The floor of London’s Alexandra Palace concert venue vibrated with the sounds of bass and the pulsating beat of the drums as rock band the Flaming Lips performed on stage. Zoned out to the hypnotic beat of the music, fans danced, sweat dripping from their foreheads. Jacqui McLoughlin, a musician and artist, then in her 20s, was having a different experience. As she listened to the clashing drums, the screech of the guitar, and Wayne Coyne’s singing, she fell into a meditative state.
“I felt the singer was giving me permission to feel my grief and dark feelings,” McLoughlin recalls. “Everything I’d been running away from.”
It was 2011 — the year McLoughlin’s world had shattered. “My college roommate was killed in a freak train accident, my cousin died in a car accident, and my best friend passed away. I wasn’t sure how I could go on living when people were dying all around me,” she recounts.
While the thousands of concertgoers who filled the auditorium that night were there for rock music, for McLoughlin, it was also a form of therapy.
Using music to lift anxiety, lessen stress, or soothe physical pain is a type of medicine that’s been used for centuries. In Biblical times, music was used to evict “bad spirits” from people’s bodies. Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that music could purify emotions, and Plato thought that it could align one’s spirit with the cosmos. Throughout history, music has been used to cure headaches, lessen despair, and treat dementia. And modern science is backing up these beliefs.
According to neuroscientists, the human brain is wired to respond to sound. It’s why screeching noises make us cover our ears, and the sound of breaking glass elicits fear. When it comes to soothing sounds, studies suggest that melodies played at lower sound frequencies and in specific time signatures can foster relaxation and physical healing. More recently, researchers have found that music may help lessen symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) brought on by witnessing violence, fighting in a war, or surviving childhood abuse.
Before attending the concert, McLoughlin was in pain. The recent deaths of her loved ones in quick succession had been heart-wrenching, and the losses had also reopened an earlier trauma — the unexpected death of her dad when she was a teenager.
“One day, I was a teen who enjoyed pop music, took art classes, and plastered my bedroom walls with pictures of the Spice Girls and Hanson,” she recalls. But that changed in a flash. “I came home from school and saw family members milling around the living room — I knew something was wrong,” she remembers.
On that piercing-cold winter day, McLoughlin’s father had died of a massive heart attack. Because losing him was so sudden and overwhelming, she didn’t understand the depth of her sorrow until after the deaths of her best friend, college roommate and cousin.
All three losses took place in 2011, when McLoughlin was working as a flight attendant. She tried to work through it. Suspended at 33,000 feet in the air, she fought to get past her pain. But her nervous system went into overdrive — a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. She would have episodes when her heart raced, her breathing became shallow, and her chest felt tight.
It was at those moments that her mind went back in time, replaying each tragedy in slow motion. As she pushed the narrow silver drink cart down the aisle, she’d recall the day her sister called to tell her about their cousin’s death, and the guttural sound of her sister’s heaving sobs, or she would remember the dull, beige print wallpaper at the Holiday Inn — the last thing she saw before hearing the news. At other times, she saw the blue pop-up bubble on Facebook alerting her of her best friend’s death.
To escape the swirl of anxiety, she’d step into the airplane bathroom, lock the cold metal door, and cry. “I was too stressed out to continue working,” she says.
Knowing she needed professional help, McLoughlin took time off from her airline job and found a therapist. At her first session, she sat back on her therapist’s couch, ready to spill her secrets and share her suffering. “I needed someone to tell me I wasn’t crazy,” McLoughlin said.
During the first session, her therapist listened intently, nodding her head in agreement as McLoughlin told her that she felt guilty about taking time to heal. She assured McLoughlin that she wasn’t to blame for her problems, but at the end of the session, instead of scheduling another one, the therapist told McLoughlin that an administrative mix-up meant they couldn’t meet again.
Being vulnerable with a stranger — even a trained mental health professional — was hard enough, and after that one session, McLoughlin shied away from therapy.
Looking for a way to nurture herself, she hopped on a plane to London, excited to see the Flaming Lips perform. That evening when she heard Coyne sing, her chest tightened, her throat tickled, and tears fell from her eyes.
“Before attending the concert, no one could articulate my pain. The music and the song lyrics brought me into the moment in a way that reached me,” she recalls.
