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From Neanderthal to Neuroscience: Healing with Sound and Voice Lisabeth Fauble

From Neanderthal to Neuroscience: Healing With Sound and Voice

Lisabeth Fauble

M.A. Musicology, Prescott College, Prescott, United States

73 North Kihei Road, Suite 402

Kihei, HI (6753


Sound and music have been an important part of the human experience as far back as our historical records reach, and cultures all around the world have used aural modalities to heal and communicate for many thousands of years. Current medical evidence and scientific measurements suggest that music and sound are some of the most effective instruments that can be used to facilitate patient recovery from surgery, trauma, and disease. This article discusses how ancient beliefs and practices concerning music and sound converge with modern knowledge and technology to influence the development of new theories in science and medicine. Recent research is examined, showing how music and sound can enhance transformative therapies to help relieve mental, emotional, and physical suffering. This burgeoning evidence, along with the proven efficacy of integral healing modalities, can be used to help health professionals, therapists, and individuals craft more effective, sound-based, personalized therapies and treatment plans that encourage both individual and collective health and well-being.

Keywords: Music; Voice; Sound; Healing; Medicine; Therapy; Holistic; Alternative; Naturopathic; Homeopathic; Integral; Neuroscience; Somatic; Psychology

Evolutionary Music: the foundation of humanity

In the Singing Neanderthals, anthropologist and professor of archaeology Steven Mithen (2007) proposes that our Neanderthal ancestors communicated primarily through musical gestures and vocalizations comprised of alternations in pitch and time. The chimpanzee, who is Homo sapiens closest cousin, uses the type of musical communication Mithen speaks about as a primary communication tool. The musical-sounding pant-hoot is the chimpanzee’s most common vocalization. It incorporates specific variations in pitch and time to communicate various ideas, needs and wants (as qtd. by Levitin, 2008). Musician and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin agrees with Mithen, asserting that it is unlikely modern humans somehow forgot the musical nature of Neanderthal and chimpanzee communication, “discovered spoken language communication and then at some point later rediscovered music” (Levitin 2008).

As humans, we can easily distinguish emotion and context in human conversation, even if the spoken language itself is foreign and unrecognizable. We often recognize when someone is angry, asking a question, giving a command, issuing a warning, sharing joy, or expressing excitement without ever looking at the speaker. We can recognize emotion like this because the specific pitch variations and rhythms inherent in expressionist speech patterns are found in cultures throughout the world. These pitch patterns, cadences and rhythms seem to be encoded in human DNA – a primordial, holistic form of communication that was born with humanity’s inception.

Tom Fritz, a researcher with the Max Planck Institute, conducted a research study in a remote mountain range of Cameroon, Africa in order to discover how humans react emotionally to music in the absence of cultural connotation (Music Instinct 2013). Fritz played Western classical music for members of the Mafa tribe in order to gauge their emotional response. The Mafa are an indigenous people who have their own unique music, played on handmade flutes and percussion instruments. Although music is a part of each tribe member's daily routine, none of them had ever been exposed to any type of Western music or instrumentation, including piano, violin or classic I-IV-V Western progressions.

Fritz showed tribe members three different photos of the same woman, each depicting a common human emotion – happy, sad, and frightened. He then played three separate classical compositions that are considered evocative of same emotions in Western culture. When he played each piece of music to the tribe members the majority of them chose the photo reflective of the common connotation in Western thought. The results of this study urged Fritz to conclude, “The emotional expression of the music is inherent in the music itself...” (2013).

The sound of creation

Many major religions attribute the very creation of the physical universe to sound. Christianity's Holy Bible states that, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God,” (King James Bible, John 1:1). The Hindu Creation story begins, “From the depths a humming sound began to tremble, ‘Ohm.’ It grew and spread, filling the emptiness and throbbing with energy,” (Oral Tradition). Ohm is considered to resonate at a vibration that is consistent with creation of matter in Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Islam tradition asserts, “To Him is due the primal origin of the heavens and the earth; when He decreeth a matter He saith to it: “Be,” and it is,” (Yusuf Ali Quran 2:117). Johanne Kepler said in his Harmonices Mundi (103): Certainly, just as it is ordained in all human affairs that in those things which are bestowed upon us by nature, use precedes understanding of causes, similarly as far as melody is concerned it happened to the human race that from its very beginning it used without speculating or knowing about their causes the same intervals between rhythms and notes as we use today, in the chanting of melodies, not only in churches and in choirs of musicians, but everywhere without applying any art, even at crossroads and in the fields.

Ancient and modern scientific, philosophical, religious, and spiritual theories attribute the structure and existence of the universe to sound, specifically to musical ratios built on mathematical equations that have been recently validated by the evidence of vibrational frequencies revealed by quantum physics. The very title of Edwin Hubble's “Big Bang” theory denotes an initial sound while using mathematical and scientific underpinnings, including Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, to explain the creation of the universe as a single, explosive event (Netting 2013).

