression, fatigue, anxiety, and confusion, while the score for vigor is elevated.
A report by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat states that, “By 2050, 66 per cent of the world’s population is projected to be urban” – compared to just 30% in 1950. Additionally, the 2001 paper ‘National Human Activity Pattern Survey’ is quoted as stating that “the average American [ie, US citizen] spends 93 percent of the time indoors”. By 2021, adults in the US “spent about 3 hours and 30 minutes a day using the mobile internet”, a period that was predicted to expand to over four hours by 2021 – an increase driven by traditionally real-world activities moving online.
Our delicate nervous systems become de-calibrated not just by the sounds we call ‘noise pollution,’ but also by the artificial sounds we call ‘entertainment’.
In contrast, Vox statistics show a decrease in time spent reading newspapers or magazines (to say nothing of books), watching television, listening to the radio, or even using desktop internet. In 2021, nearly 30% of those same US adults self-reported being online “almost constantly”. According to RescueTime – providers of software intended to help people “be more focused, productive, and motivated” – on average, “people open their phones 58 times a day”, predominantly for periods of two minutes or less, time which includes switching “on average from one screen activity to another every 20 seconds”.
These tendencies contribute to a fragmented use of time, leading in part to “only 10% of people [surveyed by RescueTime] say[ing] they feel ‘in control’ of how they spend their day”.
These startling figures and the seachange they represent demonstrate the necessity for people to retain connections to the natural world. More and more of us are likely to experience what journalist and author Richard Louv calls nature-deficit disorder; a metaphoric description of the results of cessation of human interaction with nature: “diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses, a rising rate of myopia, child and adult obesity, Vitamin D deficiency, and other maladies”.
Spending time in the natural world caters to all of the five main human senses (and more). Sights and scents, as well as sounds, contribute to the health benefits of being in natural spaces and may be representative of what biologist EO Wilson described as “a connection to nature […] hardwired into our DNA, leaving us with a biological propensity to feel better in the presence of natural systems”. Other benefits come from forests’ higher concentrations of oxygen “and the presence of plant chemicals called phytoncides—natural oils that are part of a plant’s defense system against bacteria, insects, and fungi”.
Why are meditative practices so relevant in the modern world?
Certified sound meditation teacher Tamara Klien advocates for sound baths on the basis that “connectivity […] [,] social media and the news churn amplified by push-notifications” – as well light and noise pollution – create stresses unique to contemporary populations. These feed into health problems, anxiety, sleeping difficulties, and depression. As such, Klien quotes the World Health Organisation (WHO) classification of stress as the “health epidemic of the 21st century”. In the face of such a prognosis, a 285% rise between 2018 and 2019 in attendance at sound baths, given their capacity for stress reduction and management, is all too logical.
A 2015 study published in the journal Pain Research and Management found that “five weeks of low-frequency sound simulation […] significantly improved sleep”. Its co-author, Lee Bartel, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music and Rehabilitation Sciences Institute, attributes this to the stimulation of brain wave states associated with sleep (for example, delta activity in the range of one to four hertz).
Ultimately, regardless of the reasons for the alleviative effects of music (and natural sounds), sound-based treatments have “been shown to help people with pain from arthritis, menstrual pain, postoperative pain, knee replacement pain […] [,] improve mobility, reduce muscle pain and stiffness, increase blood circulation, and lower blood pressure”, as well as benefitting sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome and psoriasis (among other conditions). Sound baths, more specifically, have yet to be widely studied, but studies suggests that as positive as their effects can be – reductions of tension, anger, fatigue, and depression; increased “feelings of spiritual well-being”; lowered blood pressure and heart rate – it is the aural component which can facilitate easier meditation that is so valuable.
Various approaches to meditation, as well as sound baths themselves, are accessible via online platforms, meaning that they need not be the sole preserve of affluent yummy mummies; it may be that, if you’re new to meditation, sound baths – “a form of relaxation and stress relief that doesn’t require a great deal of self-discipline but, [sic] still delivers the same wellness and health benefits as meditation” – could be an ideal starting point for seeing whether you might respond positively. Though not an alternative to mainstream medical treatment, digging into this field may have untold benefits – who knows, you may soon be attending local live sessions, or buying your own singing bowl!.