When Ellen Whealton was 12 years old, she fell into a coma after being kicked in the head by a horse. She was unconscious for a week and nearly died. She says that she was aware of having the choice to stay in the light or come back to serve a purpose. That purpose, she says, was to share the healing power of music—which has always been her passion.
“From that point on, I knew what I was meant to do,” she said during a recent phone interview from her home in San Diego, warmth and passion resonating in her voice. “When I came out of my coma, I threw myself into music for my own healing. I didn’t have any long-lasting effects from the accident, which the doctors said was a miracle.”
Whealton went on to become a board-certified music therapist with a master’s degree in psychology and counseling from Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. At the time she was studying, she was the only student in her graduate program. Now, however, nearly two decades later, she realizes she was on the forefront of the biggest trend in wellness since “wellness” became a thing. She runs a successful therapy business called Wellness Music Therapy, has a show on the Awake TV Network and another one coming on Amazon, and her sound-therapy workshops come highly recommended by Jack Canfield (author of “Chicken Soup for the Soul”).
While using music as an instrument for healing is far from a new phenomenon—the practice dates back at least as long as the ancient Greek and Egyptian civilizations—it is now spurring the proliferation of everything from “gong bath” therapy centers to new technology that uses AI to create custom soundscapes that continually adapt to each listener’s physiology. (Brands are getting in on the trend, too: Smartwater has collaborated with Endel, an Amazon-funded app that pulls data from your phone and your smartwatch, to create Smartbeats, a generative music channel using algorithms and your own biofeedback designed to improve your wellbeing.) Wellness music is filtering into the mainstream music industry, too, with an explosion of channels and playlists on streaming sites like Spotify.
What is going on here? Does wellness music actually work?
According to Whealton, music can provide a pathway into our subconscious minds, and she believes it can help us access trauma and negative memories that talk therapy cannot. “Music is a language unto itself,” Whealton says. “We don’t need to use conscious thinking to feel what we feel when we listen to music. Music activates parts of the brain that conscious thinking cannot. Through it, we can explore emotions and display them in a different way.”
In her practice, she uses ancient sounds like crystal singing bowls, chanting, singing, and drumming to activate her clients’ subconscious minds, and then incorporates visualization and essential oils—which activate the smell sense, most linked to memory—to connect positive associations with certain memories and feelings.
“In talk therapy, you’re just moving through the same thoughts that got you stuck in the first place. People need an experience of connecting to their higher self, or the core of who they are. When we’re immersed in sound, we’re in a place of imagination, and that helps us reconnect. I’m helping people remember who they are and where they want to be.”
According to Whealton, the results can be nothing short of miraculous. Clients typically find even one session enacts long-lasting positive change in their lives. “We can move through personal growth so much more quickly with music,” she says. “We can release trauma and untangle and detach negative memories.”
Whealton identifies herself an evidence-based therapist, and points to many scientific studies that back up her practices. Indeed, studies from the Harvard Medical School have shown that music therapy reduced symptoms of depression, pain, and disability. A 2009 study found that music-assisted relaxation improved the quality of sleep in patients with sleep disorders. Music has also been shown to temporarily improve cognitive performance (leading to the “Baby Mozart” craze of the 1990s). Studies done in various hospitals have shown that patients who listen to music before and during surgery have significantly reduced blood pressure, stress hormones, and heart rates. Finally, studies suggest that making music in a group can increase communication, coordination, cooperation, and even empathy between the group members. So it’s not that huge of a leap to imagine that it can help people let go of negative patterns and thought processes that plague them in their adult lives.
Researchers have identified that music can increase the brain’s production of neurons and activate certain parts of the brain, but they still don’t understand exactly why music can have such powerful effects on behavior, mood, and reflexive responses. However, according to Assad Meymandi, a highly esteemed psychiatrist and neurologist who also holds PhDs in biochemistry and philosophy, it may make sense from a big-picture biological perspective. Music, he says, is based on rhythm and harmony—as is human life, as is every living thing on Earth. Seasons, days, heartbeats, breathing, eating, sleeping, speech, menstrual cycles—everything is rhythmic. “One might conclude that man is really made of rhythm,” he writes. “So is nature, and so is music. Man, nature, and music are made of the same ingredients.”
Whealton says she sensed this connection between humans and music from an early age—her mother was a piano teacher, and she played the flute as a young child—but it was dying and coming back that truly showed her that music is her gift. “I remember wanting to stay in the love and light, but I knew I had to share music with people,” she says. “I am filled with gratitude to be able to do this with my life.”
How to Incorporate Music into Your Daily Routine
Whealton suggests taking five minutes every day to do a musical meditation of sorts. It could be before bedtime to relax you, or during a stressful day to help you focus.
“Pick a favorite piece of music that relaxes you,” she says. “Lie down, close your eyes, and breathe with the music. Breath is super important and powerful. Then, let your mind go wherever it takes you.” For added benefit, light a scented candle or use essential oils to bring scent into the ritual.