MIT physicist Max Tegmark proposes a Mathematical Universe Hypothesis stating, “that there’s a single mathematical structure that is our reality...In fact, there’s no evidence right now that there’s anything at all in our universe that is not mathematical.” (“Do We Live,” 2013) Music has long been considered a universal, mathematical language. 6th century B.C. mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras is credited with the discovery of the musical ratios and intervals commonly used in Western music today. Pythagoras' concepts were expanded upon through the work of successive scientists and philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato and Johannes Kepler. Kepler based his great work “Harmonices Mundi” on the Music of the Spheres, while Aristotle stated, "[the Pythagoreans] saw that the ... ratios of musical scales were expressible in numbers [and that] all things seemed to be modeled on numbers, and numbers seemed to be the first things in the whole of nature, they supposed the elements of number to be the elements of all things, and the whole heaven to be a musical scale and a number," (as quoted in Calter 2008).

19th Century scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla stated, “If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration,” and sensed the universe to be “…composed of a symphony of alternating currents with the harmonies played on a vast range of octaves,” (as quoted in Cheney 2001).

If the very structure of the universe itself follows the musical ratios and intervals that we innately understand and use in everyday language, it is very likely that music was a major component of our evolution as a human species. Planets, moons and stars, black holes, yeast and heart cells, ocean waves, and everything that has mass in the universe vibrates enharmonically. The language of the universe is harmony, so the statistical or imaginative likelihood that human language came before tonal communication is slim.

Although not everyone is talented at singing or playing music, and few are virtuosic, nearly everyone does have the ability and inclination to emit simple, harmonic vocal patterns in the same (or very similar) intervals and patterns. Obviously, music is pleasurable, artistic, culturally expressive, and emotive, and the music we enjoy today must sound very different from the original vocal utterings of our ancient ancestors; however, there is a large volume of evidence that supports the idea that the human inclusion of predominant intervals and ratios in music has helped build humanity to the context it exists today on every level, from survival to comfort to modern technology.

Integral evolution and the AQAL model

Music inherently follows the AQAL model. AQAL is an acronym for All Quadrants All Levels. The AQAL model is a diagram for integral living. Integral living is that which incorporates all facets of life, essentially a theory of everything, all-inclusive, all-encompassing. The AQAL model contains four quadrants embodying the four aspects of human life: I - individual, WE - cultural, IT - physical, and ITS – social (Wilber, Patten, Leonard, 2001, 28). Music is naturally integral, affecting every part of our physical reality. Music affects our emotions, social interactions, behavior, brain function, physiology and motor response, spiritual practices, cultural development and societal structure.

Music is emotional in creation, participation and reception. The composers of most musical works draw upon a foundation of knowledge gained through experience and theory in order to create a dynamic and responsive result that is built around emotions the composer is experiencing at the time. The finished musical piece allows the composer to communicate those emotions on a fuller scale than mere language can achieve. Instinct relies on basic, primal emotion such as fear or contentment to guide a proper response to external situations. During the dawn of humankind, instant assessment of a situation was necessary to ensure physical survival. When a predator appeared, it was imperative to make an instantaneous choice whether to attack or run from it, hence the well-known “fight or flight” instinct. Herein we can see evidence of the “Music Instinct.”

Communication is a format for sharing emotion and information and was needed in order to alert others as to which action was appropriate in a particular circumstance. Our Neanderthal ancestors used variations in pitch, tone and rhythm to quickly and unmistakably communicate a decisive action; this can be witnessed upon the battlefield and in contact sports today: the commander urging troops to advance gives orders in guttural, commanding tones and pitches that communicate the aggressive and urgent nature of the command, regardless of culture or language; minor thirds and sixth intervals are often emphasized in this type of vocalization, as in “Ten-hut!” What we perceive as “scary” music stimulates an anxiety response in the amygdala, one of the most primitive areas of the brain and the center of the brain associated with the fear-based “fight or flight” response (Gorman, Kent, Sullivan, et. al). “Scary” music often uses minor intervals in thirds and sixths to create tension.

In a collaborative study conducted by the Department of Psychology at the University of Montreal, the Department of Neurology, Division of Cognitive Science at the University of Iowa and the Division of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of California, researchers assessed participants, including a 38-year-old woman, S.M., who has complete bilateral impairment of the amygdala, in order to determine the function of the amygdala in correct perception of anxiety-inducing music. The study revealed that S.M. “is impaired in both the recognition of both scary and sad music. Interestingly, she frequently mistakes scary music for peaceful music, a mistake that is never made by controls [subjects],” (Gosselin, Peretz, Johnsen, et. al. 2007, 5).

