Sound, Healing, and Social Work

Julia Ostrov

Abstract

The profession of social work has benefited greatly from interactions with other disciplines, including the creative arts. Practices in healing through sound have proliferated in recent decades in the West and share an affinity with social work principles. The purpose of this paper is to explore the core premises of sound healing as they illuminate salient concepts in social work theory and practice. Opportunities for intervention will be considered from micro and macro standpoints with a focus on the use of the human voice within the individual therapeutic context.

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Introduction

Sound 每 a form of energy 每 has been used for healing purposes in cultures and spiritual traditions across the globe since ancient times. Manifestations of sound for healing vary in form and content: from the use of the human voice in toning, chanting, and singing to the use of musical tools such as singing bowls, drums, and tuning forks. In the past several decades, there has been a surge of interest among Western audiences and practitioners in the modality that has become known as ※sound healing.§ In the United States of America (USA), a flurry of books and articles have extolled the benefits of sound healing and professionals representing disciplines such as music and medicine have embraced its principles in treatment with clients (Beaulieu, 1987; Gass, 1999; Gaynor, 2002; Mason, 2006; Leeds, 2010). Social work also stands to benefit from interaction with this practice. Providing intervention opportunities from both a micro and a macro standpoint, sound healing shares an affinity with our profession’s mission to “enhance human well-being” (NASW Delegate Assembly, 2008). My inquiry here is to explore the basic premises of sound healing from a predominantly current (1980s through the present), Western perspective and to highlight the ways in which it connects with social work principles or may inform social work practice. Drawing from my own personal experiences with sound healing, an interview with a voice healing practitioner and therapist, and recent literature on sound healing, I will lend special focus to the use of voice as a healing tool.

Definitions of ※Sound§ and ※Healing§

In terms of physics, ※sound§ may be described as a ※vibratory disturbance in the pressure and density of a medium (solid, liquid, or gas)§ (Gass, 1999, p. 26). When a disturbance is set in motion (e.g., a pencil tapped on a table), the molecules within the medium(s) (e.g., pencil, table, and surrounding air) begin to vibrate, knock against each other, and pass energy along, one molecule to the next, in the form of what is called a sound wave (Lerner & Lerner, 2004). When a sound wave enters the ear of an able hearing person, the vibrating air molecules are first converted into mechanical energy in the eardrum and later converted in the cochlea into electrical energy that is then channeled to the brain, where the sensation of hearing is processed (Gass, 1999). Vibrating molecules of sound in the eardrum also reach the vagus nerve, which helps to regulate major bodily organs including the heart, lungs, stomach, and kidneys (Leeds, 2010). Thus, in addition to having a direct line of communication with the brain, sound is ※heard§ in other major bodily organs.

Partnered with sound is the term ※healing.§ The first definition of ※heal§ in Webster’s New World Dictionary is ※to make sound, well, or healthy again§ (“Heal,” 1999). Healing may be thought of in opposition to the idea of ※curing,§ which is the total eradication of disease or discomfort (Gaynor, 2002). Unlike curing, which suggests finality as well as the subject being acted upon, healing is a process in which the subject herself plays an active role. Additionally, rather than operating solely on a biological level, healing is multidimensional and operates in the biological, psychological, and spiritual realms. Practitioners of sound healing are concerned with these emotional and spiritual components of wellness along with its physical manifestations, with the understanding that ※mind-body-spirit§ are connected and that the ※health of the soul§ is paramount (Gaynor, 2002, p. 156; Khan, 1996, p. 105).

While the concept of sound has not been a focus of exploration within the field of social work, the concept of healing shares an affinity with major principles of social work practice. Client agency is a basic tenet of the profession: As per the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics, this central value holds that social workers must work toward increasing a client’s self-determination (Hepworth, Rooney, Rooney, Strom-Gottfried, & Larson, 2010). From a social work perspective, processes of change must serve to help the client engage her own strengths and resources (Woods & Hollis, 1990). This idea of active participation and self-direction resonates with sound healing methods that encourage subjects to own their own sounds 每 whether they are vocalizations or produced with musical tools. Also in line with sound healing’s mind-body-spirit framework is social work’s emphasis on treating the whole person. Rather than isolating a presenting problem as the boundary of intervention, social workers are expected to assess a client’s full range of needs and strengths. This includes looking at a client’s biological, psychological, and spiritual health, as well as the health of a client’s social environment. This philosophy shares with sound healing the idea that connections exist between different aspects of a client’s being and that the process of healing involves engaging these multiple dimensions.

