What is it?
Whether it's Mozart or Motown, music affects us all in different ways. But on a fundamental level, music is just organised sound. Sound therapy deconstructs music into pure sound, harnessing the knowledge that sound can have a powerful effect on our emotions.
Sound therapists believe that we are all made up of different energy frequencies. They use sound frequencies to interact with these, thus attempting to rebalance the body's energy.
Before each session, the practitioner will ask the client about their medical history and any current health problems. The practitioner will then adapt their treatment accordingly, using relaxing or stimulating sounds to try to rebalance the body - gongs, drums, bells, bowls, tuning forks and the human voice are all used. According to practitioner Lyz Cooper: "Clients are wrapped up in [these sounds] like a cocoon, and allowed to go on a journey."
Is there any evidence?
Practitioners have documented clinical case studies that demonstrate the positive effect of sound therapy, but it is a relatively new practice in the UK, so many of the claims are under-researched and unsubstantiated.
However, a recent study conducted by the British Academy of Sound Therapy (BAST) found that 95% of clients suffering from stress-related disorders felt an increased state of calm following treatment (though of course, this can hardly be called unbiased research!)
Another preliminary study conducted by BAST measured the effects of sound therapy on the autonomous nervous system (ANS). Clients were connected to a machine that monitored stress responses (much like a lie detector).
Each client demonstrated an overall decrease in arousal of the ANS compared to the control group, who were lying down relaxing. This study suggests that sound therapy has a deeply calming effect on stressed-out clients.
Where does it come from?
Sound has been used as a healing or calming tool for thousands of years. Himalayan singing bowls (standing bells that "sing") have been used throughout Asia for thousands of years in prayer and meditation, and are now used to promote relaxation and wellbeing.
Sound therapy was formally introduced to the UK in 2000 with the establishment of BAST.
Who can do it?
Sound therapy is a complementary medicine designed to work alongside orthodox medicine. BAST attempts to treat indivuals with fertility issues, chronic pain, cancer, stress-related illnesses, IBS, ME, tinnitus, mild depression, anxiety and arthritis. BAST founder Lyz Cooper believes: "Whether you come for a regular tune-up or relaxation session, or have a chronic long-term illness, sound could help you to enjoy a better quality of life."
What results can you expect?
Sound therapy is said to help not only physical illness, but also help balance the emotions and quieten a busy mind. Most people feel calm and relaxed following treatment. For some, this feeling will last several days. You may also be given exercises to practise between treatments.
Pregnant women are not advised to undertake sound therapy and anyone with serious mental health problems should consult their doctor before receiving treatment.
The British Academy of Sound Therapy and Soundworks.
How was it for you?
Patrick Keneally (sceptic)
I'm a bit of a sceptic when it comes to alternative therapies so it was with a little cynicism but an open mind that I agreed to go along to sound therapy. At least I like music and there were no potions involved.
I was sent to a small flat in north London where I met Anthar Kharana, a talented multi-instrumentalist and singer, who moved here from Colombia a few years ago. I was asked to lay down on a bed made up on the floor where I was covered up to my neck with a sheet. Around me candles, incense and a panoply of strange instruments were strewn.
Initially, I was taken though a meditation to clear my mind and relax the muscles before the sound began. Deep, elemental, notes came from Himalayan singing bowls. They sounded like a small UFO humming above my head. After a while, more sounds rose and fell away. They sounded, quite literally, like the seasons: winter rains, autumn winds and the hum of summer.
Anthar also used his voice, singing long, deep notes. It was good to concentrate solely on what I could hear for a change - on what Anthar calls "pure" sound.
After half an hour, the sound slowly faded and it was time to return to the noise of everyday life. Rising from the mat I felt like my head had been cleansed of noise. The therapy reminded me of a mixture between hypnotherapy - it moved me into a deeply relaxed state - and a quiet summer afternoon. If I wasn't such a sceptic I might say that it felt like my chakras had been realigned.