Music is healing, in the widest sense of the word.

This subject is very close to my heart.

It underpins the reasons why I teach ukulele and make music in the way I do.

In this post I’ll take a general look at some of the ways in which music is being used to heal. It’s an exciting, dynamic and diverse field.

Music can do things that can’t be treated with drugs or high-tech medicine or surgery.

It’s so much more powerful and beautiful than “this fixes that”.

All the matter in the world is actually vibration. From this perspective, music can be seen as a technology of working with vibrations.  

There are three main sections in this post: music therapy; sound healing in a general sense (although that’s actually a huge field); and music that’s used to shift mood and state of consciousness.

My work fits more into the third category.

I especially love the way music raises our spirits. This is not trivial.

I think music is hugely important to human wellbeing.

I don’t think it’s just entertainment, something we do when we have some spare time away from more important things.

Centuries ago music had a central place in the healing arts. It still does in traditional cultures worldwide. And this role for music is gradually returning to Western culture.

I’ve had personal experience of many of these different sound healing modalities, and trained in some of them.

I also have a postgraduate qualification in expressive therapies, which is about using the arts to heal.

Everyone who works in sound healing (including music therapists) brings their individual skills and interests to their practice. There isn’t one standardised thing that’s sound healing.  It’s very diverse, multidimensional.

Music therapy

Music therapists are at the “respectable” end of the music healing spectrum.

Music therapists are certified and registered by a professional music therapy organisation.  A practitioner can’t call what they do music therapy unless they have both qualifications and registration.

Most music therapy training is postgraduate and typically requires an undergraduate degree majoring in music, and a high level of skill on specific instruments, in particular the piano.

Music therapists use music both in general ways to promote wellbeing, and also in specific clinical applications. They work in a clinical framework and need to constantly align and justify their practice with the standards of hospitals, health authorities and health funders.

Music therapists emphasise that their work is evidence-based practice, backed by research. e.g. Australian-based music therapist Allison Davies is trained in Neurologic Music Therapy, which is a music therapy specialty with specific practices supported by evidence.

However, music therapy is still seen as an “emerging” profession, e.g. in New Zealand, music therapy isn’t considered a normal, essential part of health board funding. Some music therapists are self-employed; others work for organisations.

Despite the profession’s high levels of training and emphasis on research and evidence-based practice, much of the work that many music therapists do overlaps with other kinds of sound healing. (I’m probably going to annoy some music therapists for saying this.)

Healing or curing?

Healing and curing are very different things.

Lissa Rankin MD writes in Psychology Today : “In medical school…  most of our training focused on curing.  … But healing and curing are inherently different. Curing means ‘eliminating all evidence of disease’, while healing means ‘becoming whole’.”

Our mainstream western medical system focuses on curing and fixing. Dr Thomas Agnew says that medicine has no operational definition of healing – although other disciplines, including nursing, have focused on healing.

Dr Agnew says: “Healing has been defined as “the process of bringing together aspects of one’s self, body-mind-spirit, at deeper levels of inner knowing, leading toward integration and balance with each aspect having equal importance and value.”  (Annals of Family Medicine, May 2005.)

Most of the therapeutic uses of music belong in the healing category. However, there are some specific examples where music can be used in curing or fixing.

Music is well accepted as an effective way to help people with conditions that don’t respond well to other therapies or drugs.

These include dementia/ Alzheimer’s, autism spectrum, mental health issues and addiction.

There’s a growing spectrum of music healers who specialise in palliative care – working with people with terminal illnesses.

Music and dementia

I’ve had substantial experience working with people with dementia, both with my mother and with others in my community. Here’s a link to my post about this, Songs to Remember.

I’ve heard claims that music can delay the onset of dementia, but I haven’t seen research to prove this. Some of the research results that are frequently quoted in the media turned out to be small scale, provisional projects when I looked into them.

Music and healing beyond music therapy

Most of the people working in music and healing are (like me) working outside clinical music therapy. This includes a colourful array of sound healers, voice workers and many other specialties and modalities.

The following section is just a glimpse of the huge and burgeoning field of sound healing.

Sound healing

Sound healing is a branch of holistic healing. A sound healer uses vocal tones and/ or instruments for healing.

Sound healing has a strong connection to spirituality in general and often with specific spiritual traditions.

Sound healers may work one on one with individual clients, or offer group sound healing sessions, e.g. gong baths or singing bowl events.

Jonathan Goldman, one of the modern pioneers of the field, says, “Most people who are into sound healing are doing it because they’re musicians or they’re healers—they’re musicians who want to incorporate healing into the process, or healers who want to incorporate music into their process.”