Sound Healing: Basic Premises in Relation to Principles of Social Work

In its variety of methods, sound healing relies on several basic premises that appear throughout current Western sound healing literature: resonance, entrainment, and homeostasis or harmony. Resonance, literally, “to re-sound; to echo,” is based upon the scientific phenomenon whereby every object vibrates at its own special frequency (vibrations per second) or range of frequencies (Leeds, 2010, p. 36-37; Lerner & Lerner, 2004). As the universe is full of vibrating objects, resonance may be thought of as sympathetic vibration, whereby “the vibrations of one object reach out and set off vibrations in another object” (Beaulieu, 1987, p. 89). A good example of this is how striking one tuning fork in a music store would set off vibrations in any of the other tuning forks in the store that were tuned to the same note as the first one (Gass, 1999).

In sound healing applications, the principle of resonance is understood as a way to impact the bio-psycho-spiritual energy of a client. As Crowe and Scovel (1996) explain in their overview of sound healing, there is a belief in the “energy systems in the human body#. The body consists of a large number of interlocking and interdependent vibrational systems of various frequencies and densities” (p. 23). The idea is that through the use of any number of sound tools that resonate at frequencies accessible to human perception (tuning forks, the client’s own voice, etc.), the physical energy systems within a client will resonate in response, which results in benefits in psychological and spiritual realms as well. Mitchell Gaynor, an oncologist who practices integrative medicine in New York City, describes the effects of playing a singing bowl for an anguished patient:

I placed the opaque white bowl on my desk and gently tapped its rim with the felt-tipped wooden mallet. The resulting
waves of pure vibration filled the space between us, resonating through both our bodies.# after about five minutes… [the
patient’s] entire manner and appearance had undergone a profound change. She was smiling now and no longer slumped defeatedly in her chair. (Gaynor, 2002, p. 24-25)

In this vignette, Gaynor illustrates how sound vibrations from the singing bowl occupy physical space in the room as they reach into both bodies and effect a sympathetic vibrational response. The patient experiences a noticeably positive emotional shift as she “re-sounds” with the physical energy from the singing bowl. It is this re-sounding that sound healing practitioners aspire to generate in their clients.

The concept of resonance as it is understood in sound healing has a strong correlation with two of social work’s orienting frameworks: systems theory and the ecosystem perspective. These frameworks propose that the human environment is comprised of various overlapping and interacting systems in which transactions are constantly taking place, and that each individual and system within the environment reciprocally impacts the others (Hepworth et al., 2010). It is this idea of reciprocal influence that is at play in the principle of resonance, which is focused principally on systems of energy. Whereas an ecosystem perspective considers relevant client systems (i.e., family, work, friendships), subsystems, and transactions within and between them, sound healing is concerned with vibrational transactions within and between a subject’s energy systems (i.e., biological, psychological, spiritual) and external energy systems such as those existing in a subject’s social environment or those produced by resonant sound tools. Both modalities uphold that a change initiated in one part of a system will cause changes in other parts of that system as well as in other systems; both are thus concerned with the whole of a person’s environment and how the ripple effects of change 每 whether negative or positive 每 may be affecting that person’s well-being.

In addition to resonance, the phenomenon of entrainment is a central concept within sound healing and also finds company with basic social work principles. Entrainment is “the process by which the powerful rhythmic vibrations of one object are projected upon a second object with a similar frequency, thereby causing that object to vibrate in resonance with the first object” (Gaynor, 2002, p. 64). A well-known example of entrainment is when two pendulums start to swing in coordination with each other, exhibiting “the tendency for two oscillating bodies to lock into phase so that they vibrate in harmony” (Neimark, 2004, p. 1). Entrainment relies on the principle of resonance, and in fact may be considered resonance with the added dimension of rhythm (Leeds, 2010). Heartbeat, pulse, and breath are all bodily rhythms that can be affected by entrainment. In sound healing practice, this means that by first matching the bodily rhythms of the listener and then “slowly changing the mood, tempo, or timbre,” it is possible to change the original rhythms of the listener; in order to do this, one must first meet the listener “at their own tempo” (Leeds, 2010, p. 167).

