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Music Therapy: Healing the Body, Heart, Mind and Spirit with Sound

Written By: 
Michael Friedman
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An introduction to aural therapy with two artists exploring the healing qualities of sound.

Have you noticed that days without music tend to be the low-energy days? If so, that’s because listening to music releases dopamine, the pleasure hormone, and endorphins, which induce positive moods and help relieve pain.

That stands to reason: Music has been a part of human life for thousands of years. Experts have found instruments dating back more than 40,000 years, suggesting that our desire for self-expression, communication and comfort through music is a foundational part of the human experience. 

Music surrounds us: shopping, watching TV, going to the movies, looping inside our heads, roaring from cars and — for better or worse — blaring from your neighbor’s house right now.

As a wellness discipline, music therapy harnesses these essential facts to serve the physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs of a group or individual. It employs a variety of activities, such as listening to binaural sound waves, meditating on rhythm, creating songs and being guided by tones. It involves using our innate responses and connections to music to encourage positive changes in mood and overall well-being. 

A plethora of contemporary artists these days are making records dedicated around aural therapy and sound healing. One Spotify search on “binaural beats” proves it. Below are two artists who have devoted their lives to the discipline.

C.R. (Colin) Gillespie

On Canadian experimental artist C.R. Gillespie’s record Concentration Pattern (Hidden Harmony Recordings/Seance Center), each of the four sides on the double LP contain a specific sound frequency designed to trigger and elicit different responses.

In the liner notes, Gillespie explains his conceptual theories and the framework around “vibroacoustic therapy.”

“Exploring an enveloping spectrum of tonal space, the intention and pseudo-theory of “Concentration Patterns” is that of aural therapy, meant to assist in the practice of meditation, mindfulness, and the development of healthy sleep cycles. When played at a comfortable volume (~ 70dB) with possible utilization of indirect listening to exaggerate the low frequency spectrum (fig.1), the listener may disassociate from their surroundings into the synthetic headspace of the extended piece. 

While listening, allow your body to ingest the hum of these simple and relatively affordable machines. The unavoidable breakup of the whole within the vinyl format gives the unique opportunity to accentuate the listening experience by suggesting the pairing of pure sine tones, their frequency values indicated above, giving a tonal fulcrum to each side. This concept, sometimes described as binaural beats therapy, posits that concentrated listening to slightly-varying stereo frequencies can lead to decreased anxiety and “increased quality of life.” Conversely, vibroacoustic therapy, alleging that specific low-frequencies may positively resonate within the body’s deep tissue, faces far more apathetic criticism; yet I would be remiss in discouraging this passing consideration during enjoyment of Concentration Patterns.” 

Gillespie says that the binaural beats and sine tones found on the record are as much about what you don’t hear as what you hear. The space between actually completes the sonic picture, resulting in a kind of mental sound therapy. The wavering of these tones and frequencies resonate in a set pattern with two different waves that combine to form one (these are known as binaural beats). This in turn “tunes” the brain, relaxing the mood, turning negative into positive. By playing a continuous piece of music slowly and slightly varying the parameters every few minutes, the brain is ‘tricked’ into a hypnotic state.

Like Florian T.M. Zeisig’s Music For Parents, the late Jon Hassel’s Fourth World music and Brian Eno’s Music For Airports before him, Gillespie was interested in exploring the therapeutic benefits of experimental music composition. 

“By panning the different hertz’ left to right, the brain is attaching to a firm sinetone, but everything else is moving around it. It adds a 3 dimensional (3D) effect, and subconsciously arouses the listener,” he said. He terms this binaural effect as a low humming in your bones otherwise known as  “vibroacoustic therapy.”

Colin then pointed me to an online sinetone generator:

https://www.szynalski.com/tone-generator/

While commonly used for tuning instruments and testing human hearing, some scientific evidence suggests that listening to certain frequencies (40Hz) can actually help reverse some of the molecular changes in the brain of Alzheimer’s patients.

Colin said that the process of making the record was in fact therapeutic, and that it had been a cathartic mental sound therapy session in and of itself. “The patience required in making an ambient record is something I hadn’t considered,” he said. Finding himself more relaxed and centered in the recording sessions with an improved mood actually had improved his focus. 

Dr. Jeffrey Thompson

Dr. Jeffrey Thompson is the founder and director of the Center for Neuroacoustic Research in Carlsbad, California, a research center which is actualizing his vision of “Healing the body, heart, mind and spirit through the scientific application of sound.”

As noted on his website, Thompson is a veteran sound healing researcher, brainwave entrainment expert and self-described high-tech personal transformation innovator, motivator and futurist. A physician, musician, composer, inventor, educator and author, his mission with SSF has been to “retune” and “reawaken the brain’s power through sound wave technology and help people tap their full potential.”

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Over the past three decades, Thompson has developed a wide range of audio programs, ranging from recordings to seminars to audio healing devices, all orchestrated with what is known as mind/body harmonious brainwave entrainment. Foot-tapping is a simple way of understanding entrainment. When you lock into a rhythm and your foot starts moving in time, your body and mind have become entrained with the music.

Even so, pitch, tempo, and melody are processed by different areas of the brain. The cerebellum processes rhythm, the frontal lobes decode the emotional signals created by the music. A small portion of the right temporal lobe helps understand pitch. 

The reward center of the brain, called the nucleus accumbens, produces strong physical signs of pleasure, such as goosebumps, when it is activated by powerful music.

The underlying premise behind his work revolves around the notion that helping to balance the listener’s autonomic nervous system in turn helps heal the brain and body. Certified in multiple healthcare modalities, Thompson offers auditory, kinesthetic and visual therapeutic products and services. 

A musician and composer, Thompson has established a method for using modulated sound-pulses for changing states of consciousness for optimal “mind-body” healing and personal, frequently transformative growth. 

Isle of Skye, Thompson’s first recording, was adopted by the American Hypnotherapy Association for its use in hypnosis. Since then, he has released more than ninety CDs and tapes. They are used by holistic practitioners, chiropractors, psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers, massage therapists and other bodywork professionals. 

On a personal note, I’ve been listening to many of Thompson’s audio programs over the last few years, and have found them to be incredibly effective at reducing anxiety. They’ve helped with my overall focus. There’s also a trancelike, otherworldly essence to his recordings, particularly the “Gamma Series”.

Sometimes after going on hikes or runs with these musical soundscapes playing through my earbuds, it feels as though I’ve broken through my subconscious and into another realm of perception. There is a euphoric energy here that I don’t even get from even playing my favorite music. Thompson’s therapeutic soundscapes have actually improved my life, and his work has become some of my favorite “music.”







If you enjoyed the above selections, be sure to also check out Sam McClellan’s Music of the Five Elements, which applies the ancient Chinese philosophy of medicine to music composition with the goal of creating “a scientifically sound elixir for body and mind.”


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