As the show came to a close, Coyne stood before the crowd and said, “There are people here having a hard time, but we’re here for you.” She felt she’d found a witness.
Before the concert, McLoughlin was unsure how she could go on living when people were dying around her. But seeing the band perform illuminated how music can be therapy. That evening, when McLoughlin left the arena, she thought, “moving forward, my life will be different.”
McLoughlin told her friends about the experience, and one of them mentioned a specific type of music therapy called sound healing. Moved by her positive experience at the concert, she decided to give it a try.
“Sound healing is vibrational medicine that uses sound created by Tibetan singing bowls, gongs, crystal bowls or calibrated tuning forks to instill a state of well-being that goes beyond relaxation,” says Donatella Moltisanti, a sound healer and wellness practitioner in New York City.
Moltisanti, a trained opera singer, discovered music’s medicinal power while studying opera in Italy. Plagued by debilitating menstrual cramps, she noticed how singing opera eased the unbearable knots of pain. Curious about her experience, Moltisanti did some research and discovered that singing opera activates the body’s vagus nerve, which affects the parasympathetic nervous system. When this nerve is stimulated, it brings the body out of a stressful state, reducing what is known as the fight-or-flight response.
With sound healing, practitioners rely on singing, chanting or playing music to strengthen the connection between the mind and body. More than just relaxing with calming music, sound healers play instruments at specific frequencies that invoke relaxation. At the start of each session, the sound healer guides participants through a short breathing exercise. But instead of continuing to take mindful breaths, the healer turns to instruments to further enhance the healing. For instance, Moltisanti incorporates crystal bowls and her own singing voice to help people “tap into specific sound frequencies that can shift our bodies into a meditative state where internal healing can occur.”
Using sound to invoke emotional healing can be so effective that mental health practitioners use it to help alleviate people’s trauma.
“Using an acoustic driver, like a drum or a rattle, can calm the mind and the heart,” says Dr. Joanna Adler, a clinical psychologist and depth hypnosis practitioner in San Rafael, California, who incorporates sound healing into her clinical work. “Song can help anchor traumatized people in the moment, which allows them to change their relationship to the original trauma,” she says.
At her first group sound healing session, the sound healer greeted McLoughlin at the doorway with a bundle of sage and a feather. “For energy clearing,” she said as she moved the sage in a sweeping motion over McLoughlin’s head and shoulders and under each foot.
Next, McLoughlin entered a room, dimly lit with candles. Yoga mats and blankets were set up in a circle, and the spicy scent of incense filled the space. “Find a spot and get comfortable,” the sound healer instructed.
McLoughlin found a place on the floor. She sat down, removed her shoes, and stretched her body out on her yoga mat. Then, she began taking deep, mindful breaths. With each inhale, her lungs filled with air, her belly rose slightly, and her chest expanded.
As the session got underway, the sound healer instructed the group to “think of an emotion they’d like to release.” Then, holding a circular ocean drum between her slender hands, the healer began making music, moving the instrument from side to side, repeating the motion over and over again.
The serene sound of rolling and crashing ocean waves filled the room, pulling McLoughlin into a dreamlike state, which cardiologist Herbert Benson calls the “relaxation response.” Through the use of deep breathing, listening to music, or meditating, the brain receives signals that it’s no longer in danger, which allows the nervous system to settle.
“The music made me think of nature scenes, like ritualistic fire or swimming in the ocean, and those soothing images helped my muscles relax,” McLoughlin says.
For 45 minutes, the music continued, and the vibrations of the drum lulled the group into a deep, meditative state, similar to the way a lullaby induces a baby to slumber.
As the session came to a close, the instructor invited the group to return to the present moment. McLoughlin opened her eyes, stretched her arms above her head, and got up from the floor. Like her experience at the Flaming Lips concert, she felt transformed by the healing power of sound. “Music can tap into what words cannot express,” she says.
After that first session, McLoughlin went on to attend sound baths, healing sessions that use music and sound vibrations to put the body into a state of relaxation. After several months, her mind was no longer buzzing with anxiety. She could think clearly. Instead of wondering how she could go on living, she began to understand that healing was possible.
