The unlikely overlap between sound healing and dance music

With the practice of sound healing becoming increasingly widespread, we find out what exactly it involves and discover why there might be similarities between playing gongs and CDJs.

“It feels like I’m still DJing but in a completely different way. It feels like the club dance floor has now been modified significantly. I was used to playing in front of hundreds, if not thousands of people. I now play for a much smaller audience and everyone is lying down.”

This is Tracie Storey, a former international DJ and current vibrational sound therapist, explaining how she views her practice. 

“Instead of vinyl I’m playing with sounds—source sounds that I’m creating at the time—and playing with the energies in the room. Or responding to the energies in the room, I should say, because it is a conversation between me and the people in the room.” 

Tracie had been DJing for years under the name 10 Sui when she had an epiphany while playing in front of 5,000 people in Jakarta. “It was just one of those moments where I was like, ‘This is epic. Why are so many people into music? Why is music so powerful? What is this? I need to go deeper.”  

She went on to study for about a decade—various practices, under various teachers—before settling on an offering that includes vibrational sound, Qi Gong movement therapy and traditional Chinese medicine, in which she works with the “five elements” of the natural world.

This type of integrative approach is typical of Tracie’s field. The people I spoke to for this piece each draw on different practices and influences; sound healing has ancient roots in cultures all over the globe, so ascribing any single lineage is almost impossible. Some people, including Tracie, prefer a term other than “sound healing” to describe what they do. “Sound bath,” “sound meditation,” “energy healing,” “gong bath” and “vibrational sound therapy” all might fall under this broad umbrella. 

Whichever term it is, figures like Tracie have been an increasing presence within dance music over recent years as the scene mirrors the wider Western trend towards wellness. At the 2019 edition of the Amsterdam Dance Event, the world’s biggest industry get together, Tracie featured heavily in a series of events that included yoga, meditation and a discussion on the “universal power of sound.” Discussions and workshops like these at festivals are now an established norm. The crossover was nicely symbolised by a 2019 event at EartH in London showcasing B.Traits’ Paciphonic label. It was was described as “a combination of ambient and minimalist music, sound and frequency activations, and group meditation.” B.Traits (a DJ and producer), Tracie Storey (a vibrational sound therapist), Lucy (a DJ, producer and sound-meditation artist) and Tim Wheater and Cherub (frequency healers) all performed.

I began writing this piece to explore this development, imagining two cultures, in two separate lanes, that had simply been drawn closer together by the broader wellness trend. In speaking with people, however, it became increasingly apparent that sound healing, DJing and clubbing actually aren’t so dissimilar. People in the sound-healing world may have made this connection sooner than anyone in dance music—ideas such as interconnectivity, the vibrational nature of sound, and meditation through music are all central to the community. Taken out of context, plenty of the conversations I had with sound healers could have been about profound dance floor experiences.    

In dance music, we know plenty about what it’s like to manipulate sound as a DJ. To lose our sense of time, space and self on a dance floor. Or to undertake a journey through sound. But what are these things like for sound healers? What, exactly, do these practitioners do? And how might working with a sound healer help us? 

Cherub and Tim Wheater are two London-based sound healers who have done plenty to raise awareness of the practice over their decade-long working relationship. Cherub’s explanation of their underlying approaches—contrasting her own philosophy with that of Wheater, who’s been involved with sound healing since the early ’80s—could be a summary of the big picture. “So for Tim, sound healing would be more about accessing the mind of the divine, and the poetry and the majesty and the absolute magic of sound,” she said. “I’m more about: How does sound work? How does it affect the brain? How can we utilise it daily? Beyond it being a beautiful spiritual concept that ultimately helps access higher states of awareness connected to yourself, the cosmos and beyond… How does it work? And what does it do to the body?”

Ten years ago we might have described this as a “tension” between science and spirituality. But in an age where neuroscience and meditation have become good friends, and attending an ayahuasca ceremony is of interest to major research labs, the boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred. Tracie likes to frame what she does in terms of cymatics, a study that essentially deals with how sound affects matter. She feels it’s easier for people to imagine the tone of a gong vibrating your cells and organs once you’ve seen a cymatic demonstration of a sine wave creating a beautiful mandala in sand.

