Massage and Music Integration

Copyright 2009, Linda Gertrude Means


By Linda Gertrude Means, Ph.D., CMT

Peacehope Healing Arts, Monroeville, PA


Background music is a traditional element in most massage practices; in fact, for many of us, it would seem strange to give or receive a massage in the absence of music.  And music therapy is a much-studied field, with decades of clinical research in contexts ranging from physical rehabilitation to childbirth.  Music has been proven to have measurable therapeutic effects for pain management, learning, immune response, blood pressure, respiration, depression, and many other medical conditions.


So why not use our massage music intentionally to support the therapeutic effect of our bodywork treatments?  We can use music in specific ways to produce desired energetic effects, slow the brainwaves to induce deep relaxation, captivate the attention to quiet the mind, open the client’s emotional and spiritual body, and inject a musical experience kinesthetically into the body.  Happily, current MP3 technology liberates us from the constraint of predetermined playlists burned onto CDs, enabling us to customize the musical selections track by track for each individual session.  Let’s take a look at a variety of principles and strategies for integrating music therapy with massage therapy.


Resonance and Vibrational Healing


Because we are made of energy, everything in our organism is in constant vibration, and the vibrational pattern determines our experience of health and wellness.  The vibratory effects of listening to music influence our energy patterns through the phenomenon of resonance.  Energetic resonance is the process that occurs when the vibrational frequency of one energy field changes to match another vibrational field, for example when a tuning fork is struck and another tuning fork tuned to the same frequency begins to vibrate in the same room.  Music is a powerful vibrational input which shifts our energy patterns through the process of listening.  One well known example is the Mozart Effect, based initially on research done by French scientist Alfred Tomatis, who reported experimental research results indicating that Mozart’s music promotes learning and healing of mental imbalances.  Another simple example is the effect that listening to rock and roll has on our driving; I’ve personally been pulled over by the police while unknowingly speeding under the influence of high-speed music!


One specific vibrational effect that can be produced by music is the slowing of brainwaves.  Brainwaves are the vibrational patterns occurring in the brain, which shift at different times in response to our thoughts, our emotions, our physical activity, our state of consciousness, as well as external influences.  Brainwaves are classified according to the speed of vibration in hertz, which are cycles per second:


·         Beta waves occur at >12 Hz, and typify our normal walking-around brain activity throughout our waking hours.

·         Alpha waves occur in the frequency range of 8-12 Hz, a pattern which is associated with daydreaming and hypnotic trance states.  In the alpha state, we are awake and lucid, in a state of detached, relaxed awareness.  The alpha state bridges the consciousness of the beta state with the subconscious access that occurs at slower brainwave frequencies.

·         Theta waves occur at 4-8 Hz, and have been measured in dreaming sleep and in the extremely deep meditation of advanced meditators.

·         Delta waves are the slowest brainwave patterns, occurring in the range of 1-4 Hz.  Delta waves have been measured in non-REM sleep.


The slower-than-beta brainwave frequencies are all associated with healing states of consciousness.  Hypnosis is an effective process for healing because the alpha brainwaves of a hypnotic trance take us to a state in which our organism is receptive to positive change.  Healing may also occur more readily in slow brainwave states because the conscious mind, which maintains beliefs about our diseases and limitations, may take a backseat to the subconscious, which maintains memories of how everything functions optimally in our bodies.  Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School has spend decades studying the relaxation response -- the physiological opposite of the fight-or-flight response – marked by decreases in heart rate, blood pressure, rate of breathing, and muscle tension.  The relaxation response only occurs at brainwave frequencies of alpha or lower.


The Monroe Institute pioneered the scientific development of music composed to entrain the listener’s brain into slow brainwaves states.  Many other composers have continued to develop slow brainwave music, including Jonathan Goldman and Dr. Jeffrey Thompson.  Music with a tempo of 60 beats per minute has been found to shift brainwaves from beta to alpha frequencies, and shamanic drumming is known to produce theta brainwaves.  In a massage session, alpha wave music may improve the overall therapeutic effectiveness of the bodywork through the client’s relaxation response. 


