How to Use Sound to Boost Your Mood, According to a Psychologist and Music Therapist

woman listening to music


Sound is, currently, my comfort blanket. Everyone I talk to right now is tired of looking, whether that's staring at a screen during a Zoom meeting, focusing on that virtual quiz with your family, or zoning out and bingeing a series on Netflix (Workin' Moms and Never Have I Ever are very good, by the way). Don't get me wrong—the digital revolution is definitely helping us get through this pandemic. We can work, connect with loved ones, and entertain ourselves, so screens are not all bad. But what's blissful to me right now is a bath spent with my eyes closed while I play my favorite tunes, or sitting just staring into the distance out of a window and listening to the birds tweeting. While my eyes may be tired, my ears are happy enough to listen to tunes, a podcast, or just the ambient chatter, laughter, and clinking cutlery of my neighbors as they go about their daily lives on their balconies and in their gardens.

We're all familiar with the power of music to boost our mood when we're in a funk, to get us up on a dancefloor (those were the days), or to chill us out during a yoga class—but what if I said you could harness noise for mental wellbeing and better focus? I called on two music and sound experts Dr. Sheava Zadeh (@pamperyourbrain), a psychologist for over 20 years, as well as Michelle Cade (@mindlikewaterwellbeing), a London-based sound practitioner, to reveal why sound can have such a powerful effect on us and how to use sound to improve our well-being, while giving you a much-needed screen detox.

Meet the Expert

Dr. Sheava Zadeh has been a psychologist for over 20 years. She earned her Master’s degree in Psychology with an emphasis in Applied Behavior Analysis and her Ph.D from the University of the Pacific.

Michelle Cade is a sound therapist who specializes in nourishing and relaxing experiences. She trained in sound therapy with Michele Averard and Nestor Kornblum of Harmonic Sounds in Spain.

Sounds: The Good and the Bad

Not all sounds affect us in the same way and while some are good for our well-being, others can actually have a detrimental effect on our health. “Loud and harsh sounds can send our nervous system into the stress response known as the fight or flight mode, which inhibits our bodies natural ability to heal and restore itself,” explains Cade. “However, harmonic sounds help to create coherence in our bodies and also brain hemispheres, encouraging the body’s healing response whereby all your bodily systems can function optimally.” Last year, The New Yorker ran a feature asking if noise pollution the next big public health crisis. Noise pollution has, unsurprisingly, been linked to hearing problems and sleep disturbance but also, more surprisingly, heart disease and even cognitive impairment. If unwanted sounds can have a negative effect on our health, then it makes sense that welcome noises, like music, could do us some good beyond just being enjoyable. For example, “there are positive benefits on the developing brain when you play an instrument,” notes Dr. Sheava.

When one is singing, the vibrations that are produced move within our body and release the 'feel good' chemicals and hormones such as endorphins and oxytocin. It has been reported that individuals who sing regularly experience sustained, high levels of emotional stability and wellbeing," says Dr. Sheava. "Chanting sounds, such as ‘om’ has been shown to synchronize the left and right hemispheres of the brain, thus promoting a decrease in heartbeat, brain waves, and breathing. This is because you move your attention from the external world to the internal, creating more balance and allowing the brain to recalibrate."

Hearing is a process that is just as automatic as breathing, says Dr. Sheava. "Technically speaking, it is a sequence of vibrations that travel into the ear and get transferred into signals that are sent to the brain by the vestibulocochlear nerve," she explains. "Your brain then sends a signal that you are hearing a sound, and what that sound is." White noise (the combination of all the frequencies of sound people can hear and perceive, put together at a similar level) has been found to help concentration and even sleep. “A study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that high levels of noise impair thinking, but a consistent, low level of ambient noise can increase one’s right side brain development and creativity. Most of the time we are surrounded by various noises-such as phone conversations, beeping, alarms, etc, and we need background noise or “white noise” to drown that out," explains Dr. Sheava. She notes that Harvard Business Review suggests white noise in an office environment can help mask one of the most distracting sounds—people having conversations around you. White noise can also help while sleeping as it can block out sudden noises with its consistent steady sound.

As part of Cade’s sound therapy, she uses something known as binaural beatsrhythmic sounds at a certain frequency that interact with our brainwaves to induce a calm, meditative state. “I started doing a lot of research into personal development and attending all kinds of wellbeing and mindset seminars," she says. "I felt frustrated by behaviors and habits I didn’t seem able to change and was confused about my path and purpose, so I was all over anything that might help me find clarity and inspiration. That’s how she came across the concept of binaural beats, which she says can help create "whole brain synchronization," which makes it easier to focus and take in new information or enter meditative states.