Mothers needed to soothe their young in order to avoid drawing the attention of predators, whether animal or human, and they provided comfort by way of soft, sing-song vocalizations which mothers around the world still use today; the basic structure of lullabies relies on these ancient series of distinct tones, pitches and rhythms (Mannes 2011, 49-50). Babies' cries are designed to alert the caregiver to survival needs and reciprocal emotional states. Researcher Kathleen Wermke of the University of Wurzburg has conducted studies which reveal that babies frequently cry in musical intervals of fourths, fifths and thirds (Mannes 2011, 45-46). Children needed to get the attention of their mothers when they required care; the instinctual vocalization is a series of pitches and rhythm that draws immediate attention such as the “mommy sound,” Ma-a-ah M-ee, a tonal series based on a minor third interval which is also found in the teasing tone of children around the world, e.g., nyeah nyeah n'nyeah nyeah, where the nyeah n'nyeah forms the minor third.

Social bonding was also very important in the early development of human society. Individuals had to come together in order to accomplish survival-based activities such as hunting, gathering food sources, finding shelter and water and securing physical safety. Beyond a purely physical congregation of individual bodies, social bonding requires some degree of affection between individuals in the group. Without affection, there is a lack of concern for the well-being of others which leads to instability within the social group as a whole. Music contains an inherent ability and tendency to unite individuals into a cohesive group through shared enjoyment of the music and resultant emotional stimulation; we can see evidence of this in group rallies such as protests or benefit concerts, in political campaigns where the aspiring official chooses a campaign song which represents the message and image they wish to present, in national anthems and in religious hymns.

Procreation was imperative in order to propagate the species and expand the physical population for the survival of humankind. The development of sexual attraction was necessary to ensure enough instances of procreation to adequately expand population in relation to the mortality rate. Sexual attraction is based on many things, but we know it to be largely influenced by emotion, chemical release in the brain, and feelings of pleasure or well-being. Music triggers emotional stimulation, encourages the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain such as dopamine, prolactin, and oxytocin - the “bonding” chemical (Mannes 2011, 35), and can cause feelings of pleasure and well-being- as anyone who listens to a favorite song can attest. Music is one of the most often used tools for inducing attraction during human courting, known for its ability to invoke a mood, inspire the heart and even seduce the mind. The right song at the right time can really help us loosen up.

Most animals have specific mating calls with which they attract members of the opposite gender for a sexual purpose based on procreation; our Neanderthal ancestors must have also had specific utterances with which they communicated the need or desire to copulate. This “mating call” effect and the sensual nature of music can easily be witnessed today in the vast amount of people willing and eager to participate in sexual activity with rock stars and musicians. In popular culture the more colorful, loud, and skilled at singing and playing music you are the more attractive you are to others. In the animal kingdom the brightly colored plumage, song, and dance of certain species of male birds are designed to gain attention and approval from potential female mates.

Teamwork was required from the origin of the human race in order to accomplish coordinated tasks. Imagine a Neanderthal man attempting to transport a woolly mammoth carcass back to the camp alone. Butchering it where it lay would have attracted other predators and put the hunter in a position as prey, and a single man would not have had the strength or stamina to carry or drag it on his own. Several men, as in a hunting party, would have been able to work collectively to bring the carcass to their camp and prepare the meat there, where they had some security from other predators. Communication was necessary to direct the transport of the animal in the most effective manner; the predominant chanting tones of humans at a collective task, from ancient rowing men to modern armies, reflects the way Neanderthal man must have directed their collaborative physical effort in order to give it rhythm and direction. The grunting rhythms of sailors as they rowed and hoisted sails, “Heave HO!” the call and response work songs of slaves working in the fields, the military songs of army men on march, the chanting of protestors in large social movements―all of these served perfectly to keep the collective group at the same rhythm, timing and collective effort

toward a common goal.

Neuroscientist Robert Zatorre has found that the frontal cortex has dense connections with auditory regions in the brain, an important connection which links sounds with motor actions, either hand or articulatory actions (Mannes 2011, 74). Not only does the prevalence of musical intervals in basic human communication point to an original human musical instinct, rhythm also plays a very important part in human functioning. Most of the world's music correlates to the human heartbeat at a tempo in an average range of 65 to 80 beats per minute with the heart rate rising in accordance with physical exertion to about 150 beats per minute. According to Mannes (2011, 48), “rhythm patterns in all societies-from primitive drumbeats to the symphonies of Mozart-tend to stay within the heartbeat range of 60 to 150 beats per minute.”

Sailor chants, slave songs, protest chants, marching songs, and the songs sung by prison chain gangs feature basic interval patterns, but more importantly keep a continuous, driving, simple rhythm that leads the collective to perform in accordance with each other. The military “Sound Off” cadence has a repetitive rhythm and pattern which uses mainly major third intervals. Chanting during meditation is another fine example of the importance of rhythm in human functioning. Meditative chanting regulates and deepens the breath- causing heart rate and blood pressure to slow, which leads to better oxygen intake and processing, which in turn reduces feelings of anxiety and stress response in the body and mind.

