In recent years, the use of sound for healing has enjoyed a new wave of attention, as a growing number of practitioners appear on the scene, and innovative modalities are bringing together the best from ancient practices with the latest findings of modern science. The Lebanese-born scholar and sound therapist Alexandre Tannous is becoming widely appreciated in sound healing circles for the range and depth of his understanding of the nuances of sound, as well as for his thoughtful approach as a practitioner. In this interview, Alexandre discusses the state of contemporary sound therapy.
KJ: What do you think is the single most important thing people should know about the therapeutic side of sound?
AT: It is sound’s ability to disconnect us from our habitual patterns, allowing us to snap out of baseline and connect to the higher self. Sound therapy can reveal an aspect of ourselves we’re not normally aware of, allowing us to reestablish what I call a state of “personal resonance.” This is an approach that’s based on the phenomenological study of sound by the person, which means scrutinizing how sound does its work on her.
You can’t be a passive recipient?
No, you need to pay attention during the experience and notice what sound is doing. How is the experience unfolding? Where is the “I” in the experience? Is it sound that is healing you? Or is it your awareness of sound that creates the magic? If you don’t pay attention to the mechanics of the experience, you think that sound has a spirit, that sound is mystical, that sound itself does the healing. Which would mean that you can have a therapeutic experience without doing anything. I don’t believe that is a correct understanding of how sound works.
What happens when you pay attention?
When you pay attention to what’s really happening in the experience, you realize that sound can connect us to the higher self, and allow us to experience a different spirit within us. Sound allows us to achieve a far greater level of self-awareness. I say this based on countless personal experiences, on my research, on the support of social scientific studies, on observations I made during my client work, and on feedback from clients.
What does a sound therapist do to bring that quality of sound to people’s attention?
When I work with clients, I make sure I involve them in the process. The receiver must always be participating. His or her role is not as a neutral receiver — they are active participants. I start a session by explaining about how sound works, what to listen for, how to create for yourself a judicious, attentive listening — so you can better understand how sound is used. Having intentions is also important. This allows you to use sound as a tool. It’s not: relax, lie down, do whatever you want, and the sound therapist will make magic happen. The facilitator’s role is important, but the receiver’s role is more important.
In what way?
First of all, because sound is a tool, you have to know how to listen to it, how to focus on the correct aspects. How to bring attention to the harmonic overtones — every aspect of the overtones, including the ethos which is established through the tonal painting with the overtones. Then you can start working with sound as a tool, as you do with a mantra or a sutra, or the way you use the breath during meditation — to focus your awareness on the sound as a way to stop discursive thinking, to disconnect from the habitual mind, the part of us that talks all the time.
When you focus your awareness on sound, how does that help to shift your consciousness?
At least 2 things are happening. One, sound acts through our auditory cortex, through the hearing. Second, it impacts the body — though most beneficially when you use acoustical instruments, since if you are listening to headphones, then only the hearing will be affected. When you listen through loud speakers, it’s good to realize that an important part of the original sound is not captured by the recording. Both processes, auditory and physical, are really difficult to understand, which is why we need scientific research.
What research is being done now?
The area that is studied most measures sound’s impact on the brain, using EEG technologies. They track how the brain’s electrical activities respond when a person is subjected to certain kinds of sound through the ear, how much he can quiet brain activity to allow for the emergence of deep, meditative states.
How is this research influencing the work of sound therapists?
What we have found to be most effective involves the receiver’s active listening, which enhances sound’s ability to be used as a tool to stop discursive thinking. So if you are being subjected to vibrations from acoustical instruments, and you are not paying attention, but rather following your own tangential thoughts, then the impact of sound will not be so powerful. It won’t act as a true therapeutic tool. But once your awareness is engaged and you’re really listening, then you would notice that the brain’s electrical activities have diminished tremendously — as the studies by me and others have shown — quieting the mind and allowing the brain waves to cycle down to the low theta brain wave cycle.
