Music Hath Charms But “Sound Healing” Hath Nonsense

There is no doubt that music has effects, both pleasant and unpleasant. We respond to music with emotion and with foot-tapping. As Congreve famously said, “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast.” Cows produce more milk when music is played in the barn. Infants respond to lullabies. But music can be annoying, too. Many of us are irritated by elevator music or telephone “on hold” music. Hard rock and heavy metal music have been used by the military as torture. They bombarded Noriega with loud music in 1989 when he took refuge in the Holy See’s embassy in Panama; he surrendered.

Similarly, non-musical noise can be either soothing or annoying. White noise machines simulate natural sounds like the surf to help people fall asleep. But “a noisy noise annoys an oyster” and it annoys people too. A noisy environment impairs our ability to concentrate; that’s why librarians shush patrons. Kids get noisy when they play, and annoyed parents tell them to stop yelling. People call the police when a neighbor’s noisy party keeps them awake.

Noise can even be physically harmful. It can cause hearing loss; that’s why earplugs are required on firing ranges, and why exposure to workplace noise is regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Noise can have other health effects like hypertension, ischemic heart disease, and tinnitus. It contributes to accidents and stimulates aggression. There is even some limited evidence suggesting that it may cause birth defects or changes in the immune system.

The use of music for healing dates back to Pythagoras, although his ideas about “the music of the spheres” remain questionable. Soothing music lowers blood pressure and relaxes people. Endorphins are released when people experience euphoria listening to music. People who listen to music during medical procedures have lower levels of stress-related hormones. Half an hour of music equals 10 mg of Valium. Oliver Sacks demonstrated that patients with Parkinson’s respond to music with improved mobility. Singing can help stroke patients recover the ability to talk. There is even an American Music Therapy Association for professionals who are trained to use music in a therapeutic relationship to address emotional, cognitive, rehabilitative, and social needs of patients.

There is evidence that music can benefit human health, but there is no evidence for the claims of a recent development called “sound therapy.” One of its proponents is Dr. Mitchell Gaynor, a doctor who wrote the book Sounds of Healing. He is an “integrative” oncologist who treats his cancer patients with science-based chemotherapy along with non-science-based modalities like Tibetan singing bowls, herbs and algae, acupuncture, and energy medicine. He considers these necessities rather than options (most of his fellow oncologists would disagree!). He “knows” his methods work. No studies have been done, but he thinks patients lived longer after visiting energy healers and experiencing significant psychological and spiritual breakthroughs.

Gaynor had an epiphany when a Tibetan monk introduced him to the singing bowls (a type of standing bell or gong whose vibrations are induced by running a stick around the rim). As he listened, he found himself exhilarated, shedding tears of joy as the vibrations resonated through his body and made him feel in harmony with the universe. He immediately intuited that playing the bowls would change his life and the lives of his patients.

He progressed from bowls to mantras to chanting vowel sounds believed by the Sufis to correspond to the chakras of different body parts. He teaches toning—sustained vocalization of a pitch to make specific body areas resonate. He prescribes elaborate exercises and meditations, and directs patients to listen to specific musical pieces.

Gaynor believes that sound and music have unique healing effects. He claims that our body resonates on a cellular level in tune with the singing bowls or with the sound of our voice, especially with vowel tones, causing alterations in the vibrations of every cell and molecule in the body. This produces physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. How exactly could it accomplish that? Well, you see, “everything vibrates” and “we ourselves are rhythm.” I don’t think that’s much of an explanation; do you?

Gaynor thinks sound entrainment restores harmony to the body and links one with the cosmic symphony, bringing one into harmony with the universe. Healing consists of restoring the natural vibratory frequency of body parts. (I wonder, what is the frequency of the pancreas?) He encourages patients to seek their own personal “life song” that will allow them to explore their essence, discover their own innate healing abilities, allow them to lead authentic lives, and become one with the universe.

This is bad enough as a belief system, but Gaynor claims it is based on science. He tells us how Dr. Alfred Tomatis studied monks in a Benedictine monastery in France who were suffering with exhaustion due to a mysterious undiagnosable illness. Tomatis found that a new abbot had recently stopped their traditional singing of Gregorian chant for several hours a day. When the practice was resumed, they recovered (within 5 months). He attributed their recovery to the spiritual nourishment of singing.

