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The late Mitch Gaynor shares a powerful story in the introduction to his 2002 book, The Healing Power of Sound: Recovery from Life-Threatening Illness Using Sound, Voice, and Music. The story is of Dr. Alfred Tomads, a well-known French physician of the 1960s.
Dr. Tomads was asked by the head of a Benedictine monastery in southern France to investigate a mysterious case. Why had the majority of the usually healthy monks who resided there suddenly gotten sick? “Seventy of the 90 monks were slumping in their cells like wet dishrags,” wrote Tomads. No cause could be found until Tomads made an intriguing discovery…
A new abbot at the monastery had recently discontinued the tradition of Gregorian chant singing that the monks had participated in previously for up to six hours every day. Forward-thinking Tomads reinstated the practice on “doctor’s orders.”
The result? All the monks who had fallen ill quickly regained their health. Make no mistake about it, the power of music to heal is very real.
In the 1960s, Dr. Alfred Tomads helped Benedictine monks in France recover their health by reinstating their daily Gregorian chant singing.
Music and Sound Therapy Can Calm the Stress Response
“This mind/body science is real physiology,” said physician David Felten, executive director of the Susan Samueli Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the University of California at Irvine, in a recent interview. But just how does music heal?
Many theories abound, but the common consensus is that listening to “pleasing sounds” as well as actively participating in the act of making music (see section below) can dramatically reduce stress responses that would otherwise lead to cortisol level spikes and the shutting down of the immune system.
Engaging with certain kinds of music in specific ways calms cortisol levels and allows the so-called “parasympathetic” nervous system to bring back the healing mechanisms of the immune system.
This includes the production of Natural Killer (NK) cells used to destroy cancer cells. [Note: The parasympathetic nervous system conserves energy by slowing the heart rate, increasing intestinal and gland activity, and by carrying out other similar actions in the body.]
Need proof? Here are just a few examples of how music has been proven to help your body heal:
A 2011 study conducted at McGill University in Quebec, Canada, showed that listening to music that was agreeable to the listener stimulated dopamine production in the brain. Dopamine is a “feel good” brain chemical that plays an important role in movement, memory, and reward behavior in response to listening to music and other pleasurable activities.
This study was also the first to prove that healing hormones can be “turned on” in human beings in anticipation of an abstract stimulus such as listening to music, and not just in response to tangible things like food or sleeping.
A 2005 study published in the Medical Science Monitor found that recreational keyboard playing significantly reduced 19 of the 45 genetic stress response markers tested. The report authors stated that these results support the idea that recreational music making can be a credible stress reduction strategy.
A study conducted by Oxford University suggests that listening to music that matches the natural rhythms of the body (i.e. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony Adagio and Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria in Latin) could reduce heart rate and help prevent hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
Along the same lines, a 2013 study conducted at the University of Nis in Serbia found that cardiac disease patients who exercised, in addition to listening to music that they enjoyed for 30 minutes every day, had the highest rate of heart function improvement. Many of the risk factors for heart disease are the same as those for cancer.
A 2013 study found that the combination of music and exercise training led to the most improvement in heart function.
Finally, a recent joint study conducted by Finish, American, and British researchers has hypothesized that melodies could be used to “hear” how certain proteins are functioning in the human body by using a technique they call “sonification,” in which composed music and mathematical algorithms interconnect. By “listening to” protein interactions, this method may someday help doctors be more effective at discovering and treating disease.
Fabien Maman and the Power of Vibrational Singing
One of the earliest and most dramatic studies (conducted over the course of a year and a half ) was carried out in 1981 by French composer and biologist Fabien Maman and French biologist Helene Grimal, who worked with the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.
In a laboratory study, they exposed uterine cancer cells to low-volume acoustic sound (30-40 decibels) at short intervals and mounted a camera on the dishes where the cells were located. The results were remarkable – the sounds literally caused uterine cancer cells to disintegrate.
Interestingly, the most effective sound was the human voice, which caused the cells to literally “explode” in just nine minutes. After the success of their laboratory experiment, Maman and Grimal then worked with two women diagnosed with breast cancer who committed to “tone” (i.e. to make an elongated tonal sound) for three and a half hours every day for a month.
Amazingly, in one of the women, the breast tumor disappeared completely. The other woman elected to have surgery, although her tumor had reduced in size considerably by the time her procedure was performed.
Said Maman of their findings:
…the cancer cells show evidence of cell nuclei incapable of maintaining their structure as the sound wave frequencies attack the cytoplasmic and nuclear membranes.”
Maman’s theory was that tumor cells are not in “resonance” with the body. Therefore, as a sound that is in resonance continues uninterrupted, the cell is not able to stabilize itself and will eventually self-destruct.
Some very recent studies centered around the concept of resonant frequencies on ovarian cancer cells is currently being conducted by researchers at Skidmore College in New York. This research is proving what Maman and other pioneering researchers such as Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, Dr. Matsuro Emoto, and Dr. Royal Rife knew decades ago – by exposing tumor cells to particular vibrational and tonal frequencies that are disharmonious to them (but have no effect on healthy cells), cancer cells can be destroyed. Some contemporary functional medicine practitioners, employ techniques which are based on the same premise.
The Healing Power of Making Music
Simply exposing oneself to healing sounds has definitely proven to be effective at calming the stress response, turning on healing mechanisms, and possibly even directly reducing tumor growth. However, actually participating in music-making in some way can also have a profound effect on individual healing – especially when done in a group.
“It’s not what music DOES for us; it’s what music UNDOES,” explains pioneering music therapist Christine Stevens. Stevens is the author of The Healing Drum Learning Program and Music Medicine, and founder of Upbeat Drum Circles, which provides group-drumming experiences for individuals and groups.
