Sound Vibrations & The Brain: New Connections & Paradigms
23 February 1998
Marc Wolf

“And he called the medicine which is obtained through music by the name of purification”
-Iamblichus referring to Pythagoras’ activities in his Crotona School (from T. Taylor’s The Life of Pythagoras)

This article focuses on two interconnected theses: first, that audible sound vibrations play more of a role in brain function than previously estimated, and in fact may be directly responsible for initiating certain brain states which in turn may be controlled or triggered by characteristics of different vibratory phenomena (amplitude, magnitude, ratios, partials, timbre); second, that music, as organized sound, was used by ancient civilizations for just this purpose: as a means of directing vibrations to different perceptual and physiological “centers” for purposes of healing and gaining higher states of consciousness. It is this music, based on natural and biological energies, using interval relationships in natural proportion or based on an overtone series, which was most likely the basis of musical systems prior to 600 BC.

A change in fundamental human consciousness at this point coincided with a change in musical theory, which had social, cultural, political and metaphysical consequences. By investigating these events, we may develop a clearer understanding of how our musical system got where it is today, and what the possibilities for the future are.


Terence McKenna’s book Food Of The Gods makes brief mention of the provocative idea that vibrations and specifically the vocal vibrations associated with human use of language cause a cleansing of the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF): CSF continuously bathes the brain, (see illustration) washing out chemical waste. It is hypothesized that the skull vibrations caused by vocalizations are primarily responsible for “agitating” the CSF, thereby increasing its cleansing power much like a washing machine agitates clothing. It follows that a brain with less chemical waste will be capable of higher thought forms and deeper concentration.

If this is so, it may be one of the reasons why Homo Sapiens evolved thinner skulls than did other competing hominids. A thinner skull would transmit proportionally more vibration into the CSF:

“Vibrations of human skull, as produced by loud vocalizations, exert a massaging effect on the brain and facilitate elution of metabolic products from the brain into the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF)...The Neanderthals had a brain 15% larger than we have, yet did not survive in competition with modern humans. Their brains were more polluted, because their massive skulls did not vibrate and therefore the brains were not sufficiently cleaned. In the evolution of modern humans the thinning of the cranial bones was important.”(Jindrak)

It follows that vibrations associated with all human vocal sounds would conform to this hypothesis; chanting, humming, or any external vibratory phenomena such as drumming, bell chiming or other sound related rites, which could also effect sympathetic vibrations in the skull. These and other types of sound use have been an integral part of human culture since earliest times. In evolutionary terms, cultures which engaged in these activities had the benefit of improved brain function, and consequently, better survival strategies. As one of many biological survival mechanisms, Homo Sapiens has retained the instinctual need for skull vibrations. Music and other sound rites today may simply be another product of millions of years of evolution.


The mantras chanted in Tantric Yoga and other meditative/ritual chanting would in fact be far more “vibratory” to the skull than speech.

“The root words man (mind) and tra (instrument of) are joined to produce the Sanskrit word mantra. The specific usage of this term is reserved to describe the relationship of sound to subtle mental dynamics. In Tantrism, sound is understood to be the most powerful instrument of mind, and the Tantric tradition serves to unite the inner and outer worlds. Sounds themselves are of primary concern; that is, consonants and vowels rather than their combinations to form words as is done in a conventional language.” (Pankaj) [Italics mine]

Vocal vibrations are indeed at the core of other esoteric traditions, and chanting/singing are certainly a major part of almost every religion. States of higher consciousness associated with religious ecstasy usually coincide with chanting and vocalized prayer. Could these phenomena be caused by just a physio-mechanical cleansing or do vibrations have some other direct affect on portions of the brain/nervous system? In yoga, the centers or chakras are defined in terms of areas of the body. Since these areas are in direct control of the brain/nervous system, it follows that vibrations affecting certain parts of the brain would consequently affect centers in the body. There are 8 “transcendental ecstasies” that can be achieved through mantra yoga : (1) being stopped as though dumb, (2) perspiration, (3) standing up of hairs on the body, (4) dislocation of voice, (5) trembling, (6) fading of the body,(7) crying in ecstasy, and (8) trance.” (Prabhupada) The Tantric tradition suggested to me that these vibrations were perhaps acting directly on parts of the brain receptive to sonic vibration.