This idea of meeting the listener at their own tempo bears striking resemblance to the social work maxim of meeting the client where she is at (Hepworth, 2010). With the goal of helping the client to access her own resources in order to create positive change as defined by the client, the social worker strives to start where the client is at and to approach the work as a collaborative process. Joshua Leeds, sound researcher, cautions, “if you created a tempo too different from [the subject’s] existing rate, they would most likely not be able to relate sonically; they’d simply tune you out” (2010, p. 167). Being able to tune in 每 to be open enough to really understand a client’s situation, to put oneself in her shoes 每 is a skill that can prevent a client from becoming ※lost§ to the worker in this way. Attunement and empathy constitute the foundation for even the most basic communication. Social work practitioners thus share with sound healers this imperative of attending to the subject’s here-and-now experience in order to establish a relational pattern, an entrained rhythm, that enables mutual work towards positive change to take place.

A third premise in sound healing that finds companionship in social work theory is the concept of homeostasis. From a sound healing perspective, biological, psychological, and spiritual discomfort are often thought of as disharmonies within a subject’s vibrational systems. Gaynor (2002), the singing-bowl-playing physician mentioned earlier, writes about disease as a state of disharmony in which there has been a disruption in homeostasis or balance within the body. Sound healing vocalizations that make use of the breath, such as toning or chanting, may be used to restore vibrational harmony in the body, with corresponding benefits in the psychological and spiritual realms.

In social work systems theory, the concept of homeostasis is also used to conceptualize a client’s current state of well-being. Client systems, both internal (bio-psycho-spiritual) and external (social), tend toward balance and equilibrium, while at the same time being in a constant state of flux and change. The ability to cope with and adapt to change and still maintain an intact sense of balance is critical for a client’s overall system health (Brill, 2005). As both sound healing and social work conceive of the individual as comprised of various systems and as interacting with external systems, both are concerned with how client systems maintain their balance and how to help promote harmony or restore equilibrium when necessary.

Professionalization and Practice

While considering points of affinity between sound healing and social work, it is also worthwhile to discuss the practical definitions of sound healing: its current state of professionalization, practices, and its relationship to the closely related field of music therapy. With regards to sound healing as a profession, there are no licensing standards or uniform training curricula for practitioners (Rosenbloom, 2005). There are various educational programs in the USA that offer certification in sound healing, including the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, the Institute of Sound Healing and Shamanic Studies in Vermont, the Open Center in New York City, and the Kairos Institute of Sound Healing in New Mexico. These programs vary in content and format, and there is no clear way to distinguish one from the other in terms of educational quality. There are various professional associations in existence including the Sound Healing Network, which holds annual conferences, and the Sound Healing Association, which was founded in 1982 and has several hundred international practitioners registered in its membership directory.

Practices in sound healing reflect the lack of standardization within the burgeoning field. Of those who consider themselves to be sound healers, and of those who practice healing through sound but who might not relate to “sound healing” terminology, many engage the powers of resonance and entrainment through the rhythmic act of drumming, the use of tools or instruments that produce healing and balancing sounds (such as singing bowls, tuning forks, bells, and whistles), and the use of the human voice in various manifestations. Yet others champion the work of a 20th century French physician, Alfred Tomatis, who developed a listening practice that incorporates specific frequencies of sound and aims to restore hearing loss and charge certain parts of the brain (Crowe & Scovel, 1996). The umbrella of sound healing also includes the composition and use of music with specific attributes, such as rhythm and frequency, that aim to bring about particular effects such as pain relief, relaxation, and improved concentration (Crowe & Scovel, 1996).

There has been some attempt to distinguish sound healing from the much more well-known field of music therapy. From a professionalization standpoint, music therapy is leaps and bounds ahead of sound healing. Even though only three states currently require licensing for music therapists, over a dozen others are pursuing licensing, there is a national certification board, and there is a well-developed professional association with approximately 4000 members that promotes awareness about and access to music therapy (O’Donnell, 2011; “About the American Music Therapy Association,” n.d.). With regards to the difference in focus between sound healing and music therapy, one clarifying idea is that while music therapy aims to engage a client in the experience of interacting with music, sound healing aims to engage a client’s physical and vibrational energy systems directly (Crowe & Scovel). Irrespective of this distinction, sound and music are in a complementary relationship with each other, as are their two therapeutic disciplines. That sound healing is very much in a nascent stage perhaps lends its practices a sense of inter-disciplinary approachability, as is evidenced by this paper’s attempt to address points of affinity with social work.