In the context of massage, the music played during a session will invariably create a shift in the vibrational frequency of the client and of the therapist.  As therapists, the energetic contact that we make with our clients also creates an experience of resonance.  So our vibrational pattern becomes our client’s vibrational reality.  When we use music for its vibrational effect, we can embody the music ourselves as therapists, and because we are in close energetic contact with the client, our vibrational embodiment of the music creates another stimulus for our client’s experience of resonance with the energy of the music.


Instrumental vs. Vocal


The vocals occurring in music affect our consciousness in two primary ways: vibrationally and semantically.  The vibrational effect is the result of resonance with the energetics of the specific sounds, syllables and intonations, combined with the sound of the singer’s voice as an instrument, independent of any meaning attached to the lyrics.  The semantic component of the vocals contains the meaning of the lyrics, if we understand them. 


Conventional wisdom in the massage industry seems to indicate that vocal music is a no-no for massage.  It’s certainly true that the lyrics of much popular music are not supportive of a healing experience, love lost and all that stuff.  But sacred music is a different matter.  The vocals can be emotionally uplifting and inspiring, and may also produce a vibrational healing response. 


In languages like Sanskrit and Hebrew, each word is believed to have a specific energetic effect, and the prayers and chants of these languages have been used as medicine for millennia.  Many of these prayers have been set to beautiful melodies with gorgeous instrumentation by artists such as Deva Premal, Rasa, and many others.  These chants can also be used to cleanse the energy of your healing space.  I like to keep chanting playing in my massage room for a few hours after a session has ended as a method of musical smudging.


When we listen to music sung in a language which is foreign to us, we only experience the vibrational effect, because we have no linguistic  comprehension of the lyrics.  Although you can’t always know precisely which languages your client understands, beautiful soothing music sung in foreign languages may often be a safe choice, and the beauty of the voice adds another dimension to the non-vocal instrumentation.  I love using the Brazilian CD Cançoes de um Mar Infinito sung in Portuguese, because the songs are vocalized by the healers at the Padre Pio House, a spiritual healing center in Rio de Janeiro, and the music was recorded as spiritual medicine.


Semantic comprehension of lyrics is a big factor in music sung in a language which we do understand, and fatuous lyrics are certainly not valued for healing.  One December I walked into the massage room in a spa that pipes music into the therapy rooms, where the owner is enamored of all things pertaining holidays, so the spa was featuring Christmas music that month.  When I heard “Yes, we need a little Christmas, right this very minute, it hasn't snowed a single flurry, but Santa, dear, we're in a hurry” cheerily chirping from the speaker in the massage room, I swallowed my initial reaction of dismay, turned off the room speaker, and switched on my portable Ipod speaker for my upcoming session. 


On the other hand, comprehension of sacred lyrics in our native language can create a positive experience for the client.  Familiar prayers set to music and other spiritual songs can have a comforting effect, particularly when you know the client’s spiritual and religious background well enough to guess whether this kind of lyric will be welcome.  Sophia’s Prayer of St. Francis/I am Sustained  from her Emergence CD, for example, is extremely beautiful musically and spiritually, and I like to use it strategically with clients who have expressed a need for spiritual support in their session.  The songhealer Sophia has many tracks sung in English which are not obviously associated with any specific religion, but rather express universal spiritual sentiments, and her sweet voice and melodies combined with the inspirational lyrics produce an angelic listening experience.  The lyrics of Sophia’s song Sweet Surrender can create a beautiful opening for a session:  “I am opening in sweet surrender,” expressing our intention for the client at the start of the massage.