In order to give the body a chance to heal itself, you have to be engaged in the experience, listening to the sound of the instruments, using them as a tool to stop discursive thinking. At that point, your body and mind are being subjected to the mathematical ratio that is encompassed in the vibrations from the acoustical instruments, so you can feel the ethos of the instruments, of the mode, of the harmonic spectrum. The ethos is the character, the personality, the spirit, and the different spirits within yourself that the sound is calling forward. For this to happen, you have to really be present, experiencing where the activity is taking place. Is it within me or outside me? That’s when you are able to experience a different spirit in the self, a different ethos. You then have the opportunity to snap out of baseline, and the baseline is what needs correction.
There is also interesting scientific research on brain entrainment, which is helping guide sound therapy practices.
Does just any music enable this experience, or only certain kinds of sounds?
The effective music comes from most of the instruments that emit clearly audible harmonic overtones. These are the instruments used by sound therapists — gongs, Himalayan singing bowls, tuning forks, didgeridoos, the voice, bells, etc. Of course, every sound has harmonic overtones. But most of the time we don’t hear them because they’re minimal — they’re overshadowed by the fundamental frequency, which is the most pronounced part of the tone. But these instruments have been used in sound healing and sound therapy everywhere in the world for who knows how long. I wanted to understand why, which led to many years of study.
What did you learn?
The power of these instruments comes from emitting harmonic overtones at a clearly audible level. When you play a gong, you hear multiple notes emanating simultaneously, or when you play Himalayan singing bowls, these are harmonic overtones. Each instrument has a specific range of overtones. Same with overtone singing, throat singing, or diaphonic singing, which are also used. They’re all essentially the same, though there are different singing styles. The overtones allow us to hear tone color or timbre.
What research has been done on the effect of sound on the body?
Not enough, unfortunately, because it’s very hard to measure the fluctuation of body energy — chi or prana, kundalini, chakras. Western science does not have the means to measure very subtle things of this kind. But we know from Eastern philosophy that this is the most important part, and that it needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, Western science believes in things we can measure, and this is not something we can measure, at least so far. I would be very interested in any research that deals with how sound can affect neurochemistry, neurotransmitters, and more EEG research on how sound effects the heart and the vagus nerve.
That work isn’t being done?
Not so much, though it’s important to mention that Dr. John Beaulieu has done groundbreaking research on sound’s capability to cause the body to secrete nitric oxide — aka nitrogen monoxide — a free radical that reduces inflammation and promotes healing.
What has been done much more widely is the study and use of sound for many different medical applications, such as repairing damage in DNA and chromosomes. There is a lot of research on the use of ultrasound imaging, and on lithotripsy — a non-invasive procedure to break kidney stones — and so on. But I’m interested more in the sound therapy aspect, which is using sound as a kind of health maintenance. Or working with people who have post traumatic stress disorder, severe anxiety, intractable depression, insomnia, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cluster headaches, migraine, schizophrenia, autism, etc.
How do you work as a sound therapist with someone who has PTSD?
First I talk with my client to learn about her issues. Then I explain what I will be doing and what her role is — which is to focus awareness on the sound, to use sound as a tool. Every time the mind wanders, keep bringing back awareness to the sound, and meditate by using the sound, the way one does with a mantra or by following the breath. Get into a deep meditative state where nothing else exists besides the sound. I like people to delve slowly into meditative states, to reach a point where the sound that they’re observing is the only thing in their awareness.
My research has shown me that this is when the client is really participating with her awareness. That is, she is allowing the everyday mind to subside, and is then able to target things beyond the everyday mind, beyond the conscious mind. For someone who has PTSD, I would then do talk therapy, and allow her to open her heart and to release whatever needs to be released, whatever came into her awareness during the meditation. Sound is a powerful tool for delving into the subconscious mind, to figure out what things are manipulating the self, affecting the conscious mind beyond our own awareness.
Today, sound therapists are exploring an ever-growing range of modalities. What do you see happening in the field?
Yes, there are many different approaches. The reason is because sound therapy has not yet become standardized, where you can go to institutions and learn a widely agreed-upon practice. What exists right now are mostly various theories by different individuals, most of which have not been thoroughly studied scientifically, and a few programs where you can receive some training, which may last few weeks or a couple of months. You then get a certificate for completing the program.