At the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas, sound therapy is offered to patients who are undergoing cancer treatment — researchers have found music can lessen the physical pain associated with chemotherapy. In addition, a 2017 study found that sound healing can help reduce symptoms of depression and lessen upsetting emotions like anger and fatigue.
Almost two years ago, Rachel Baer, 55, fell into a deep depression. For no apparent reason, she was overcome with feelings of despair, her emotions yo-yoed back and forth, and she lost interest in her job as a yoga teacher.
Desperate for help, Baer went to her doctor, who asked a surprising question: “Was your childhood traumatic?”
“My initial response was no,” recalls Baer, but her doctor wasn’t satisfied with the answer. Concerned about her mental health, the doctor recommended therapy. Once Baer began speaking to a therapist, she peered into her past, dredging up painful childhood memories.
“I can picture my mom sitting at the dining room table, head in her hands, not making eye contact, unable to do anything,” Baer shares. For a brief time, she and her siblings also lived in foster care because her mother was hospitalized for depression. “My dad visited once a week and took us to see our mother,” Baer recalls.
But, instead of feeling love from her mom, Baer often felt unseen or like a burden. “Throughout my life, my mom said hateful things: ‘Go away, I don’t want to see you anymore. Get out of my sight,’” Baer says. “I don’t blame my mother, but her stinging comments left me with abandonment issues.”
Baer’s therapist recommended sound healing and suggested that she “soak herself in the soothing music.”
Baer’s healer, Kelly, relies on large crystal singing bowls, delicate brass tuning forks, and her melodic singing voice to invoke tranquility. “The music sounds angelic,” Baer says.
While McLoughlin pictured nature scenes during her session, Baer envisions colors. “As the music starts, I close my eyes and hues of orange and purple float through my mind.”
Secured under the warmth of a cozy blanket, Baer feels the tension leave her body, like air being let out of a balloon. As Kelly plays the tuning forks, they sound like tiny raindrops, filling the space surrounding her with soothing vibrations. As the music continues to play, the tingly, pinging sensations lull Baer to sleep.
“After each session, I feel more connected to my intuition, which gives me the courage to stand up for myself,” Baer says.
She recalls a business interaction gone wrong and a man who spoke to her unkindly. “In the past, I would have let it go, because I grew up in a nonconfrontational home, but I decided to email his manager.” To Baer’s surprise, the manager responded with an apology.
Psychotherapists refer to this as a “corrective emotional experience,” which occurs when an adaptive emotion, such as confidence, replaces a maladaptive one, like insecurity. The “corrective emotional experience” provides the traumatized person with new data that challenges old beliefs, such as “I don’t matter” or “My mother was right, I’m worthless.”
While she continued to see her psychotherapist, Baer says that sound healing sessions moved her trauma recovery along, because learning how to calm the body helped her to heal her mind.
According to a survey conducted by Mental Health America, more than 24 million people with mental illness are untreated. Barriers include financial concerns, difficulty finding a therapist, and lack of insurance coverage. Without insurance coverage, a single therapy session can cost $200. However, community-based sound healing events may be free or cost as little as $25 for one session, which can benefit those in need of mental health services.
After attending her first sound healing session, McLoughlin incorporated the practice into her self-care routine, which also included meditation and psychotherapy. She then earned her own certificate in sound healing.
During her training, she recalls watching videos of family members at the bedside of the dying. But instead of being hooked up to beeping machines or IV drips, the patients were introduced to music. In the center of the room, the musicians gathered, playing big, loud drums and ringing melodic bells.
Seeing those stories gave McLoughlin another goal — integrating her sound healing training into her work as a musician. She’s composed a song, “You are Love,” which blends affirming lyrics with aspects of her sound healing training, such as the use of tuning forks and crystal bowls to create healing sounds she calls “medicine melodies.”
McLoughlin hopes that by sharing her journey of abuse, trauma, and, ultimately, receiving help, her music will help others realize they aren’t alone. Currently, McLoughlin is composing additional songs for her album, scheduled to be released in 2021. She plans to pair her music with choreography for live performances she describes as something like “a meditation rock concert.”
Eventually, she hopes to offer events to help veterans, first responders, youth and others heal from trauma. “Sound is the art form that’s closest to spirituality,” she says. “You can’t see a sound wave, but you can experience its healing powers.”