When it comes to Sound Therapy, it is always important to remember that we are born with our own in-built sound device: our own healing voice!
Many of the effects we can achieve with Sound Healing instruments can be experienced through the voice. In fact, it is often more powerful and transformative to work on oneself with one’s own voice than with external instruments.
Sure, instruments can produce a wider variety of timbre and pitch and that can prove very useful in various contexts. But the way we respond to the human voice has deep roots in our whole neuro-physiological make up.
Our hearing is particularly sensitive to a specific range of frequencies that corresponds to the human voice. However, in this article, I would like to focus on the direct effect of the sound vibration on the body.
Touch at a distance
I like to think of sound as a form of “touch at a distance”.
From a purely physical point of view, sound produces waves of pressure that move through air (as well as through other media). These waves travel from the sound source to a receiving end. So whenever we make a sound, the receiver of that sound is being “touched” by those waves of pressure.
When using your voice to affect your own body, the relevant medium is no longer air, but rather living tissue, bones and fluids. Bones are excellent sound conductors (in fact we use them to amplify the voice) and so are fluids.
Considering the high percentage of water that makes up our bodies and the fact that sound travels faster and more effectively through fluids than through air, the “touch” quality of sound becomes even more evident as it is intimately directed to the inside of your own body.
Let’s have a look at some of the beneficial effects resulting from using the voice in a focused, intentional way.
When we are engaged in singing, chanting or toning, our exhalation inevitably becomes longer than the inhalation as we control the amount of breath we release in order to control our voice. This kind of breathing pattern (exhalation longer than the inhalation) tends to activate a parasympathetic response in the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). As a consequence, we feel more relaxed and we facilitate the functioning of that branch of the nervous system that is normally associated with nourishment and restoration.
Furthermore, singing reduces stress and promotes bonding by decreasing the level of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and increasing the level of oxytocin (1) and it promotes the release of endorphins, which causes a sense of elation as well as raising the pain threshold (2).
The voice is a direct expression of our intimate self, at an emotional as well as physiological level. The voice can change significantly depending on whether we are feeling happy, peaceful, sad, angry, etc.
In Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, this is explained by the fact that the muscles that control the larynx and the pharynx are part of a regulating circuit that links the heart, the lungs, the muscles of the middle ear and the muscles of the face. Physiological states are therefore detectable in the sound of the voice, especially in the presence or absence of prosody (vocal melody or “contour” in speech) (3)
The voice can also serve as a “sound massage” tool in two ways.
One way is to practice the ability to direct the physical vibration of the voice into different areas of the body. This is done by using different sounds, especially vowels, and combining them with variations in pitch and amplitude (volume). We change the shape of our mouth externally and internally in order to produce the sound of different vowels and this determines each vowel’s quality of resonance and internal projection.
The other way is to use the feedback pathway of the afferent fibers of the vagus nerve to influence the internal organs. In fact, 80% of fibers in the vagus nerve are afferent/sensory, most of them carrying signals from the organs to the brain. (4)
By affecting the Vagus Nerve with sound, it is possible to influence all the areas that it reaches.
(Check my article Sound Therapy and the Vagus Nerve).
A technology-free way to stimulate the vagus nerve
This pathway from the organs to the brain can potentially influence mental, emotional and physical health.
A pilot study of 2011 (5) shows how the practice of chanting OM, a typical component of meditation practices, causes limbic deactivation in a very similar way as artificial Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS). More specifically, significant deactivation was observed in the amygdala, parahippocampal and hippocampal brain regions. Interestingly, these regions become hyperactivated in patients with depressive disorder (6) for which VNS is used as therapy. This suggests that the ancient practice of OM (or AUM) chanting, or toning, may have been passed on as a tool for the neuro-physiological regulation component of meditation.
The same centers in the brain that can cause the limbic system to be highly activated and result in symptoms of anxiety and depression can also send calming signals to the same area and create a sense of peace and wellbeing.
Combined with other healthy practices such as meditation, exercise and positive mental habits, the use of the voice can promote additional support to the creation and consolidation of neural pathways geared toward mental and emotional balance.
In other words, the more we keep ourselves in a calm state, the more the brain learns to maintain that state. Some of the benefits of such practices can include improved problem solving, improved sleep, motivation and restored energy.
An ancient path
The power of the human voice has been used since times immemorial. Clear examples are the “medicine songs” of indigenous people all over the world. These songs are used to interact with the nature of things at the underlying order of reality. They can be used to communicate with the spirit of medicinal plants as well as with other spirits (e.g. the ones believed to be responsible for illnesses). Song is also the way human beings have passed on information generation after generation for thousands of years. Incantations and magic spells seem to always have a component of loud utterance as if the act of engaging the voice brings in a manifesting power. Prayers, hymns, and chants (enchantment!) are also an omnipresent element of any institutionalised religion.
The self-healing power of the voice has been brought to the attention of the wider public by the deep fascination that the western world has for eastern philosophies, especially those of Indian origin, which include such practices as the chanting of mantras, singing devotional songs in the vast community of people dedicated to yoga practices. Amongst these practices, toning (the practice of vocalising long, sustained sounds as in the well-known sacred syllable OM) can provide an invaluable resource to reach a meditative state as well as providing a positive influence at a physiological level.
In fact, a recent study (7) shows how toning can be more effective than mindfulness meditation in reducing mind wandering and intrusive thoughts, although no significant differences were found in other positive aspects of meditation such as relaxation and feeling peaceful. It also helps in increasing the awareness of body vibration and Heart Rate Variability (HRV).
The important message here is that the human voice is by no means meant to be used primarily as a speech tool to convey verbal information. This is the case in most people’s lives. Many people enjoy singing from time to time, but not so many do it consistently. However, if we look closely at those primal sounds that we make on a wide variety of occasions (sounds like aaahh, mmmm, hhhhh, etc. to express sensations in the body) we find that we all have subconscious wisdom around the therapeutic use of the voice. If we bring this wisdom to our awareness, we can start using the treasures of our voices consciously and intentionally.
Imagine if every day you would allow yourself to use the healing potential of your own voice, even for just 2 minutes. What possibilities could that create?
If you would like to learn more about the healing power of your own voice, check out my Healing Voice Online Masterclass.
Copyright 2017/20 - Simone Vitale
1 – Jason R. Keeler, Edward A. Roth, Brittany L. Neuser, John M. Spitsbergen, Daniel J. M. Waters and John-Mary Vianney – The neurochemistry and social flow of singing: bonding and oxytocin – (link)
2 – R.I.M. Dunbar, Kostas Kaskatis, Ian MacDonald, Vinnie Barra – Performance of Music Elevates Pain Threshold and Positive Affect: Implications for the Evolutionary Function of Music – (link)
3 – Stephen Porges – The Polyvagal Theory
4 – Stephen Porges – The Polyvagal Theory
5 – Bangalore G Kalyani, Ganesan Venkatasubramanian, Rashmi Arasappa, Naren P Rao, Sunil V Kalmady, Rishikesh V Behere, Hariprasad Rao, Mandapati K Vasudev, Bangalore N Gangadhar – Neurohemodynamic correlates of ‘OM’ chanting: A pilot functional magnetic resonance imaging study – (link)
6- Malhi G..S, Lagopoulos J., Ward P..B, Kumari V., Mitchell P..B, Parker G..B, Ivanovski B., Sachdev P. – Cognitive generation of affect in bipolar depression: an fMRI study – (link)
7 – Adapted from: Peper, E., Pollack, W., Harvey, R., Yoshino, A., Daubenmier, J. & Anziani, M. (2019). W – Toning quiets the mind and increases HRV more quickly than mindfulness practice – (link)