Skip to main content

Natural Awakenings National

Sound Therapy Through the Ages: Ancient Instruments Still Soothe and Heal

Dec 01, 2008 08:48PM ● By Jay Workman

People throughout the ages have fashioned various instruments that manipulate these neural connections, clearing the mind of distracting thoughts or inducing states of well-being, satori and trance—even ecstasy.


Man’s oldest instrument is found in endless variety everywhere. But, an empty bottle or wastebasket can evoke the same response as an African skin djembe, Persian metal tonbak or Polynesian slit log drum. The steady cadence of the beat naturally synchronizes with the body’s life-giving rhythms of heart and lungs.

Universities like Harvard currently are conducting research into the positive effects of rhythm therapy as part of a new integrative medicine to reduce stress, strengthen the immune system and treat addictions. In Colorado, adolescent offenders participate in drum circles hosted by the Department of Youth Services to help them become more centered in times of crisis.

Bells, Gongs & Cymbals

Originating in Asia, metal gongs emit a range of pure, low-pitched tones that facilitate contemplative and meditative states. Bells and finger cymbals often signal a moment to enter or emerge from such states. With regular practice, these can become unconscious, reflexive triggers. Finger cymbals may serve as a “clearing” device, to dispel negative energy from a space.

Singing Bowls

Sometimes called standing bells, both traditional Tibetan metal and modern crystal singing bowls are used for meditation, relaxation, healthcare, personal well-being and religious practice. Many of us may have rubbed a wet finger around the edge of a crystal wine glass to produce a ringing whine. When playing a bowl, the musician applies a padded mallet to the rim, and also may tap it, producing a bell-like sound.

Older forms of singing bowls comprise five to seven different metals, including gold and silver, with size, thickness and composition determining pitch. One bowl or a whole array may be used, perhaps with tones of multiple bowls overlapping, to create deeply satisfying harmonics.Healing with sound

Robert Austin has traveled extensively for the past eight years, including in Fort Myers, giving singing bowl concerts, workshops and healing sessions. About the healing power of sound, he says, “Sound can penetrate the body to make it disturbed or happy.” He notes how, “The bowls create harmony that can release blockages created by life’s stresses,” proving beneficial for relief of neuropathy, neuralgia, arthritis and circulatory ailments.

Rain Stick & Didgeridoo

A different approach to sound arose in places where metals were unavailable. Instead of a pure tone, these instruments chorus a cascade of frequencies to produce a constant drone.

Music bypasses learned behaviors to naturally regulate our pulse, blood pressure, breathing and hormone production; especially dopamine, which controls mood.

One indigenous people invented the rainstick, a long, hollow tube filled with beads or beans that has small pins arranged in a spiral pattern along the inside surface. When the stick is turned over, the beads fall to the other end of the tube, sounding like a rainstorm as they bounce off the pins. The rainstick is still played ritually in South American shamanic ceremonies for energy cleansing.

Australia’s Aboriginal culture devised the didgeridoo, a long, flutelike instrument with sounds similar to the low moans of Tibetan throat singing. Archaeological studies suggest that the people of the Kakadu region of the Northern Territory have been using the didgeridoo for sacred rituals for about 1,500 years, based on cave wall paintings.

Today, use of all these ancient instruments joins newer ones, like the tuning fork and its electronic counterparts, in the quest to reach and influence the inner recesses of our mind. Scientists are learning why the cerebellum, or “reptilian brain,” just 10 percent of the brain’s mass, yet with 50 to 80 percent of its neurons, is important to musical perception.

As the West ventures forth in adapting the hallowed disciplines of meditation and healing of the East, such as yoga, T’ai chi, qigong and Tibetan Buddhism, these accompanying venerable tools provide a touchstone to ancestors of the past. They allow us to practice prescribed rituals and customs with an authenticity that continues to resonate, along with the sound, in our very souls.

Connect with Robert Austin at

 Primary Sources: The Amazing Hypothesis, by Sir Francis Crick; This Is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel J. Levitin.

Join Our Community Newsletter