Remember the last concert you went to where the music seemed to wash over you? It might have been an orchestra, an opera, or even an electronic disco show — the genre doesn’t matter — the afterglow of music is pretty personal, depending on your musical taste, and it can be a power sensory experience. Now imagine that barrier of personal taste dissolving into meditative chimes, and you’ve just pictured a sound bath.
What is a sound bath?
Simply put, a sound bath merges meditation with sound, for an immersive auditory therapy that can be done at home or in a group setting.
You may hear it described as “music therapy” or “sound therapy,” but not all terms are the same. While the former uses different musical instruments, a sound bath (or sound therapy) uses vibrational instruments.
Tibetan and crystal singing bowls, chimes, gongs, bells, tuning forks, didgeridoos, Ting-shas (small cymbals), and even the human voice, emit at a slow, steady pace to produce tones of varying frequencies, which then trail off.
Often, singing bowls are placed directly on a person, who’s either lying on the floor or sitting on a yoga mat. When the bowl is struck with a mallet, the person can feel the instrument’s vibrations.
Sound bowl vibrations can put you in a relaxed state
“It works on two levels — working with the brain, and then also working with the body and relaxation. It's like a deep-tissue massage as well,” says Howard.
The tones serve a dual purpose: Lower tones promote relaxation, and higher tones encourage alertness.
“Those put the brain into a relaxed state very easily. And then it helps people to just block out all of that other stuff that we're normally used to hearing and dealing with daily,” explains Howard.
In 2016, Tamara Goldsby, Ph.D., a research psychologist at the University of California San Diego, alongside researchers Michael E. Goldsby, Mary McWalters, and Paul Mills, studied the effects of singing bowl meditation. They found that sound baths cut down on tension, anxiety, depression, and pain, and improve feelings of well-being.
Goldsby says the therapy triggers a relaxation response away from the parasympathetic nervous system (known as the “fight-or-flight response”), to calm the mind and refocus attention away from your stressors. This can make the body more receptive to healing — through the journey of relaxation and relaxed sleep.
Sound baths may even help people achieve higher quality, deeper sleep
Goldsby and others have been focusing on Theta brainwaves, which occur during light sleep, meditation, and deep relaxation; and Delta brainwaves, which occur during the deepest stages of sleep and meditation.
These deep brainwave states can potentially occur when singing bowls and gongs are used, due to the strong vibrational effect of the instruments.
“We are pretty sure that it is common for participants in sound healings to experience Theta brainwaves (during sound baths), but we also hypothesize that they often dive even deeper (into Delta brainwaves). The deeper the brainwave state, the more likely that healing may occur, since it’s a profoundly relaxed state,” says Goldsby.
Not everyone will experience these relaxing brain waves during a sound bath, and it wouldn’t happen immediately. But there’s a better chance to experience them if the sound bath lasts longer.
Her team plans to study this aspect of sound baths using electroencephalography (EEG), a test that diagnoses sleep disorders.
Howard confirmed that people have fallen asleep, at least during group therapies.
“Even though there's all those other people around them — you're not just alone in a room — people are able to get into that relaxed or sleep. (Most) people will fall into some sort of a sleep state during that time,” he says.
Goldsby agrees a group dynamic could bring about more sleep benefits.
“If one subscribes to the idea of biofields (that individuals have energy fields around their bodies), then the combination of many people may affect results. It’s an intriguing idea,” Goldsby says.
A rising interest in sound baths during times of high stress
Even before the pandemic, sound baths had been gaining recognition as an easy, non-invasive therapy. The didgeridoo, which has been used to heal people with sound for at least 40,000 years, has been studied as a sleep aid for obstructive sleep apnea syndrome. People with tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, have benefitted through exposure to external sounds that “mask” the constant ringing they hear.
But as the pandemic raged and anxiety surged, virtual sound baths filled the void as an easily accessible method of stress relief.
The mass-meditation group the Big Quiet performed sound baths (with guided meditations) to as many as 15,000 people. On an even bigger scale, nearly 40,000 members in 165 groups around the world have sought virtual sound bath “meetups,” and the number is growing.
“COVID has presented a unique situation for sound healing and in our daily lives. People have had to adapt,” Goldsby says.
But what really makes sound baths so accessible is that anyone can try one. Goldsby’s research found that those new to the experience saw “an even stronger reduction in tension” than those already familiar with it.
“One of the very positive aspects of sound healing is that there is essentially no learning curve,” says Goldsby.
The reality of sound baths as a sleep aid
One study found that listening to singing bowls lessened anxiety, depression, and fatigue, and improved heart rate and blood pressure, but concluded that more research is needed. However, there is little risk to trying sound baths. In a highly technological world, sound baths can be an oasis amid the constant stimuli.
“Sound bath has incredible possibility for healing. I believe we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg regarding its potential,” Goldsby says. Finding calm through sounds is a highly personal experience and the type of sounds people enjoy can vary, from culture to community.
If you’re trying sound baths via YouTube or guided meditation, Goldsby suggests a few things: Get into a quiet, dark environment, wear loose-fitting clothing, and use earphones or noise-canceling headphones. And silence that phone to cut out more unwanted disturbances.
“It’s always a good idea to take a few long deep breaths to assist in the relaxation process. Also, some people may want to light a relaxing incense such as lavender for relaxation,” Goldsby says.
For the best experience possible, she recommends people visit an experienced sound healer. “Try various sound healings before deciding if it’s right for you,” Goldsby says.
However, sound baths shouldn’t be the end-all-be-all tool for sleep. Sounds and vibrations are a great complement to your overall sleep hygiene and can make a relaxation routine more enjoyable, but they can’t replace good sleep habits like going to bed at the same time and putting digital devices away an hour before bed.