Sound can be described as a rate of vibrational frequencies that travel through certain media, such as air or water. These vibrational frequencies which can be sensed by the human ear are 20 to 20,000 vibrations per second (Hz). Frequencies above this range are known as ultrasound and those below known as infrasound. Although these frequencies cannot be heard, both are still able to powerfully influence our physiology on a cellular level.
Some (ultra)sounds and certain frequencies are known to create a kind of cellular 'massage', in which the cells oscillate and communicate the sound through and around them with therapeutic results. Pioneering doctors such as Professor Mark Emberton are even using intense ultrasound waves to selectively target and treat cancer sites, so far with very promising clinical trial results.
Infrasound on the other hand is also known to influence our physiology, but not in such a positive way. It is a powerful type of sound able to travel over long distances and cause symptoms such as disorientation, physical pressure, fears, anxiety, nausea elevated heart rate or increased blood pressure after exposure to it. Its negative effects have been used in the past as weapons.
There is an increasing body of evidence-based research now available, making it difficult to deny the influence that music, and sound generally, has on our physiology, in particular that of the mind. In addition to this, increasing numbers of us are recognising the importance our emotions have on our physical health and immunity.
Discoveries and testimonials are being shared on forums and social media platforms almost daily, including this inspiring story from a lady who suffered from insomnia: "Both my mother and I have not slept well for the last couple of years. Since I attended a talk on the power of music and sound I have started using an album of healing music called Orange Grove Siesta and I have slept extremely well. I have even tried playing the CD for my dog too, and would you believe, he falls asleep! In the morning usually my dog wakes me up but now I am finding I am waking the dog up! My dog suffers from epilepsy and I believe that the music will help him with that too as he now sleeps better than ever. It's as if the CD trains the brain how to fall asleep effortlessly and without the worries and busy mind syndrome."
The effects of sound on health and psychology can be measured by looking at the different brain waves our bodies produce, and how music and sound can influence those brain waves. In 1924 Dr Hans Berger used an early EEG (electroencephalograph) to monitor electrical activity in the brain. As often happens in scientific research he was looking for something else entirely, when the evidence for brain waves emerged. Dr Berger's data revealed that our brain responds to stimuli by emitting electronic impulses in waves of varying intensity. Like any electrical emission, the intensity of brain waves is measured in hertz. The stimuli can come from any area of our lives – emotional, physical and environmental. At that time, Berger was able to detect only two levels of wave activity, which he called alpha and beta.
Under calm conditions, when we are relaxed, the brain produces alpha waves (8-12 Hz). We produce beta waves (12-25 Hz) when in a state of heightened watchfulness and reactivity. Berger also noted that aggressive behaviour may erupt when we are in beta.
The positive function of beta is that it sharpens our responses and keeps us alert. A healthy amount of beta is necessary for us to function in daily life, and essential in life-and-death situations where the 'fight and flight' response is appropriate. Beta has its place. However beta run amok can also keep us edgy and stressed out. Spending a significant amount of time over a sustained period in beta, even if as the appropriate response to our environment, can cause us to suffer negative psychological and physical side effects as a result. The long-term effects of primarily operating in beta can be destructive. Decisions made in beta can be reactive and defensive, rather than collaborative and constructive. Typically those who have lived with stressful situations for many years may become so entrenched in beta-driven responses that, even when the source of stress is removed, they continue to respond in that way; a person can come to mistakenly interpret an everyday occurrence as a life and death situation.
In alpha we naturally have a better command of life, our health, and our moods. We are able to think more clearly, consider responses and perhaps make more creative decisions, with better long-term results. Certain types of music can help us enhance the production of alpha brain waves and the associated chemicals, providing a powerful positive influence on how we feel, our reactions and behaviours and the health of our bodies' cells.
Danuta Andrzejak, an EEG (electroencephalography) technician from Krakow, Poland, recently witnessed a case in which a man's speech improved significantly as a direct result of sound and music therapy. The patient, aged 27, had been referred by his psychologist for EEG testing as his speech was incoherent. He spoke so quickly that people found him unintelligible. He couldn't find a job, as employers didn't want somebody they couldn't understand. The speech impediment was affecting all areas of his life. His self-esteem was at an all-time low and he had sought psychological help.
Results from the EEG examination showed abnormal brainwave activity that was irregular and erratic. In response to these findings, the psychologist prepared a biofeedback neurotherapy program. The program lasted approximately one year during which he had 60 sessions in total and an EEG reading afterwards. The last few sessions used music, specifically a type called Alphamusic. After this music therapy he underwent another EEG examination. The results were phenomenal; nobody could have predicted the findings. His basic activity went to 11-12 Hz, the amplitude slightly lowered around 35 uV, and, importantly, his alpha brain wave rhythms were very regular. This in turn improved the patient's speech significantly. He is now reported to be speaking clearly, more slowly and has recently gained employment. Moreover he claims that he feels exceptionally well, motivated and more comfortable meeting and interacting with new people.
Such findings do not surprise composers and musicians, who have long recognised that the calming and self-healing effects of music are known to every culture on earth.
We need our mind to rest in alpha when we seek our creativity, emotional flexibility and, for instance, our capacity to remain calm and open in the face of tough decisions. Alpha is our peaceful haven. It is a state we can visit while fully conscious, a place that will always give us relief from stress. In alpha we are at our most productive because we are fully awake, yet completely relaxed.
In addition to supporting individuals towards greater mental and emotional health through inducing alpha waves, sound is also being used in hospitals, clinics and other health care settings. Scientific attention is now being given to the clinically observable and reported experiences of patients and supporting medical professionals. Doctors, mental health specialists, scientists and health workers, as well as innovative music therapists and thanologists everywhere, are actively engaged in researching how best to use music to help patients feel better.
One industry that has been hugely grateful for the therapeutic influence of music and sound is the aged care industry, particularly for sufferers of Alzheimer's. Mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and insomnia, as well as physical issues like chronic pain have been noted to improve with the use of therapeutic music in care homes and hospices all over the world.
With the effects of music and sound being researched and more widely accepted into the clinical medical professions, it will not be long before the power of sound reaches far higher volumes.
John Levine - Creator of the world acclaimed Alphamusic system. John has incorporated his qualifications as an electronic engineer and a classically trained composer with his studies of psychology and the physiology of hearing as well as his extensive study and research into meditation techniques.