While most cultures today have generally moved beyond basic survival needs and evolutionary requirements, music remains an important form of cultural and artistic expression, but is music continuing to aid human evolution? A recent study has found that the auditory cortex of professional musicians contains 130 percent more grey matter and 102 percent more activity than that of non-musicians. Even “amateur musicians had 37 percent more activity in their brains on average than those who did not play an instrument,” (Mannes 2011, 73-74). Steven Mithen partnered with Larry Parsons, a neurobiologist at the Scripps Research Institute, to conduct an experiment on themselves for fun.

Mithen had never studied or played music, and he was a terrible singer, but Parson's convinced him to take singing lessons for one year. Parsons scanned Mithen's brain before and after the year of lessons and found increased activity in several brain areas. Although Mithen still doesn't sing very well, his brain had developed new neural connections and networks in order to process music. This finding encourages further study into the relationship between neuroplasticity and music (Mannes 2011, 76).

Science and medicine are continuing to conduct research and make advancements in the study and use of music for physical and mental patient treatment and recovery, creating mood-stability, inducing states of consciousness, increasing intelligence, generating energy, and many other fields. As we continue to discover our musical roots and the role of music in the future, we discover more about ourselves―what we were, who we are, and how we could be.

The use of sound in neuroscience and somatic psychology

Sound is a physical phenomenon, and the principals involved in the perception of sound can be explained in physical and biological terms. Together, neuroscience and somatic psychology are discovering and implementing modern integrative therapeutic models and methods by linking the body’s experience with the brain’s interpretation of interpersonal interactions, environment, traumas and medical events. Through modern technology, professional observation and clinical research medical professionals, scientists and psychologists are developing new theories about how the body and brain interact to send and receive signals and information. Burgeoning evidence and new modes of integrative thought can be used to help health professionals, therapists and individuals combine ancient knowledge with new technologies to create effective, personalized therapies and treatment plans that perpetuate both individual and collective health and well-being. Cognitive neuroscience explores how the neural circuits of the brain produce cognitive and psychological functions, giving us insight into the different workings of left and right brains.

The left brain houses the ego center and all the accompanying information about ourselves and our lives: name, birth date, address, preferences and peeves, language, career and other markers of identity. The left brain excels at processing patterns and makes relatively automatic, often subconscious predictions about our responses to stimuli based on pattern recognition, responses like how we will think, feel or act in the future based on past experience. The left brain utilizes critical thinking, judgement and analysis to inform us of the world around us and our own unique place in it. The right brain looks at the big picture and imagines in abstracts, evaluating subtle communication cues like body language, tone of voice and facial expression in order to determine the level of trust we should place in the safety of our current situation or if there looms the presence of dishonesty and danger. The right brain puts communication in a proper context by softening the very literal interpretations given by the left brain.

Both left and right hemispheres of the brain work together to form a complementary unit and present our conscious mind with accurate perceptions of the world surrounding us along with a set of proper responses from which we can choose. When one hemisphere of the brain is damaged, the individual’s proper reasoning capacities and response functions become impaired. Left brain damage often results in speech impairment or loss, whereas right brain injury can cause a lack of emotional or contextual speech interpretation. The brain possesses an amazing ability to recover from trauma by rerouting or reworking damaged neural pathways called neuroplasticity.

Music Prompts Neuroplasticity

With neuroplasticity the brain evolves through a process of adaptation by enhancing the functioning of frequently used synaptic pathways and discontinuing the use of rarely used pathways in order to better process information about our daily lives and realities more quickly and efficiently. Neuroplasticity means that the brain can change what information it processes or focuses on, thereby impacting our instinctual reactions to everyday situations (Cozolino 2006). Recovery from trauma can be expedited through the use of various therapeutic models and medical interventions, and scientific measurements along with documented patient results show that music and sound are some of the most effective instruments we can use to facilitate patient recovery.

In her book My Stroke of Insight (2008), neuroanatomist and stroke victim Jill Bolte Taylor writes, “Music is another great example of how our two hemispheres complement each other in function. When we methodically and meticulously drill our scales over and over again, when we learn to read the music of staff notation, and when we memorize on an instrument which fingering will create which named note, we are tapping primarily into the skills of our left brain. Our right brain kicks into high gear when we are doing things in the present moment–like performing, improvising or playing by ear” (34).