The composer Karlheinz Stockhausen is aware of the power of vocal vibrations and used the concepts in various works most obviously in Stimmung (1968) for 6 vocalists. Stockhausen does not limit the vibration effect to vocal sounds, he states

“ ...each of us is a person with many levels...I have a sexual center, three vital centers, two mental centers, and a supra-personal center. I have become capable of awakening seven different centers in myself ...[and can ]...start each center vibrating by deploying something different. I can thus start my sexual center vibrating by way of a certain kind of music. Another kind of music will affect my supra-natural center. There also exists music which penetrates all of the centers-with movements when the appeal is absolutely holy, absolutely religious, and times when the appeal is totally sensuous, totally erotic.. (Stockhausen, p53-55)

We have all experienced the “power of sound” in one or more ways, in movie theaters with Dolby Surround Soundä, at stadium rock concerts, after chanting in all night out-door bonfire frenzies, at airports, or near an ocean. I know of one individual who fainted upon hearing the Walton Violin Concerto at age 13.The brain states brought on by these various listening experiences all have appreciable and distinct physiological manifestations. But one has to be in a receptive state to experience them. Certainly not everyone faints when hearing the Walton Violin Concerto.


The most obvious way to direct vibration to the skull or sonic brain receptors besides vocalizing is with headphones. A glance around any subway car reveals that at headphone listening is now part of our cultural identity. The experience of headphone listening is referred to by R. Murray Schaeffer as “interiorized sound”. He surmises that

“interiorized sound (vibration) removes the individual from this world and elevates him towards higher spheres of existence. When the yogi recites his mantra, he feels the sound surge through his body. His nose rattles. He vibrates with dark, narcotic powers. Similarly, when sound is conducted directly through the skull of the headphone listener, he is no longer regarding events on the acoustic horizon; no longer is he surrounded by a sphere of moving elements. He is the sphere. He is the universe....Headphone listening directs the listener to a new integrity with himself....when he releases the experience by pronouncing Om does he take his place again with humanity.” (Schaeffer p119)

Anyone listening to a walkman in order to block out external stimuli is probably listening at a volume sufficient to create skull vibration. Rock, Dance, Hip Hop, Heavy Metal and other similar musics would theoretically be most effective for blocking the ever-increasing noise of industrialized society, and for vibrating the skull. Additionally, industrial background noise is responsible for masking beneficial vibrations in the environment; (For an extensive study of the history of environmental noise see Schaeffer, R.M. :The Soundscape) while in the not so distant past, humans could be receptive to the most subtle of vibrations, we seem to have become impervious to them. This is one possible explanation for the prevalence of highly amplified music forms today, which evolved through the industrial revolution. Another explanation is that headphone listening is a surrogate for archetypal rituals involving sound, and as stated above, the instinctual need for vibrations.

In addition to creating new listening environments, voluminous music forms also demand a different type of listening. Previously it was possible to differentiate 4 types of musical listening or hearing: (1) passive listening, (2) sensuous listening, (3) emotional listening and (4) perceptive listening. We must add among others: vibrational listening. These types are not mutually exclusive and may be experienced in varying combinations. As the first 4 types can be seen as products of intellectual processes, Vibrational hearing must be seen as supra-rational. It is possible that intellectual hearing was once inseparable from vibrational hearing and it is likely that because of this the ancients were aware of the music in vibrations, and the vibrations in music.