That’s not all. Gaynor says the sounds NASA spacecraft recorded from the rings of Uranus’ smallest moon, Miranda, are virtually identical to the sound of Tibetan bowls. He thinks this must mean something. It does; it means he doesn’t understand physics.

Sound is defined as vibrations in a medium like air and water that can be heard by the ear. There is no sound in space, which is essentially a vacuum with no molecules to vibrate. The recorded “sounds” of the planets and moons are not really sounds. Vibrations produced by the interaction of the solar wind and the planet’s magnetosphere are transformed into electric signals, which are then amplified and fed to a speaker to produce sound. This is reminiscent of Pythagoras’ “music of the spheres.” Assuming that this spurious similarity somehow supports using singing bowls for health is nothing but magical thinking.

Gaynor goes on to postulate a mechanism for all these wondrous effects in brainwave entrainment—the phenomenon where light and sound stimuli timed to the electrical activity of the brain can alter brainwave patterns, thereby changing the mental state of a person. He gives examples: babies who fell asleep to the sound of lullabies began to breathe in rhythm with the music. People in a conversation start to mimic each other’s body movements. Heart rates respond to the volume and rhythm of music. These are all true, but they are not evidence for what he claims.

Steven Novella, an academic neurologist, explains that brainwave entrainment is real, but the alleged effects are not. Our brains have natural rhythms where the firing of neurons is synchronized across the brain. Outside stimuli like photic driving (a strobe light of a certain frequency) will be matched by brain wave rhythms in the visual part of the brain, which can cause a seizure. Sound waves can also cause entrainment, but “the relationship is more complex as the frequency of the resultant brainwaves do not necessarily match any particular aspect of the auditory signal.”

Novella says

A number of companies and individuals have then extrapolated from the phenomenon of entrainment to claim that altering the brain waves changes the actual functioning of the brain. There is no theoretical or empirical basis for this, however. Entrainment is a temporary effect on the synchronization of neuronal firing—it does not improve or increase brain functioning, it does not change the hardwiring, nor does it cure any neurological disorder. There is no compelling evidence for any effect beyond the period of entrainment itself.1

Gaynor says, “the great religions have always used sound and music to intensify our communion with the di-vine power.” He cites shamanistic rituals, Kabbalah, Hindu Vedic mantras, the Zohar, Sufis, Mongolian overtone singing, and the questionable ideas of Fritjof Capra (The Tao of Physics), Candace Pert, Carl Jung, and Larry Dossey.

Gaynor thinks that this mind-body unity is the new paradigm. It isn’t. Science doesn’t assume mind and body are separate; it considers the mind to be a function of the brain. He believes consciousness is nonlocal, infinite in space and time, and ultimately One. The scientific evidence disagrees: it points to consciousness as an epiphenomenon of an individual’s brain cells that ceases when the brain cells die.

He claims the body is like a pendulum. It oscillates up and down (?) at a rate of 7 cps, therefore it reaches a state of rest 14 times a second (at each end of every swing, where it reverses direction). In that instant we are expanding at high speed through subjective time into objective space. He says we access other dimensions and realities, collecting information. (Whaaat?!)

Gaynor believes every point in the universe is interpenetrated by every other point, and that tapping into it allows intuition. The singing bowls have given him the ability to intuit what a patient most needs (by eliciting a childhood trauma and re-interpreting the present situation as incorporating it).

He advocates treating patients with empathy and as whole persons, trying to relieve their stress and pain. Sure, that’s what doctors have always tried to do. But doctors don’t need silliness about singing bowls or imaginative extrapolations from poorly understood principles of physics to accomplish that goal.

Gaynor says, “I am convinced that the use of healing with sound will soon become standard practice.” I sincerely hope he is wrong. I appreciate soothing background music to aid relaxation, but if my doctor brings out Tibetan singing bowls and offers to heal me by unifying my consciousness with the Universe, I will probably sprain an ankle in my haste to flee from his office.


This article was originally published as a SkepDoc column in Skeptic magazine.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.