“I have experienced first-hand how truly transformational sound healing has been for myself and others,” Josie Danielle, whose overall practice includes sound healing, light language and reiki, told me. “In sessions I use energy healing and sound to help people to release from emotional, physical, spiritual and mental blockages, which often creates deep shifts unfolding far beyond the session.” Terms like “rebalancing,” “realigning” and “spaciousness” were mentioned frequently by the people I spoke to. There’s also the effect that an instrument like a gong has on cognition (an effect that people lost in a dance floor experience might identify with). According to practitioners, the thinking mind becomes quiet as your focus falls on the tones, creating a relaxing, meditative state of mind. “The lazy man’s meditation,” is how Tim playfully described it. 

Luca Mortellaro, known widely as the techno and experimental artist Lucy, is a firm believer in sound’s healing potential. Through his sound-bath meditations, mainly staged at retreats in Italy, he’s seen plenty of participants overcome physical and mental ailments; he feels that sound works on an extremely deep energetic level. But he’s also cautious not to make overstated claims about his role. “I’m extremely careful with the whole, ‘We’re doing this because it heals our soul,’ ‘cleans our sins,’ this post-religious word, because over years of teaching sound bath and leading those sessions it’s always very dangerous if people start to see you like a saviour, a guru, someone that can fix your problems,” he said. “What I like to say is that, for me, the gong is a door. What I can do with the techniques and experiences I’m familiar with is to open those doors. That’s it. To give you the tools to navigate.”  

Whether the sound healer is running a group or solo session, or perhaps a seated, concert-style event, there are some key instruments that are frequently worked with. Gongs are perhaps the one most popularly associated with this world. “Gonging can be a very intense experience, particularly when it’s an extended session,” Luca said. Both he and Tracie spoke almost reverently about the power of gongs. This East and Southeast Asian percussion instrument is said to cause entrainment, which in this context describes the synchronisation of our fluctuating brainwaves with the stable frequency of the gong. The brain can enter theta and delta states, which are associated with relaxation and creativity—hence the often deep feeling of harmony. 

“We actually did some scientific studies with EEG machines to look at what was happening in the brain with the gongs,” Cherub told me. “It showed these prolonged states of theta. In the theta brainwave state, all of the beautiful neurochemical releases are happening that keep you strong and healthy. That’s why meditation is so beneficial—that’s what’s happening, you’re getting into that theta brainwave state. Slower, slower, more relaxed. So this is essentially what’s happening when you receive sound healing. This is why it’s become so popular: people are stressed. They need to chill out.” 

Crystal bowls are another favourite of sound healers. “I love crystal bowls because I have found the vibrations they emit to be powerful in the way that they interact with people,” Josie said. “You not only listen with your ears, you receive with every cell of your being. It can be a very physical experience as the body can twitch and shake as it naturally releases stagnant energies.” Anyone attending a sound healing or sound meditation session might also hear tuning forks, chimes, flutes, bells, chimes and drums. Tracie told me that her favourite is the monochord, an ancient stringed instrument that she calls the “ultimate drone.”  

Everyone I spoke to said the voice—both theirs and the voices of participants in sessions—are among the most powerful healing tools we know of. 

Tracie always starts a session with “toning,” which she likens to a mantra in yoga. She asks people to close their eyes as she chooses an image, such as trees. As a group, they then “activate” the image using sound until, eventually, a transformation takes place. “People get out of the way of themselves,” she said. “Like a DJ mix—the two records that make a third invisible record—that also happens in a room. You start to not hear your own voice. You ‘get out of the way’ by ignoring your self-consciousness, feeling part of a bigger picture. That point is pretty key in the process.” 

Luca also asks his participants to use their voice as part of a breathing, or pranayama, technique. The idea is that by replicating the tone of the gong, the body is better prepared to receive its vibrational frequency. “To draw a parallel line to a clubbing experience,” he said, “it’s like stepping into a club super fresh and being excited about what’s going on, or being there for your tenth or eleventh hour in a very open body system, let’s say, to the bass and the frequencies. That’s a completely different experience. That’s reaching much deeper, much easier.” 