Pythagoras and the “Great Mutation”

“[Pythagoras] extended his ears and fixed his intellect in the sublime symphonies of the world, he alone hearing and understanding, as it appears, the universal harmony and consonance of the spheres and the stars that are moved through them and which produce a fuller and more intense melody than anything effected by mortal sounds.” (Iamblichus)

If this passage is true, it seems likely that Pythagoras was aware of supra-rational vibrational hearing. Paradoxically, he was also the first music theorist. In attempting to rationalize and codify into a theoretical framework, the teachings of various mystery schools of which he was an initiate, and correlate numerical and formal principles to those teachings, he set off a chain of events that lead directly to advent of polyphony, equal temperament, and the harmonic principles which constitute current western music tradition. The attempted demystification of music by Pythagoras, and its consequent misinterpretation by Greek physicists severed the link between supra-rational vibrational hearing and intellectual, or rational hearing.

The “Great Mutation” was, according to composer Dane Rudhyar, a “planet-wide endeavor to introduce a new type of mentality during the period beginning with 600 B.C....brought about by the disintegration of tribal social organizations. “ (Rudhyar p.117) The restructuring of social and political systems focused on individualistic and objective modes of thinking, and were thus more intellectual and abstract. The “Great Mutation” originated in Classical Greece, where rationalism gradually replaced mysticism. According to Rudhyar, the “deeper layers of meaning” preserved in mystery schools of Egypt and the Near-East were lost in this mutation. Essentially, the “Great Mutation” severed the “supra-rational” mind from the rational mind. A corresponding chasm was ripped between the supra-rational receptor for vibration, and the rational faculties of hearing. The “Great Mutation” then represents a fork in the path of Oriental(non-western) and Occidental (western) music theories.

“[For Pythagoras,] numbers and Forms referred to archetypal realities and universal principles on which the structures of all existential wholes were built. From these Numbers were derived musical proportions and essential relationships between tones. Pythagoras was undoubtedly able to use such tones and melodic sequences for healing of body and soul, and for the harmonizing of irrational and discordant emotions. “ (Rudhyar, P 129)

Pythagoras wanted to define the musical cosmos in one neat little package we now call a scale, and base it on mathematical proportions derived from an ascending perfect 5th progression, but limited for metaphysical reasons to 2 octaves. At this time, music was based on melody which was essentially vocal, and intuitive, but the subject of how to build scales was a huge topic of scientific and metaphysical inquiry. (For an indepth explanation of scales and intervals, see Daniélou)

“The Greeks received all the elements of their musical system from Egypt and the Near-East, a fact that they never attempted to conceal. Where they really showed their originality was in their physicists attempt to explain the laws of that music with the help of a theory they had received from another source, and in reality was applicable to another system. Since the physicists’ theory could never coincide with the system as used by the musicians, many compromises had to be invented. This explains the multiplicity of combinations and ratios proposed for each mode according to the inventiveness of the physicists.” (Daneliou p 94)

Living at a time when individuals were struggling to reconcile their mystical roots with the new systems of rationality, what emerges is the confused and chaotic system of music attributed to the Greeks. Rudhyar illustrates the genealogy of these ideas into the middle ages:

“Pythagoras appears to have been a link between the archaic traditions of Greek mysticism ( the most well-known expression of which were the Eleusinian Mysteries which persisted throughout the history of Greek culture) and the type of rationalistic thinking we find in Plato -- a thinking which was brought to a far more intellectualistic and analytical level by Aristotle, who in turn deeply influenced the basic character of the most official type of European mentality during and after the Middle Ages.” (Rudhyar p 121)

Temporal Perception

The tonal system surely has its roots in Greece, but it grew up in Europe and was molded by parallels in socio-political events. Rudhyar goes as far as stating:

“In developing the tonal system and pushing it to its inevitable conclusion-- the practice of “transposing” themes, chords and developments from one “key” to another, the complex rules of “modulation” and the problem of “temperament”-- European music has encountered problems which parallel most significantly those experienced by European society at the level, first, of interpersonal relationships within the small family unit, then, of political and social organization within the “sovereign State.” (Rudhyar p112)