…Like when a person is engaging in exercise, self-expression, creativity, and spirituality, it is nearly impossible to worry or be thinking about the past or future when you are in the present moment of making music. Research has shown that recreational music making can actually change our genetic switches and reverse our individualized genomic stress signature.”
“So many people have been told they have no musical ability,” says Stevens, who has conducted drumming workshops with groups ranging from breast cancer survivors and oncology nurses to political refugees.
They can’t hold a tune in a bucket or keep a beat. But the truth is we are all wired for rhythm by our circadian sleep and wake cycle, our brain waves, our cardiac beats, and even our neural firings.”
Stevens recently created the Healing Drum Learning Program (Sounds True, 2016) to teach people who have never played to drum 24 healing rhythms. This product was the first of its kind to be available in natural foods stores such as Whole Foods. That’s why Stevens calls it “Vitamin ‘D’– D for Drum.”
The healing power of group music making is not just a fluffy concept; it is based on both historical and research-based evidence. One of the fathers of music therapy is psychologist and music therapist Dr. Mark Rider. He is known for coupling musical experiences with active visualization for pain reduction. Dr. Rider has written about the power of group sing-alongs as a way to treat trauma responses in World War II veterans.
Group drumming has also been shown to directly activate the immune system and calm stress responses. A 2001 study published in the journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine found that Natural Killer (NK) cell activity increased in participants who were actively drumming when compared to controls. It also found that group drumming changed the cellular biology of the participants and reversed the stress response.
In addition, a 2004 study conducted on first-year nursing students found that the act of drumming improved their mood by close to 30% (leading to an estimated 29.1 million dollars in savings to U.S. nursing schools and a 1.5-billion-dollar savings for the U.S. healthcare industry as a whole).
The drum circle offers a holistic experience in body, mind, and spirit that is as old as the first tribes that sat in circles while drumming and chanting to achieve a higher state of community and individual expression,” explains Stevens. “It’s been tested on human subjects for thousands of years!”
In fact, a big part of the healing effect of any music-making experience is caused by the support one feels by simply being part of a connected group. A comprehensive 2006 study of close to 3,000 nurses diagnosed with breast cancer concluded that the women who had been isolated socially before diagnosis had twice the risk of breast cancer mortality and those who went through the cancer experience alone were four times more likely to succumb to the disease than those who had a group of ten or more friends to support them.
4 Ways You Can Heal Yourself Through Music
Here are four things you can do right away to help turn on the healing by turning up the music:
#1. Make Your Own “Healing Playlist
The best way to go about this is to make a playlist of songs you find calming or energizing. Studies conducted at Michigan State University and others have found that the most effective kind of music for a person’s unique healing journey is the songs that that person enjoys listening to. “You are your inner DJ”, Stevens explains in Music Medicine. “Load the playlist onto multiple devices and make music a conscious listening practice. Play your healing music whenever you feel anxious or have low energy – in the car, at home, in a hospital room.”
#2. Practice “Toning” then find your Power Song
Toning is using your voice as a healing tool. There are four simple steps. First close your lips, smile, and hum. Second, feel the sound vibrating. Third, open up your mouth and turn it into a sound. “Vowels have power: from ah, ee, oh, to ohm,” says Stevens. “Self-sounding is a precursor to singing to open the heart.”The last step is to choose a power song – a theme song for your healing journey – and sing along.
Create a playlist of songs you love. Include some that calm and others that energize you. Practice “toning” by closing your lips, smiling, and humming. Then open your mouth and turn it into a sound.
#3. Drum Away Pain
“I remember working with a bone marrow transplant patient who was experiencing pain that medicine wouldn’t even help,” says Stevens. “I had him play the drum gently laying it on his body, while I drummed along with his beat and guided him on a visualization. There is strong clinical evidence from the work of Belleruth Naparstek and others of the effectiveness of using your imagination to envision your own healing.”
#4. Join the Jam
Community drum circles, ukulele circles, or singing activities are all ways that you can connect as a group through music. Even if you feel low in energy, just being in the space where music is being created can enliven you. “This takes your mind off fear, doubt, and worry: you can’t think while you’re playing music,” says Stevens.
“Based on the research known as the ‘Jazz Brain’ by Dr. Charles Limb, when jazz musicians improvised a tune versus played a written piece of music, the activity deactivated the brain areas of self-monitoring and judgment activity.”
Group drumming can activate the immune system and reduce the stress response. From DJ to drummer, music is yet another way that YOU can become an empowered partner in your own healing journey. Educate yourself on the ground-breaking work that Maman, Limb, Naparstek, Stevens, and so many others in the field of Sound and Music Therapy are doing.
Then put on your favorite music, get out an instrument, and start making your own healing music TODAY!
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the January 2017 edition of TTAC’s Insiders member newsletter. It has been updated and republished in December 2019.
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Listening to “pleasing sounds” and actively participating in the act of making music can dramatically reduce stress responses that would otherwise lead to cortisol level spikes and the shutting down of the immune system.
A study conducted by Oxford University suggests that listening to music that matches the natural rhythms of the body could reduce heart rate and help prevent hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
In a 1981 study, the most effective sound was the human voice, which caused the cells to literally “explode” in just nine minutes.
Participating in music-making in some way can also have a profound effect on individual healing – especially when done in a group.
The healing power of group music making is not just a fluffy concept; it is based on both historical and research-based evidence.
Group drumming has also been shown to directly activate the immune system and calm stress responses.
4 Ways You Can Heal Yourself Through Music”
- Make your own healing playlist
- Practice “Toning”, then find your Power Song
- Drum Away Pain
- Join the jam