Before human language developed, there were sounds, rhythms, music. Throughout the ages and throughout the world, every culture has used sound to communicate, to rouse, to soothe. Parents calm a baby to sleep with a lullaby, surgeons improve their concentration with music, sportspeople use it to improve focus, sports fans use it to motivate their team, film makers create fear, suspense and joy using music – the list goes on.
Ancient cultures used music as medicine. Modern medicine uses sound frequency machines to break down kidney and gall stones; ultrasound machines are used to heal injuries and accelerate the repair of muscle and fracture damage.
Hundreds of research studies have found that music has both physical and mental benefits, but how does it work and where does the sound and experience of the gong fit?
From cave man to modern medicine
The gong is one of the oldest man made sounds, dating back over 5,000 years, playing an important role in ceremonies, rituals and healing in cultures including China, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Greece, India, South America and Africa.
The gong's sounds and vibrations have a quick effect on the brain and the body. They move us from our awake (Beta) state to a more relaxed and calm (Alpha) state, then on to a restful (Theta) state and finally to a deeply relaxing meditative (Delta) state.
They cause the brain, heart and respiratory rates to slow down and increase the release of melatonin, endorphin and dopamine chemicals that are linked to feelings of expanded mental clarity.
A review of 400 published scientific articles found strong evidence that music can improve mood and reduce stress, with rhythm providing physical pain relief.
One study found that sound meditation helped reduce tension, anger, fatigue, anxiety and depression while increasing a sense of spiritual well-being. Another has linked music to a number of health benefits including boosting immune function.
Sound-based vibration treatment has been shown to increase blood circulation and lower blood pressure, helping people with arthritis, menstrual pain, post-operative pain, muscle pain and stiffness.
What is a gong bath meditation like?
The deep sounds and vibrations of the gong vary according to the size of the instrument, the mallets used and the style of the player. The experience is unlike listening to music, you can’t identify and grasp on to specific notes as you can with music. Instead, the gong player creates a soundscape that takes the listener on a relaxing, meditative journey.
A gong meditation is a passive experience, in that the listener simply lays down and lets the sounds wash over them – hence the term ‘gong bath’. It has been described as a sonic massage as your body and mind respond to the sounds and vibrations. There is nothing to learn, no skills to acquire, so for people who find it hard to switch off or meditate, the gong is an ideal experience.
Apart from deep relaxation and reduced stress levels, participants report a number of gong benefits and experiences, such as strong emotions – from joy to tears – feelings of floating, bright lights, strong, colourful images and more.
A typical session lasts around 45 to 60 minutes and might include some gentle physical exercise to prepare the listener by relaxing the body. In a staff wellbeing programme, the gong can be used in three main ways:
A stand alone stress busting session
Part of a meditation practice
Relaxation at the end of a yoga class
Face to face gong bath meditations are held in many venues but during lockdown, listeners over Zoom have been able to benefit from the immersive experience of hearing the gong through headphones in the comfort of their home.