Cherub, meanwhile, was unequivocal in this area. “Singing—there’s nothing more powerful on this earth than singing with your own voice. It’s a vibro-acoustic medicine, a free instrument that you’re born with. Just singing or humming alone is very powerful for the body.”   

To some these kinds of claims might seem exaggerated or specific to a spiritual context. But an increasing body of science is rapidly showing evidence for what sound healers have been saying for millenia. A review of 400 published scientific articles found strong evidence of music’s health benefits, particularly in reducing stress and improving mood. One of the paper’s authors, Daniel Levitin, wrote the 2006 book This Is Your Brain On Music, which became something of a classic in the science-of-music field. “Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears—it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear,” Oliver Sacks, the late British neurologist and author, whose work investigated music, is quoted as saying. “But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more—it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.” 

It seems common for sound healers to organise a session around an overall structure that allows for improvisation. DJs might identify with this, knowing in advance the general shape of a set, while also “reading the room” with track selections. “We start it quietly,” Tim said. “There’s a little bit of movement there. Getting people settled in. We then build it. There’s a bit of a peak two-thirds of the way usually. Then we’re constructively winding it down. We get to the end where we leave it very spacious, sparse because by then people are almost welcoming the silences between the sounds. So there’s an appeal to people’s psychology and perception. We’re all unique in how we hear, but overall this does seem to work as a template.” 

Back in 2018, I attended a sound healing session led by Josie. A small group of us gathered in a community space below a church in East London. We lay on yoga mats, eyes closed, as Josie emitted cascading tones from behind an array of crystal bowls. I remember thinking that the spiritual or ceremonial feel of the session might have initially disoriented more sceptically minded people, but that the sheer power of the drones would likely sideline any reservations. In places I found the session almost unnerving, as I tried to make sense of the enveloping sonics and place the source of the sounds. Overall, though, the experience was one of bliss and contentment, which lasted into the days following the session.  

I had what you might call a typical response, but experiences can vary wildly. “We’ve been told everything, from the top end of the spectrum to the bottom,” Cherub said. “People having literal orgasms to people screaming in physical pain and having to leave the room. But bringing it down to your average kind of response it’s things like, ‘Best night’s sleep I’ve ever had,’ ‘I feel reborn,’ ‘I feel calmer,’ ‘My mind is beginning to unwind,’ ‘It’s helped heal physical pain.’ But generally, the main effect across the masses is destressing, relaxing.” 

In turn, when things are going well the sound healer appears to experience their own type of altered consciousness. “It’s a flow state for me,” Cherub said. “When I first trained ten years ago, it was very cerebral, working out what to do next…Then when you become proficient with the instruments, it gets to the point where eyes are closed, you’re in a complete flow, we’re in synchronicity with each other. And it’s just freedom in the mind. Expansiveness of consciousness.” 

Josie talked about floating in a “trance-like state where I am not thinking or feeling anything as such. It can feel like I become one with the sounds. It is this beautiful dance between absolute presence and surrendering to the flow.” 

In 1975, the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi outlined the characteristics of “flow,” which we know informally as “being in the zone.” He described a state of effortless focus, where we become so absorbed in a task that the sense of time and the sense of ourselves melts away. Flow is most widely associated with visual artists, athletes and musicians. Viewed through the lens of flow, we could say that DJs and sound healers reach the state through similar means. They manipulate sound. Their performances respond to an ineffable feeling in a space. They narrow their thinking minds by focussing on music. 

I asked Luca if he felt there was an overlap between the two disciplines. “1,000%,” he said. “For me, the most amazing time I had while clubbing or performing as a DJ came when basically structure is over. The beauty of electronic music is that it questions all of those chromatic experiences of sound that you can decode easily because you are used to them, those taken-for-granted elements. It can bring you to a space of new types of exploration. It’s the same with gongs, you know? When you think about it, a genre like techno is very limited and very wide at the same time. Certain elements that make you think, ‘Yes I recognise this’. So I recognise the sound as the sound of a gong but still, in over six years of sessions, there hasn’t been one time that has been the same as another. And that’s the beauty of those non-chromatic instruments, as well as the beauty of playing with the archetypes of techno, which are very simple and very few, into things that are richer.” 