There do seem to be a growing number of certified sound healers.
“Sound healer” is a term I personally don’t use, because it’s not explanatory. It does not make clear how sound acts upon us, because sound itself does not heal us. Rather, sound is used as a tool. It’s our awareness of what we can do with sound, and how it operates upon us, that is healing. But the “sound healer” does not actually heal with sound. The sound itself is not enough. The receiver needs to be engaged in a therapeutic experience, which is why I believe that “sound therapy” is a more appropriate term. Sound allows the body to heal itself when the person’s awareness is engaged.
John Beaulieu, who you mentioned, talks about “human tuning,” and sound’s ability to have a healthy effect on the physical body.
I do believe that the body responds to sound, but I cannot tell you specifically how to tune the body. That’s not a word I would use. There must be a way of tuning the body — we know that the body responds to sound — but we’re not there yet. The research that Dr. Beaulieu has done on sound and nitric oxide suggests a tuning effect that allows the body to reestablish it’s natural tuning. I like to describe it as allowing the body to reinstate its own resonance, which seems to happen on multiple levels — mental, emotional and physical. Maybe on the spiritual level, as well, but can we test this? When you say “tuning,” that suggests certain frequencies are being used for this and that. You wonder, what frequencies are being used for chakras? Many people think that chakras have actual notes, but there is no evidence, no scientific study about this and there’s no way we can quantify this. It’s all wishful thinking and unconfirmed rumors. That needs to be corrected. But I would like us to get to a point where we know all of the above.
Of course, I can understand why people think this, because they sense how powerful sound is, and they feel some magic is happening when they work with sound. But this is also problematic, because people are so passionate they may end up conjuring thoughts and feelings that do not accurately reflect what is taking place. We need to carefully study this phenomenon so that we understand what’s happening for the receiver. The power does not come from the sound therapist. It happens through them. It’s very important to keep the ego in check and not believe, “I’m healing someone with my playing.”
Sound is powerful and it’s important that the sound practitioner not capitalize on the power of sound, not to play it as a musical performance. Of course, performances can induce favorable results, though to a lesser degree. When we work with sound, we need to be present and get the receiver to work with us, and to truly understand how sound’s power is manifesting. The receiver should always be active, and know a few things about how to listen to a level that they are not used to hearing. The practitioner must be entirely in service, exuding care in every possible way, present and equanimous, aware of every subtle behavior of the receiver and of sound.
What excites you most about where the field is heading?
I very much support the movement toward science and research. Also I’m excited to understand what human beings have done with sound historically throughout the world. Personally I take an enthomusicological approach to learn about ancient musical cultures that are still alive today. Many of these surviving musical cultures do not follow the equal temperament, which is the system we follow in the West. I’m talking about Indian music, as well as Persian, Arabic, Turkish, etc. In the West, we divide the octaves into 12 equidistant half steps, and all the half steps are equidistant or quantized. But once all music in the world followed more natural ratios that were more suitable to the ratios in the harmonic overtone series, which can impact our consciousness in powerful ways. These ancient systems have microtones, for example, which divide the octave into more than just 12 tones. The Indian system divides the octave into 22 tones, the Persian and Arabic use 24, and the Turkish into 53 tones!
How does this different tonal approach lend itself to therapeutic practice?
These ancient musical systems — still alive today — induce altered states, non-ordinary states of consciousness, states of euphoria, ecstasy, and enchantment. This tells us that somehow the human body, the brain, is restoring a state of resonance, is vibrating sympathetically with musical systems that are closer to the tuning of the harmonic overtone series. This area deserves to see more research. We need to understand how the euphoria this music creates may be connected to finer divisions in the octave. Where do we “go” when this takes place? What is happening in the brain and in the neurochemistry? What is happening to the kundalini, to the chakras, and to prana? I’ve focused a lot of my own research on this, on the effect of microtonality, and the altered states that we can achieve through the manipulation of sound, tonally and rhythmically as they appear in ancient musical systems.
Image by sebergerjohn, courtesy of Creative Commons license.