The Frontiers of Healing with Sound: A Talk with Alexandre Tannous
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 moreimportant.
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.
To read the entire interview with our friend and colleague Alexandre Tannous, which originally appeared on Reality Sandwich and by permission from its author we are taking the liberty to share a portion of here, please go here.
Photography on the above portion provided by Marian Kraus Photography.