Sometimes a particular song can have an unexpected personal impact for a client.  The first time I met C., she was suffering from a series of life events which left her in a state of emotional turmoil.  Her intention for our first massage session was to get grounded, take the edge off of her emotional distress, and gain some clarity to make decisions about her future.  I happened to include the Over the Rainbow track from Israel Kamakawiwo'ole’s Alone in Iz World CD in the playlist for the session, just because of its sweetness and innocence.  After the session, C. expressed her relief and appreciation, and she mentioned Over the Rainbow specifically, telling me that the song touched her deeply.  So I made a note of this on her chart, and made sure to include it in her second session.  After the second session, C. told me that she had doubted the validity of the profound spiritual opening that she had experienced our first time, and she came back hoping to validate that first impression of our work together.  And when she heard Iz singing Over the Rainbow again, it brought back the original feeling, reinforcing her confidence in our healing work.  In a session months later, I forgot to add C.’s favorite song to the playlist.  At the end of the session, after I released the final touch, I quietly raced over to the laptop, and moved Over the Rainbow into the playlist to the next position.  The song began to play while C. laid wrapped in the sheet, basking in the afterglow of her massage.  After she got off the table, she commented on how amazing the timing of the music was, her song started playing just at the very end when she could simply lie still and soak it in!


Iz’s rendition of Over the Rainbow is also an example of how a song can be used strategically to captivate the client’s attention.  Everyone knows the Judy Garland version of this song, but Iz tweaks the melody in an interesting way, his sweet voice is so touching, and his little vocal riff in the last twelve seconds makes people smile.  So the listening experience may be delightfully surprising to someone who has not heard the Iz version before, keeping the client’s attention riveted to the music for three and a half minutes, helping to release other thoughts or worries.


Yin Massage, Yang Massage


Music targeted for massage is traditionally intended to be used as background music, and thus is characteristically quiet, relatively unstructured, and often not terribly melodic, which keeps it from drawing the client’s primary attention.  The energetic effect of this type of music is primarily yin: calming and sedating, slowing bodily processes, quieting energy flow.  This is very good medicine for a client who has a deficient yin or excessive yang condition.  However, not all clients fit this profile.  Sometimes the opposite type of medicine is more suitable: stimulating yang energy to revitalize a sluggish body.


Similarly, our massage techniques themselves can be performed with yin energy or yang energy, producing corresponding therapeutic results.  When we work rhythmically, we stimulate energy flow, and when we work deeply, slowly and non-rhythmically, we provide a sedation effect energetically.  When we match the music to the work energetically – or match the work to the music – we can boost the desired energetic outcome.


According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, all natural processes move back and forth between a yin state and a yang state in a never-ending cycle.  Our life processes like sleeping/waking, activity/rest, inhalation/exhalation, diastolic/systolic are examples of the constant yin/yang cycles in the human organism.  Yin energy is always moving toward yang, and yang is always moving toward yin.  Optimal health is a reflection of yin/yang balance and flow.  So it makes sense that a massage session should also cycle back and forth between yin and yang activity.  A music playlist that includes yin and yang components enables us to create an balanced experience for the client’s energy body. 


Depending on the client’s specific condition, the session may be designed to provide either predominantly yin or predominantly yang effects, with a playlist matching the energetic objective.  Indications for a primarily yang session may include yin conditions such as fatigue, depression, lethargy, sluggish metabolism, muscular stiffness, edema, poor digestion, or coldness felt in the body.  A yin-dominant session may be indicated in the presence of yang conditions such as restlessness, anxiety, inflammation, hypersensitivity, or headache.


Even in a session which intends to promote primarily yin or yang energy, both energies play a role in releasing energy blockages, stimulating energy flow, and creating balance.  In a session which is designed to energize the body, we may choose yang music which has a lot of movement and a definite rhythm to work with.  But the playlist should also include tracks which support yin work, to facilitate deep tissue work done in a slow non-rhythmic manner, and quiet work done on sensitive areas such as the face, neck, and belly.


Emergency Response Massage International uses reggae music with chair massage to provide an energizing effect for fatigued rescue workers.  However, it’s arguable that there is not a one-size-fits-all music energy solution for all rescue situations; clients who have experienced trauma in the field may benefit more from a calming, soothing yin approach to their massage session.