Intervention: Possibilities from a Micro Perspective

Sound healing is directly applicable within micro social work practice in the context of individual psycho-therapeutic work with clients. Just as in Gaynor’s (2002) description of using crystal singing bowls in a session with a patient, a social worker could draw upon external sound tools, such as singing bowls or tuning forks, to supplement verbal therapeutic exchange. (Some formal learning about these tools is, of course, necessary for a practitioner who wants to use them in the course of therapy.) As experiences with sound healing are introduced, the principles of sound healing as they have already been discussed in this paper 每 resonance, entrainment, and homeostasis 每 could serve as touchstones or points of entry within a therapeutic dialogue about a client’s life. For instance, in what areas of life is the client experiencing harmony and balance? In what areas is she not? What have her patterns of homeostasis and disequilibrium looked like over time? How have recent events affected 每 resonated 每 the client system? What other systems are involved? How have her environmental and social surroundings impacted 每 entrained 每 the rhythms of her life? How would she like to change those rhythms? Bringing sound tools into therapy allows for an embodied experience of these abstract concepts, which can create layers of encounter and understanding.

Of particular interest to the social worker who wants to incorporate sound healing practices are the possibilities present within the human voice because unlike other sound tools, the voice is innate and most clients will have spent all of their lives interacting with it. The concept of voice within a therapeutic context has multiple dimensions. From the practitioner’s standpoint, it is integral to practice: In an interview with Naaz Hosseini, a certified Gestalt therapist and voice healer who performed for nine years as a member of the Meredith Monk Vocal Ensemble, she notes that as part of the “long, expansive spectrum of possibilities” when it comes to voice, “voice is always a part of every encounter” as it “vibrates everything that [it] touch[es]” (personal communication, December 4, 2011). Hosseini’s voice as the practitioner 每 how she uses it, what it conveys 每 is as relevant within the therapeutic exchange as the client’s voice. Voice can also serve as a means of assessment and provide a window into the emotional or psychological experience of a client. There is a long history within Western psychoanalytic practice of gauging psychological health and character attributes according to qualities and patterns of voice.[1]

The voice can also serve as a powerful medium for the therapeutic work itself. Practitioners can work with the voice by leading clients through exercises in toning (the practice of elongating a single tone 每 usually with a vowel sound such as ※ah§ or ※ee§), mantra repetition, or chanting. A writer from the United Kingdom, James D’Angelo, includes ※natural sounds§ as a category of healing practice; this category is comprised of exercises such as speaking in gibberish, yawning, laughing, sighing, and humming (2005). Hosseini has developed her own unique way of expressing sound therapeutically: She describes a “voice healing” as a “process of receiving healing through the sound of the voice#. As the voice healing practitioner, I make sounds, intuitively modulating the texture, pitch, and volume of my voice. As you receive the vibrations, you are free to be as passive or as interactive as feels right to you” (Hosseini, 2006).

All of these techniques, from toning to yawning to intuitive voice healing, are pre- or non-verbal and herein lies their potency. Sharing an affinity with other arts-based methodologies, sound healing in these various vocal forms can cut directly to a client’s emotional core. Hosseini explains:

So much is held in the non-verbal modality of voice and people don’t necessarily have access to it consciously or verbally.
So someone might come to me to work specifically with her voice, and within five minutes she’s in tears because she has
connected to a deep sorrow that she touches on a very primal level through the sound and physical sensation of her voice.
The sound is holding her self-image, or her self-esteem, or a deep shame, or hurt or joy in relation to an early caregiver or
experience, and it’s held in that huge container called the voice.# And you can take years to get to that by talking because
we have to get through all of the stories that we tell ourselves. (personal communication, December 4, 2011)

The potential for emotional release with vocally-based sound methods is great. In creating an opportunity for self-expression that goes beyond routine ways of using the voice, the practitioner is providing a novel way for clients to interrupt tightly held patterns of body, mind, and spirit.