Dr. Taylor gives testimony to the power music has to aid in cognitive recovery because she experienced it firsthand, suffering a massive arteriovenous malformation (AVM) in her left brain during 1996. AVM can cause weakened blood vessels to burst, often in response to high blood pressure, resulting in hemorrhagic stroke. AVM is considered to be congenital, though not hereditary, occurs in less than one percent of the population and is more common in men than women, and three-quarters of all strokes occur in people aged 65 and over. The statistical likelihood that a 37-year-old, Harvard-trained, female neuroanatomist will experience an AVM stroke is extremely low (American Stroke Association). Taylor describes her perspective on her experience with recovery in her book, saying, “It took me eight years to completely recover all physical and mental functions. I believe I recovered completely because I had an advantage. As a trained neuroanatomist I believed in the plasticity of my brain – its ability to repair, replace and retrain its neural circuitry. In addition, thanks to my academics, I had a ‘roadmap’ to understanding how my brain cells needed to be treated in order for them to recover” (Bolte Taylor 2008, 35-36).

Both Dr. Taylor’s perspective as a brain scientist and her particular form of stroke are unique, but very similar symptoms and experiences are shared by approximately 15 million stroke victims worldwide each year, 85 percent resulting from ischemic stroke which occurs when a blood clot prevents blood flow to the brain (Stroke Statistics). The Internet Stroke Center, funded in part by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), claims, “Stroke is the leading cause of serious, long-term disability in the United States.” Long-term symptoms of both hemorrhagic and ischemic stroke result in physical disabilities, including loss of mobility, motor skills and speech.

Stroke usually results in cognitive impairments like inability to recognize colors, letters or numbers, perform simple mathematics or identify everyday objects. Stroke often induces emotional distress such as fear, anxiety, frustration, depression and shame in both victims and caregivers, which can reduce the effectiveness of therapy in rehabilitation. Therapists and caregivers use many physical, cognitive and emotional activities to promote rehabilitation, and stroke patients can often regain some or all of their previous functioning with consistent practice over several years. The Mayo Clinic’s findings show, “The severity of stroke complications and each person's ability to recover lost abilities varies widely. Researchers have found that the central nervous system is adaptive and can recover some functions. They also have found that it's necessary to keep practicing regained skills” (1998-2015).

In a fully functional human being, the brain and the central nervous system work together to send and receive information, and research shows that music helps improve, repair or replace neural connections and pathways and can speed recovery. Left brain damage resulting from stroke and other events can leave a victim with aphasia, an acquired language disorder characterized by the inability to speak accurately; however, some people with aphasia demonstrate an ability to form words and phrases succinctly when singing even though they cannot speak coherent words or phrases. Swedish physician Olaf Dalin first documented this phenomenon in 1736 after a young man with aphasia caused by brain damage began singing hymns during church services. According to Stroke Connection Magazine (2005, 26) “The acquired language disorder now called ‘aphasia’ became a subject of clinical study and a target for rehabilitation beginning in the mid-1880s. Since that time, every clinician working with aphasia has seen individuals who can produce words only when singing. Indeed, this observation prompted American neurologist Charles Mills to suggest (in 1904!) that it might help to play the piano and encourage patients with aphasia to sing well-known songs…Unfortunately, there aren’t appropriate songs for every communication need, so it would be better if singing could be used to unblock residual speech abilities. This was the motivation for the aphasia treatment approach known as ‘Melodic Intonation Therapy,’ which we began to develop in 1972.”

Many factors may contribute to the effectiveness of Melodic Intonation Therapy: Singing familiar tunes can be psychologically and emotionally uplifting; Music stimulates activity in both right and left hemispheres, and plasticity can encourage the right brain to perform tasks previously engaged by the left brain, like speech; Common musical intervals stemming from natural harmonics are embedded in the cognition of the fetus while in the womb and reinforced throughout the life span; and, as Daniel Levitin explains, (Levitin 2008) the propensity toward human communication through knowledge songs are one of the ways the “musical brain created human nature”.

One study concludes that Melodic Intonation Therapy for non-fluent aphasia patients may be made more effective with repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS); in the study, researchers applied intermittent theta burst stimulations to the anterior speech area in the left hemisphere followed by 40 minutes of MIT. “Post-treatment neural activity changes were observed for both participants in the left Broca's area and right Broca's homolog” (Al-Janabi, et al. 2014). The outcome of this study suggest that applying electromagnetic frequencies in the theta wave range to the left brain can successfully help patients recover and improve speech capabilities when combined with singing exercises like the ones commonly used in Melodic Intonation Therapy. Such findings give credibility to the efficacy of sound and musical structures as a healing modality.

Frederic Nietzsche wrote, “We listen to music with our muscles” (as quoted in Sacks 2008, xi). Muscle control is a particularly difficult and frustrating challenge for people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, a progressive disorder of the central nervous system also marked by deterioration of the cerebellum. Traditionally the cerebellum was affiliated solely with physical movement and motor control, but fMRI imaging in modern research indicates the cerebellum also controls timing and physical coordination, and clinical trials using fMRI imaging show that music sparks activity in the cerebellum. Because of the connection between music and the cerebellum and central nervous system that advanced imaging systems show, professionals have successfully treated patients with Parkinson’s disease using music therapy helping them to gain better control over motor skills and improve coordination while playing an instrument or walking while listening to music built on specific tempos and rhythms.