For a client with a yang condition, it may be useful to begin the session with yin music that supports slow, calming touch.  After sedating the excessive yang state, we can promote a strong clear flow of energy throughout the body by working with music that moves with a definite rhythm.  The session might end with yin music, matched with calming, grounding bodywork, to help the client go back out into the world in a quiet energetic state.


For shiatsu sessions, I make sure that every track is rhythmic.  Songs may vary according to tempo, enabling me to vary the pace of the work during the session, but shiatsu relies on rhythm, whether fast or slow.


Kinesthetic Musical Experience


          Music therapy has traditionally been delivered in an auditory way, so the therapeutic effects are produced by listening to music.  In a massage session, we have the opportunity to add to the auditory experience of music with bodywork techniques that inject the music directly into the client’s body, producing a kinesthetic input as well.


When we match the rhythm of the work to the rhythm of the music, the musical rhythm is felt kinesthetically, allowing the body to experience the effects of the rhythm in a direct fashion.  In my Massage/Music Fusion  workshops, we experiment with the feel of performing the same massage move to clips of songs with varying rhythms.  Each time the music changes, we pause to feel the new rhythm in our own bodies, then resume the massage move, now matching the new rhythm.  When non-rhythmic music comes on, it becomes difficult to impose a distinct rhythm in the bodywork, which demonstrates the naturalness of using rhythmic music for rhythmic massage moves, and reserving unstructured music for deep non-rhythmic work.


How many times do you repeat a particular move during a massage?  I’ve asked this question of massage students and received various responses.  “Until it feels like I’m done,” was one response, and a very good one.  “The Rule of Four” was another response.  The student elaborated, “Four seems like a good number.”  Hmmm.  Here’s another idea:  try matching the phrasing of the massage to the phrasing of the music as it is playing.  When you become familiar with favorite pieces and you can anticipate the changes of phrasing in the music, you become able to use the music to guide the changes in the bodywork itself.  This enables the client to feel the music in the body, as the rhythm and phrasing of the work is synchronized with the music.  I’ve watched the recognition on the faces of clients as they begin to realize that the massage is choreographed with the music, and they react with delight.  This works especially well with songs that have phrasing which changes at fairly short intervals, such as tracks 2, 3, and 4 on Deva Premal Sings the Moola Mantra.


Bringing the work to a stillpoint at the end of each track is another way of choreographing the bodywork with the music.  Wait, hold, breathe, listen until the next track begins, then allow the new music to lead the way for the next segment of the massage.  The stillpoints punctuate the session with kinesthetic silence, providing an opportunity for the client to integrate the work.


          Some songs have a musical form which synchronizes well with alternating movements in the bodywork, such as Jiv Jago from Rasa’s Devotion CD, or Mary Youngblood’s Walk With Me from Beneath The Raven Moon.  Other melodies have a shape that seems to support circular movements, such as Celestial Meditation on Joseph Nagler’s Dreams CD, or Sophia’s Prayer for the Warriors on her Return CD.  Play around with your favorite music to find moves that complement the feeling of the music in your client’s body, and bring those massage techniques into the work when that music is playing.


          Moving your whole body with the music enables you to embody the music kinesthetically yourself, which translates to your client’s energy body as you maintain contact via touch.  Singing with the music is another way of embodying the music energetically as a therapist, and the vibrational effect of your singing helps you to inject the music’s energy into your client’s field.  


          Drumming on the client’s body is another method of creating a direct kinesthetic musical experience for the receiver.  Drumming has been used as medicine for thousands of years in virtually every culture on the planet, and modern-day music therapists study the healing effects of rhythm on the body.  Rhythm has been found to have a strong entrainment effect, facilitating motor coordination, brain organization, and speech articulation.  By drumming directly on the body, we can amplify the auditory effects of listening to the rhythm of music.  Plus extensive body drumming can help the client move her attention out of the head and into the body, to quiet the mind and enter a slower brainwave state.  David and Steve Gordon have several CDs full of music featuring drums in energetically balanced compositions.  Try drumming along with an entire track to provide an extended, ecstatic body drumming experience for your client. 