“I use electronic binaural beats in my sound journeys and music, while instruments like Tibetan Bowls also create natural binaural beats," she says. "Most of my clients or sound journey listeners report a release of some sort, usually emotional but also physically as well as improvement in sleep and chronic pain, which has been reported the most.

Why Sound Affects Us Differently

While there are universally ‘good’ and ‘bad’ noises, there are also sounds that we have emotionally connected to because of certain moments in our lives. Dr. Sheava explains that “some of our responses are simply automatic. For example, you’re sitting quietly on your couch and hear a loud abrupt crash, you become emotionally aroused. This type of reaction is hard-wired into our brain, and automatic in that your brain is giving you a warning signal.”

Other sounds are conditioned. "If there is a song which was played on your graduation day, it may elicit feelings of excitement, whereas that same song played for another person who was being told about a death, it may create the exact opposite feeling," she says. "Within the same vein, sounds can emotionally elicit positive and negative memories. The sound of a thunderstorm can evoke memories of a war zone, as evidenced in some PTSD patients. Or the sound of ocean waves can evoke powerful visual imagery of nature, or one relaxing on the beach.” 

How to Use Sound for Wellbeing

Sound has been used for centuries by different cultures across the globe to improve mental wellbeing. Cade explains that everything is sound, (even if we can't hear it) and has its own unique vibration." She says that the frequency at which something naturally vibrates is called resonance. "Each part of our bodies has its own natural resonance, known as prime resonance, and vibrational medicine is based on the idea that disease is a result of those natural resonances becoming out of tune, whether due to things such as stress, illness, environmental factors, or trauma," she says, claiming that sound healing helps to bring your body back "in tune" with itself.

Since sounds can affect us all differently, it might take some trial and error to find the sound therapy that helps you feel calmer, boosts your concentration, or helps you to sleep. However, both Cade and Dr. Sheava note that chanting and humming (which are both free and relatively easy to do) can help us to feel more relaxed.

“Humming not only lifts your spirits, but it also clears your head,” says Dr. Sheava. “According to a study conducted by Swedish researcher, and published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, humming may actually help keep your sinuses clear and healthy.”

As for chanting, it doesn't have to be the 'om' you may be familiar with from your yoga class, Cade notes this can even mean singing your favorite song or freestyling and being silly. "We sing when we are happy, so we can influence and change our moods by changing our physiology, singing to ourselves and others," she says.

Another easy way to quickly improve your mood is, of course, with music. "Music and sound have the power to instantly change your state of beingif you listen to one of your favorite high-energy songs just before doing some exercise or during, you’ll instantly feel more energized," says Cade. "Next time you're feeling low, take time out to listen, and dance or sing along, to your favorite song. Give it your full attention—it can transform your mood."

If you're feeling stressed. Dr. Sheava suggests playing classical music because it has been found to lower blood pressure and muscle tension.

"Having a playlist ready for those stressful times, or even just to maintain your calm, can be very beneficial," she adds. "There are playlists that can be accessed for free, Consciously Designed Music has one for deep relaxation which is available on Spotify."

man listening to music
Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels

The Best Soothing Sound-Based Apps:

Meya App: "This is a handy music app with guided meditations and Binaural Beats," says Cade.

Mind Like Water Music: Cade has mediations and Binaural Beats available to download on her website. You can also listen to Binaural Beats online here. Cade suggests listening for at least 12 minutes every day to reap the relaxation benefits. "This was developed to improve mental performance," says Dr. Sheava. "The developers worked with auditory neuroscientists to create background noise for different areas of focus, such as relaxation, meditation, napping, or even to help you sleep at night."

Coffivity: "Use this app to enjoy the sounds you would normally hear at a library, café, or bakery," says Dr. Sheava. "Research suggests that the moderate chatter of a bustling coffee shop— around 70 decibels—can distract you just enough to think more creatively."

Noisli: "Since we all find different sounds helpful in boosting confidence, this app allows you to create your own background noise soundtrack, whether it's rain, wind, the crackling of a fireplace," explains Dr. Sheava. 

Wave Paths: "Wave Paths provides different adaptive music for psychedelic therapies that are designed for both therapists and listeners," says Cade.

Rainy Mood:"Playing a high-quality recording of a thunderstorm on a 30-minute loop, this mobile white noise app includes additional options, such as adjusting the volume of the rain, or adding bird noises or coffee shop chatter," notes Dr. Sheava.

If you want to experience one of Cade's sound journeys and meditations via Facebook live, she holds them weekly at 8 p.m. (BST). You can find out more and sign-up here.

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