Dr. Oliver Sacks’ 1966 ground-breaking studies with Parkinson’s patients are documented in his books Musicophilia and Awakenings, which detail how music can help even the most severely impaired Parkinson’s patients improve mobility, cognition, motor skills and emotional stability. Dr. Sacks treated patients at Beth Israel Hospital who suffered from encephalitis, a rare and extreme form of Parkinson’s disease that renders patients immobile and unresponsive in a coma-like state. When Dr. Sacks played music that was personally pleasing for each of his patients, they were able to respond to the music and move with apparent ease and grace during short periods of musical exposure (Sacks 2008, 20-21). Music therapy can help Parkinson’s patients learn to initiate and coordinate movements. In addition to movement, music therapy can help patients with articulation if their speech becomes slurred and unclear. Music therapy also helps control [motor function in] Parkinson’s patients who exhibit too much movement (shaking). Slow, rhythmic movement can slow down overactive body rhythms and induce relaxation and sleep. Combining exercise with enjoyable and creative music experiences can often maintain overall health and well-being.

Music therapy exercises for Parkinson’s patients include breathing exercises, melodic phrasing and articulation, rhythmic vocalization, and movement to music. Music therapy interventions can result in improved communication skills, increased confidence during communication attempts, improved expression, better nerve and muscle control, more confidence to perform independently, and stronger gait and balance (“Music Therapy for Treatment of Parkinson's Disease” 2015).

Music of the womb

Music therapists at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York use percussive rhythms to lower heart rates in premature babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) by recreating the rhythmic heart sounds babies hear while in the womb. They also use an instrument called an ocean disc to mimic the ocean-like sounds of the womb environment and they sing to the infants using specific, consonant musical intervals, particularly Major and minor thirds. Beth Israel’s music therapy department collects data from several other NICUs to study music therapy’s effects on heart and respiratory rates, and the results of one completed study show that live-music therapy was more successful in putting babies to sleep than administering chloral hydrate, a sedative used to reduce anxiety and induce sleep. Beth Israel and many other hospitals also use music to regulate the heart and respiratory rates of adult cardiac patients (Mannes 2011, 171-172).

French physician Alfred Tomatis, MD, known to patients as Dr. Mozart, established the Mozart Effect and reinforced the role of sound and music in promoting mental and emotional healing and creativity (Campbell 2009). Tomatis made a breakthrough discovery when he recognized the ability of the human fetus to hear sounds from within the womb. Tomatis began his research in the early 1950’s and found that the ear is the first of the five external senses to develop. The fetus’ ability to hear begins as early as ten weeks and becomes fully functional by four and a half months in the womb. Tomatis discovered the types of sounds the fetus heard within the womb were mainly a combination of low-frequency sounds and the mother’s voice, creating an aural environment reminiscent of an African bush at twilight with sounds like “distant calls, echoes, stealthy rustlings, and the lapping of waves” that provide the unborn child with a sense of security, peace and harmony (19). Tomatis surmised that many emotional, social and mental disorders are a result of some kind of breakdown in the normal chain of sonic contact and began to recreate the sounds heard by the fetus in uterine, developing a technique called Sonic Rebirth. Through Sonic Rebirth patients can relive the safety and harmony of the uterine environment and experience a kind of rebirth.

Tomatis’s research indicates while the mother’s voice is the best stimuli, the music of Mozart is the best substitute for a mother’s voice, causing him to declare, “Mozart is a very good mother.” Tomatis’s Sonic Rebirth treatment has been successful in improving the capability for more effective social interactions and interpersonal communications in autistic children and other children who have difficulty with speech development, listening and response. Premature infants also benefit greatly from Sonic Rebirth (Campbell 2009, 20-22).

Sonic Rebirth puts the listener in alpha and theta states of consciousness and effectively changes perceptions in the patient’s beta consciousness, allowing the inner child to release anxieties, fears and other ingrained debilitating emotions and mental patterns. A child’s brain is generally more impressionable than an adult’s, but music affects adults more intensely on another level. Arthur Schopenhauer wrote, “The inexpressible depth of music, so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain…Music expresses only the quintessence of life and of its events, never these themselves” (as qtd. in Sacks 2007, xi).

Frequency and arousal. Music and sound healing can calm the vicious cycle perpetuated by locked-in fear and trauma and stimulate many areas of the brain at the same time to induce an integrative, holistic and healing journey away from fear into a natural conclusion of trauma response and personal well-being. Through personal well-being people maintain closer relationships, improve social skills, and advance cognitive abilities, resulting in more cohesive and higher functioning societies which help build a better world.