Tracie, the other DJ/sound healer I spoke to, continually referenced DJing during our conversations. It seemed as if, for her, the link wasn’t even in question. “Like a DJ set, it’s like, ‘I’ve got all of these people, I’ve got to pull them into this sound,'” she said. “Get their attention or get them focussed. Let’s all speak the same language. At a certain point in a DJ set—just like the sound harmonisation, sound meditation sessions—there’s an invisible coherence point where something just shifts to the next gear. And then, it changes. I really do feel like my years of DJing have played a huge part in my experiences now of group sound meditation from a live perspective.” 

There’s also arguably a similarity in the learning curve for these respective fields. The basics of DJing can be taught in a day. Expertise, however, takes years. As Cherub pointed out to me, a child can whack a gong. But it’s about mastery of the instrument, the creation of a deep and intuitive relationship. This idea is emphasised by Tim and Cherub on the sound-healing course they teach. “The advantage in our field, and I do stress this sometimes when we’re talking to students, is that these are percussive instruments,” Tim said. “I always say to them: guys, celebrate this. You can get through the basics of this really quite quickly. And then we’re going to teach you to perceive the sound that you want to make.” 

I emailed with Jeanine Gasser, a Swiss-Mexican life coach based in London, who is currently studying with Tim and Cherub. She told me about the thoroughness of the course and how she’s observed the sound-healing movement growing increasingly popular. I also spoke to Allison Bagg, a sound practitioner, breathwork facilitator and artist based in Los Angeles, who is a recent graduate. Allison hadn’t intended to set up her own practice—”I remember kind of zoning out during our last day when they gave tips and tricks around how to start your practice and business because I didn’t think it applied to me!”—but the sheer volume of interest she received led her to get started.

“I think quarantine really opened people up to vibrational healing and different self-care modalities and I now see sound healing everywhere,” she said. “Brands and studios seem to be offering this work online and in-person a lot more than ever…I have found that more and more people are interested and excited about this work. For this reason, I am even building out a training of my own to offer deeper study and information.”  

Most of the sound healers I spoke with sounded a cautionary note about the field’s rapid expansion. It’s almost inevitable that, as the market grows, inexperienced or underskilled practitioners and, in some cases, straight-up charlatans will attempt to make money from sound healing, while some training courses out there apparently last as little as a couple days. “You’ve really got to do your research,” Tracie said. “There are people out there doing great stuff and people out there doing low-quality stuff. I wouldn’t say there’s enough high-end stuff going on out there. For people going to a session, I would advise seeing how long that person has been doing it. Some [practitioners] have done just three days’ training.” 

“If you are going to do it, be in it for the long haul,” she added. “You have to do inner work as well. Looking at your own stuff.” 

Josie told me that, “We all have our own gifts to share, so there is a beauty in the difference between practitioners and how sound is shared. However, I do feel it makes a difference when a sound healing practitioner already has experience holding healing space for others.” 

Towards the end of my conversation with Cherub and Tim, Cherub breezily spoke about how the increase in awareness has meant a shift in the demographics of people interested in the practice. When Tim got started in the early ’80s, the field was very much the preserve of the spiritual community; these days, they’re training models, footballers, music producers, therapists, accountants, lawyers and DJs to become sound healers.

The stark difference now is that there’s obviously, thankfully, a new generation coming aboard—very enthusiastic and very open to this,” Tim said. “So we’re seeing them on the one side, and even there’s an acceptance—and we were talking about this in relation to psychoactive drugs—in terms of the establishment attitude. We are watching boundaries change. And as that happens, as we open our minds more as a society, I think this field fits in so perfectly.”      

Author: Ryan Keeling

Designer: Olesia Li