Working with the voice therapeutically can also be a way of engaging and exploring a client’s psychological and emotional landscapes toward positive transformation. In Hosseini’s work, in addition to what she has labeled voice healing, explicit voice work may also involve engaging a client’s voice through breathing, asking a client to notice what is going on with their voice in a particular moment as they are talking in a session, or working with vowels or phrases (e.g., “I am”) in repetition to embody voice and self (personal communication, December 4, 2011). These methods can be used to help a client pay attention to the ways in which she feels small and constrained versus large and empowered in the world. The concept of ※having a voice§ is both literal and metaphorical in its implications for a client’s well-being and sense of self-efficacy (personal communication, December 4, 2011).

What drew me to this topic personally is my own experience with sound as a healing method in different configurations throughout my life. As a singer who took part in musical theater and choruses since I was young, the voice is a natural medium for me. As I have grown into and towards the vocation of social work, I have experimented both unintentionally and purposefully with healing through sound. The collective spiritual act of singing with a congregational chorus has provided me with sound-full sustenance, a repertoire of shared melodies and harmonies that has many times soothed and recharged me. I have also been grounded and re-energized through participation in sound healing workshops, wherein the collective sound-making process is more improvisational and may include anything from chanting to vocal toning to playing with singing bowls. Also, a significant aspect of my personal growth has been the therapeutic process of more wholly embodying my own voice 每 what it is that I want or need to say. Here I find relevant Tomatis’s idea that a person can only voice what she first can hear (Leeds, 2010). Part of the therapeutic process of embodying one’s own voice, and one’s own self, is the ability to hear and integrate important internal and external messages.

Intervention: Possibilities from a Macro Perspective

Social work as a profession is concerned not only with enhancing well-being on the individual level, but also with improving the health of groups and communities. In fact, individual health is thought to be directly related to and in constant exchange with these larger entities. Although the literature on sound healing mainly discusses producing change within an individual, the idea of sound as a healing force can be applied within the context of macro social work practice as well. A whole field has sprung up that has become known as ※acoustic ecology,§ which is the study of sound as it exists and impacts various environments. There are bodies around the world dedicated to this topic, such as the Acoustic Ecology Institute in New Mexico, the American Society for Acoustic Ecology, and the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology, as well as significant literature periodicals, such as Soundscape: The journal of acoustic ecology in Australia. The missions of these organizations and publications vary, but they all bring attention to the ways in which sound can either be helpful or harmful within an environment.

The concept of acoustic ecology lends itself well to the social worker interested in creating change within groups, organizations, and communities through the lens of sound. A worker may want to assess sounds within a neighborhood, a workplace, or a school as a way to better understand relationships, strengths, and needs within those spaces. These spaces may be sites of targeted change in terms of how sound is organized, used, or abused. Urban areas are of particular interest to practitioners whose area of concern is noise pollution and its effect on the well-being of groups or communities. In this spirit, April 24, 2013 marks the 18th annual International Noise Awareness Day, with the intention of raising awareness about the potentially harmful effects of sound (“International Noise Awareness Day,” n.d.). Whether in the spirit of raising awareness, conducting an assessment, or creating a focused intervention, opportunities abound for social workers to facilitate organizing efforts towards healing the ※soundscapes§ within and across communities.

Conclusion

The aim of this paper has been to illuminate significant points of resonance between social work and the nascent field of sound healing, with the hope that social workers may find in sound healing practices an expanded creative repertoire for therapeutic intervention. In addition to continuing an exploration of the implications of sound healing from a macro perspective, further areas of study should include addressing sound as a culturally relative phenomenon. Specifically, further research is needed on how sound may be qualified based on variables such as age, race, ethnicity, gender, and ability, as well as on how possible social work interventions using sound may be adapted according to these variables.

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[1] See Newham (1994) for a thoroughly charted version of this history beginning with Sigmund Freud.

References

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About the Author

Julia Ostrov is a graduate student at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, where she is studying Clinical Practice with Individuals and Families with a Health and Mental Health focus. She holds a BA in Comparative Literature from Brown University. Julia can be reached at jostrov@hunter.cuny.edu.

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