Joy Garner-Gordon illustrates how emotions and thoughts manifest through an incident she details in her book The Healing Voice (1993). “Alana and her twelve-year-old daughter, Lizzy, were driving home on a Friday night. Coming around the bend on the freeway, they saw a car about half a block ahead of them making a dangerous U-turn in the middle of the road. The car was unable to complete the turn and Alana crashed into it” (as qtd. in Gaynor, 95-96).

Both cars were totaled, but no one sustained life-threatening injuries. While Lizzy burst into tears and bolted into a field nearby to vent her shock through hysterical shrieks, Alana remained composed to try to comfort her daughter and explain what had happened to police. When they returned home an hour later, Lizzy was recovered from her shock and hysteria and felt fine, just a little shaken. Alana, however, felt severe pain in her left shoulder that lasted for months after the incident, until she consulted Joy, a musician and holistic healer who used gentle hypnosis to help Alana return to the scene of the accident in her mind. Joy encouraged Alana to express the fear and terror (that her daughter had been killed) she felt at the time of the accident through sound. Through screaming, Alana was finally able to express and release her emotional pain…Her body had become frozen in a posture of tension since the powerful messages she had sent to her muscles and tissues was to be in a state of ready alertness. The scream was a message to her subconscious mind that the impact had, in fact, occurred, and now it was time for release (Gardner-Gordon, 100-101).

Alana’s pain lessened over the next couple weeks, and it’s likely her pain would have diminished sooner if she had allowed herself to release her fear and terror soon after the accident, like Lizzy did. Many people become caught up in the vise of trauma after experiencing shocking or emotionally painful experiences. Modern society teaches us to be stoic, to keep our pain to ourselves, to “suck it up” and cope in an outwardly competent manner. This type of coping mechanism may make it easier for those around us to feel comfortable and unattached to our trauma, but it can be highly detrimental to our personal well-being, and pent-up emotional pain can last for weeks, months, years, even lifetimes and manifest in a myriad of internal and external ways.

Music and sound healing can help us release emotional traumas and end the downward spiral of PTSD. Nearly everyone today has been exposed to the potential for PTSD- as a victim of or witness to loss, violence, emotional violation, mental attacks, helplessness or collective sorrow. Mass shootings, terrorist attacks, genocide, war, starvation, impoverishment, disease, natural disasters, imprisonment and a slew of other traumatic events have led us, individually and as a global community, into a culture of simultaneous detachment and empathetic devastation that we are encouraged to both ignore and remedy; what a conflict that imposes upon our integral being. Music and sound are universal remedies that are intrinsically built into our cosmology.

Body, brain, and mind connection

In 1995, Dr. Stephen Porges introduced Polyvagal Theory (Psychophysiology), a new perspective on the autonomic nervous system’s functions in relation to behavior based on psychophysiology that explores the role of the vagal nerve in relation to energy conservation and survival-based behaviors. The vagal nerve is the longest of twelve cranial nerves and it extends from the brain stem to the abdomen via major organs in between, including the heart and lungs.

According to Polyvagal Theory, the vagal system consists of two vagal motor systems originating from two source nuclei in the brainstem: the myelinated vagal nerve works on the highest level of functioning and regulates social engagement as an attempt to provide and/or recognize safety; the nonmyelinated vagal nerve operates the lowest level of functioning and instigates the freeze response to a perception of life-threatening danger.

The presence of a dual, complementary vagal system is consistent with the two cooperative hemispheres of the brain. The vagal nerves interact with the sympathetic nervous system to send and receive messages from the internal organs and the brain. The sympathetic nervous system regulates the fight or flight response – the most common reaction instigated in people with personality disorders such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and PTSD.

While constructing Polyvagal Theory, Porges discovered that a malfunction in the middle ear is related to a continuous state of high alert to perceived threats, a prominent symptom of disorders like autism and borderline personality disorder (2007); with these disorders, people hear and process low frequencies much easier than the typically higher frequencies of the human voice. Some people may be more sensitive to low frequencies due to the frequency of their personal energetic field and may become distracted by low frequencies produced by the vast array of various technological, mechanical and energetic devices and machines constantly in use.

Airplanes, power lines, the rumble of a train on the tracks, nuclear power facilities, etc. can emit low frequency vibrations that many of us ignore or tune out because of their commonality in our environment.

It is possible that the middle-ear may develop a malfunction in response to the omnipresence of low frequencies, and the brain compensates by focusing more on the low frequency in an attempt to integrate it in a comfortable manner. As a result, higher frequencies such as the human voice could be given less precedence, causing the brain to gravitate toward a high state of alert by the focus on low frequencies and a lack of proper assimilation of the high frequencies naturally present in human vocal interactions. Middle-ear malfunction may be improved through frequency entrainment. By using sound frequencies to retrain the brain to focus on naturally occurring frequencies in order to lower the high-alert state created by the brain’s inability to determine actual threats in the environment, fear-based reactions may be reduced over time.