Putting it All Together in a Session


MP3 technology is a godsend for the 21st-century massage therapist.  We can store and transport thousands of songs to use in our work, and quickly adapt playlists on the fly.  Laptop computers and MP3 players with portable speakers are two technologies which travel easily and allow maximum flexibility in music selection.  With my laptop, I like to plug in external speakers for better quality and easier volume control during massage sessions.  For my MP3 player, I’ve found small and affordable portable speaker systems which work equally well.  With either of these technologies, it is easy to compose a playlist in a minute or less, and add, delete, or reorder tracks in seconds.  And of course the technology enables us to mix tracks from favorite CDs to create the perfect musical experience for each client.


Development of the playlist may be based primarily on the energetic motif needed to create an energy wave that ebbs and flows in a natural way, plus additional factors that provide for further customization.  How well do you know the client’s attitudes and preferences?  For regular clients, I like to vary the playlist from one session to the next, so that the music and the bodywork that accompanies it stays fresh and interesting.  With a first-time client, I prefer to err on the conservative side, with primarily instrumental music, avoiding tracks with overtly religious connotations, like yoga chants.  In a spa setting, I’ll sneak a peak at the client as he checks in at the reception desk, scoping out age, manner of dress, energy and posture.  All of these impressions provide clues as to the probable energetics and possible musical adventurousness of this stranger.  The intake discussion provides more information, so when I enter the massage room after the client has gotten on the table, I may make further adjustments to the playlist based on intake information. 


          I often like to begin the session with a piece that starts with slow quiet energy, then builds into a more melodic, moving song.  This enables me to spend the first minutes of the session making quiet, still contact, helping the client to acclimate to my touch and open to my energy field, then initiating massage movement as the movement of the music sets in.  Some songs that work nicely in this way include Hare Om Namo on Deva Premal’s Essence CD, Water on Daniel May’s Feng Shui: Music for Easy Listening CD, Body of the Goddess/I Am and Return on Sophia’s Return CD, The Prayer of St. Francis on Miten and Premal’s Trusting the Silence CD, and Sri Guru on Rasa’s Union CD.

          Some music can be used strategically to tap into the emotional body.  When I have a client who expresses a desire to release a stuck emotional pattern, I may include one or more tracks on the playlist that tend to have a strong emotional charge, such as Joseph Nagler’s Rain Forest Meditation on his Dreams CD.  When I want to help my client surrender to sheer pleasure, I may put on Sophia’s Shakti/Universal Lover/Goddess Prayer from Spirit Healing Chants, and just dance its stunning potpourri of energies into the client’s body for 19½ minutes, alternating from peaceful to jazzy to wild abandon.


During the massage session itself, I let the music lead the way for the work.  As each track comes on, I fill my body with the feeling of the music, and let it guide me to the areas of the body that require that energy.  I make sure that I’ve allowed for enough variety in the music to help me cover the whole body with musical energy that facilitates all of the work that I’ll need to do.  And I make sure that I’ve included music that I love listening to and dancing with, because the session is also a music therapy treatment for me!


After the session, I include music notes on the client’s chart.  Did the client comment on likes or dislikes regarding the music?  I’ve had clients express preferences relating to volume, vocal vs. instrumental music, and specific artists or songs.  I’ve known people who are annoyed by hearing foreign language lyrics simply because they are foreign. 


          Most of all, music brought into the forefront of a bodywork session can introduce an element of fun and excitement into the massage.  It also creates an opportunity to introduce clients to some of the beautiful, fascinating, sacred healing music that they may not find in their daily exposure to mainstream music.  It provides a canopy of healing energy that infuses the session with inspiration and spirit, for the therapist as well as the client.