Jonathan Goldman was playing guitar in a rock band in 1980, when he suddenly realised that the music he was playing was making people angry and upset.   “…no doubt the alcohol and the different intoxicants that people were taking were adding to it, but the music was really driving the negativity. People were angry, throwing beer bottles, getting into fights, screaming at each other. When I realized that, I thought, “I wonder if music can be used to make people feel better?” … it hit me so suddenly, after 16 years on stage.”

Many sound healers have undergone years of training. However, I also know professional sound healers who have no formal training.

As well as the voice, sound healers may use drums, tuning forks, singing bowls and other instruments.

Another quite different kind of sound healing was developed by French ear-nose-throat doctor Alfred Tomatis. His alternative medicine theories of hearing and listening are known as the Tomatis method or Audio-Psycho-Phonology.

Dr Tomatis’s method uses a device called the electronic ear to stimulate the ear and various neural pathways to open the brain. 

Voice work

Voice work is an important field in sound healing. This can be individual or group work.

Australian singer and voice worker Dominique Oyston brings both classical training and performance experience, and many years of sound healing training to her practice. Her work includes training sound healers.

I’ve been learning from Dominique for a couple of years.

Working with voice can also be used alongside psychotherapy. One example is Voice Movement Therapy, a modality developed by English therapist Paul Newham, which focuses on self-expressing and healing through voice work.

Other vocal healing practices include toning and chanting. These are also part of many spiritual traditions. The Taoist technique of six healing sounds is a breathing and sounding technique dating from the fifth century AD.

Jill Purce is a well-known British voice teacher and sound healer who teaches group overtone chanting.

Rhythm therapy

Drums are another key aspect of sound healing. Many traditional cultures use drums for healing, especially in shamanic healing. 

Drums are also used by many music therapists and rhythm therapists. I spent time assisting a rhythm therapist working with a variety of clients including groups of blind teenagers.

Neurologic music therapist Allison Davies uses rhythm instruments to help children unwind.

Shifting consciousness

Many sound healing modalities are specifically about shifting states of consciousness. This connects up to shifting mood and emotions.

This is the aspect of sound healing that I’m most interested in.

Raising spirits – Happy highs

Making music is a fast and effective way to raise (or lower) your spirits.

This can be done in a general way, or it can be very specific.

I’ll write more about this in a future post.

Some of the general ways that music can shift mood include group singing, singing a lullaby to a baby, and dancing to favourite music.

Playing ukulele is the quickest and easiest way I’ve found to access joy and fun.

Even small doses of joy and fun enable us to cope with all aspects of life better.

 When we make music together we get in sync with the other musicians. This is called entrainment and it’s one of the great pleasures of group music making.

There’s a lot of research into how this works.  British music therapist David Aldridge says making music together is an active way of changing consciousness that is embodied.

Music can slow down and equalise brainwaves. It affects the heartbeat, pulse and blood pressure and can regulate stress-related hormones. And much more.

Other mood-shifting modalities

A couple of very different mood-shifting music healing modalities are the Bonny Method, and binaural beats.

The Bonny Method is also called Guided Imagery and Music. This is a drug-free psychotherapeutic modality, developed by American music therapist Helen Bonny. She was researching the psychotherapeutic uses of LSD in the 1960s and shifted to music research after LSD was banned. Helen Bonny found that music shifted consciousness in a much more gentle way than chemical substances.

Another sound modality that shifts state of mind is Binaural Beats. This is a relaxation system in which you listen to two tones, one in each ear, that are slightly different in frequency. The brain processes the beat at the difference of the frequencies. This is called a binaural beat. It’s claimed to induce the same mental state associated with a meditation practice, but much more quickly. Psychologist Michael Breus recommends binaural beats to improve sleep patterns.

So where to start?

If you’re interested in any of these practices, you’ll get a much better sense of what they’re about if you try them for yourself.

The multi-dimensional experience of music doesn’t translate well into words.

Whether it’s the blissful experience of a sound bath with gongs or crystal bowls, or the one-on one experience of a sound healing, or the entrainment of being part of a drum circle. Or a singing group, or a ukulele class.

Find what makes you feel good, and find space for it in your life.

You won’t regret it!

Hi, I’m Alice

I’ve been in love with the ukulele since my mother, Sue, taught me three chords when I was six.

I teach ukulele to adult learners all over the world via Zoom and Skype. If you happen to live in Hamilton, New Zealand, I also teach group ukulele classes.

You can find out about my group classes by clicking here.

Click this link to book online ukulele lessons with me. $US160 for six half-hour lessons.

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Alice Bulmer ukulele teacher

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