The body, brain, and mind interconnect and cooperate in an inner process that is combination of instinctual, evolutionary, and conditioned responses to outer stimuli. By soothing hyper arousal in the unconscious, involuntary systems of reaction, over time we can reprogram our responses to ordinary interactions and life events and help to complete future time-based cycles of trauma response in a healthy manner. Disorders and injuries to the brain, nervous system and conditioned thought patterns can be reorganized to instill more effective responses and overall well-being in individuals that in turn create a better, more appropriately responsive collective culture of awareness, connectivity and perspective.

Whether mental disorders are genetic, trauma-induced or influenced by synthetic means, music and sound can open neural receptors, help create new neural pathways and open the mind to healing.

Pop artist Lady Gaga uses music to deal with lifelong depression and anxiety. She established the Born This Way Foundation as a way to reach teens and young adults who suffer from the resultant dysfunctions of mental and emotional traumas. Self-acceptance is a big part of good mental health, and those who suffer from mental disorders often feel that they are alone, which leads to a deepening of the mental downward spiral that trauma can lead to if left unchecked. Lady Gaga talks about recording her experience with sexual assault in a recent song, “Til It Happens to You” during an interview for Billboard magazine, saying, “It was extremely cathartic to know that not only am I not alone, but that other men and women aren’t alone – we all have each other. Even outside of rape culture, there are a lot of people silently in pain about extremely traumatic things. The hardest part for me was the self-acceptance. And nobody knows how you feel. I didn’t tell anyone [about my sexual assault] for years – and I didn’t tell anyone for years because I didn’t tell myself for years. And my soul just burnt out until it was gone. And then you have to admit you were in pain, and that you died in a way, but you are in control to bring it back, and there are people in the world who’ll help you” (Dodero 2015).

Any type of trauma can lead to this kind of soul-shattering, painful denial, especially in a culture where we are conditioned to keep our pain inside, don’t rock the boat, smile and act happy. Holding these traumas inside leads to and deepens mental illness and results in dreadful tragedies like theater shootings, school killings, suicide, or a slow, silent wasting away of a sense of self, joy, and belonging that leaves life without color and potential wasted. Those with mental illness often shut the world out because they don’t want to risk any more pain at the hands of others. When they do interact with others, they can be very much on the defensive and any innocently meant comment or even compliment can spark a defensive or aggressive reaction as the fear response flames up.

In my work with children afflicted by ADHD and autism, I have found that music can work wonders. Children that will not look another person in the eye will become engaged and joyful when given a drum. There are well-known cases of autistic musical virtuosos, children that perform music of a degree far higher than adult contemporaries. I have seen children with ADHD who cannot seem to sit still or engage in appropriate behaviors for even a few minutes change their behavior almost instantly when I pull out my guitar and begin playing and singing. Hyperactive kids sit down and pay close attention, undesirable behaviors are interrupted, and the child often asks to participate, either singing along or asking for an instrument.

Live music seems to soothe overactive minds better than recorded music, but the right type of recorded music or ambient sound can bring about beneficial changes as well. Perhaps it’s because the vibrations reach the body, rather than just entering through the ear, that the effect of live music seems so much more effusive. Knowing that the brain receives more information from the body than it sends to it lends credence to this theory, a somatic response to external stimuli, an internalizing of that music which is delivered via an external source.

Interpretation of music, voice, and sound is both personal and universal

Music and sound are malleable, pervasive, effective tools that can be used to strengthen the embodied mind and re-establish normal motor skills, speech capabilities, autonomic functions, and thought perceptions in impaired individuals. Techniques like Sonic Rebirth, Music Intonation Therapy, frequency entrainment, and other forms of music therapy and sound healing show great promise for the role of music and sound in future health care applications, treatments and remedies. Modern medicine and science are just beginning to discover the many ways music and sound frequencies penetrate the core being of the human, and as technologies advance we will find newer, more effective ways to measure and apply music and sound to improve quality of life for generations to come. As our measuring tools and methodologies grow more advanced, we can validate and improve upon the ancient methods used in sound healing throughout the ages.

Music is such a personal experience, yet it is a universal language, a joy for nearly every living person. As such, a musical experience or soundscape should be tailored to meet each individual’s needs for maximum effect when dealing with any type of severe physical, emotional or mental disease. I believe we can prevent things from becoming so severe by shifting our cultural paradigm and integrating healing modalities and concepts into our everyday music. A quote attributed to Plato states, “Give me the music of a nation; I will change a nation's mind.”

Socrates describes in Phaedo how the soul can make the memory of universal concepts re-emerge with a new understanding under the stimulus of sensible information, and as a mathematical language, music is nothing if not sensible information (Pelosi 2010). By incorporating the frequencies of our cosmos into the popular music that reaches the masses, we could begin to influence a change in the mindset of our global culture. How do we do this? I have a simple solution that may have far-reaching effects: Change the frequency of our music and change the frequency of our minds.


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