If we are to accept the possibility that sonic phenomena can stimulate centers in the mind, it follows that artificial systems of temperament may have unpredictable effects on individuals and ultimately societies. Furthermore, there are other consequences of equal temperament that are easier to define. The composer Iannis Xenakis describes it thus:

“Ancient music relies on pitch scales and tetrachords which are free of temporal ordering [and] is Outside-Time; Western music based on tonality is subjected to a system of temporal durations, intervals, successions, and is therefore classed In-time. The development of polyphony with its reliance on temporal parameters is seen as regressive and impoverished in respect to scales.” (Matossian p. 172)

It has been said that listening to certain classical music before taking a math test can help you do better. This must be partially attributed to its being “In-Time” and the fact that the rhythmic organization into Meter creates a “patterned succession of accented timepoints.” (Kramer, p 83) The varying stresses of these timepoints create a hierarchical geometric graph along the temporal continuum. Perception of the different layers of meter tap into and excite the intellectual and rational mind.


Vibration and music were inseparable to the ancients, and are inseparable in most non-western music forms. In this century in the West there have been composers who sought to bridge the chasm. Harry Partch, and Dean Drummond have invented instruments to carry out their musio-vibrational aspirations while others such as Lou Harrison, LaMonte Young, and Giacinto Scelsi extended the techniques used on existing instruments to create immensely powerful, original and effective music.

Microtonal music, or music that rejects the tempered scale used in western music is gaining popularity and acceptance in concert halls and universities, and is being used in rock, jazz, folk and experimental music. This new acceptance shows an increased awareness and sensitivity to intervals, and is the first step in reuniting vibration and music in the West. These developments may illumine the “connection between physical reality and metaphysical principles [which] can be felt in music as nowhere else, and [why music was] was therefore justly considered by the ancients as the key to all sciences and arts--the link between metaphysics and physics through which the universal laws and their multiple applications could be understood. “(Daniélou p1.)

Notes, Credits & Resources

Bibliography & Further Reading

DANIÉLOU, ALAIN (1943;1995) Music and The Power of Sound: The Influence of Tuning and Interval on Consciousness. Vermont:Inner Traditions
HELMHOLTZ, HERMANN (1885/1954) On the senations of tone as a physiological basis for the theory of music. New York : Dover
Jindrak,K. F. and Jindrak, H. “Mechanical Effect of Vocalization of Human Brain and Meninges,” Medical Hypotheses 25 (1988) pp. 17-20.
KRAMER, J. (1988) The Time of Music. New York: Schirmer Books
MATOSSIAN, NOURITZA (1990) XENAKIS. White Plains, New York: Pro Am Music Resources
MCKENNA, T. (1992) Food Of The Gods. New York: Bantam Books
Pankaj Seth, B.Sc., N.D. Course calender of the Renaissance Naturopathic Centre (Toronto, Canada). (Pankaj Seth, B.Sc., N.D Director: Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine))
PARTCH, HARRY (1991) Bitter Music : Collected Journals, Essays, Introductions and Librettos. Chicago: University of Illinois Press
PARTCH, HARRY (1974) Genesis of A Music; 2nd Edition. New York: Da Capo Press
His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada Chanting the Hare Krishna Mantra (from the internet)
RUDHYAR, DANE The Magic of Tone and Relationship. Unpublished Manuscript
STOCKHAUSEN, K (1989) Towards a Cosmic Music. Longmead, Shaftesbury, Dorset: Element Books Limited
Experimental Musical Instruments (Periodical)


The Music of Harry Partch. CRI ; CRI CD 7000
Newband play Partch, Cage, La Barbara, and Drummond. Mode Records ; Mode18
Newband play Partch, Monk, Rosenblum... Mode; Mode 33
Just West Coast. Microtonal Music for Guitar and Harp. Bridge; BCD9041
Enclosure Two: Harry Partch. Innova Recordings; Innova 401
Giacinto Scelsi: Music for Cello- Frances-Marie Uitti. Etcetera; KTC 1136
Giacinto Scelsi (Misc Works) Accord; Accord 200612; 200622; 200402; 200742

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