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Gongs And The Biophysical Mechanisms

John St. Claire

Mar 1, 2023

A literary review

A search of literature yielded few direct results. There is a great deal of information on  music and how it has been used historically in medicine (Conrad, 2010) (Goldman, 1988) but  very little on the gong experience. Nothing in the Music Therapy literature addresses large  German gongs. 

A study in Slovenia (Pesek & Batina, 2016) surveyed participant’s experience in sound  meditations using gongs, bowls, and other instruments and summarized that they experienced  relaxation, reduced stress, and inner well-being to varying degrees, but it didn’t specify the types  nor sizes of gongs, nor discuss the subjective quality of their experiences. A study on the effect  of Tibetan bowls (Goldsby 2016) also used Tibetan bowls and Chinese gongs and noted that the  very first initial exposure to sound meditations frequently had a more pronounced effect than on  those who had prior experience. 

Gongs have been measured to exhibit highly non-linear vibrations and chaotic behavior  (Chaigne 2005). There is a profound distinction between the German made instruments which  are nickel silver alloy (NS12, 88% copper and 12% nickel), and the Asian instruments made  from bronze alloy of approximately 80% copper and 20% tin. There are approximately 50 of  these large Paiste gongs in existence (mine is #30) and no formal study of their therapeutic value  has ever been done.

 With no formal documentation of the differences available, I’m left to describe the  distinction based upon my experience as a professional musician and sound designer. Every gong  is different. German gongs are more consistent yet each is still unique. Chinese gongs are less  consistent with perhaps 1 in 100 exhibiting a truly superlative sound. When comparing gongs of  comparable sizes, the Chinese Chau gongs sound dull, heavy, thick, limited, chaotic, and more  “tin-ny,” In contrast, the sound emanating from the German gongs is rich, open, full, coherent,  focused, harmonic, and pure. The cost of the German gongs is approximately triple the amount  of the Chinese gongs of comparable size, and they tend to be the preferred choice of  professionals for producing the greatest therapeutic effect. 

There is a great deal of research on music and evidence of its beneficial effects for a  multitude of conditions (Stanczyk, 2011)(Standley, 2002)(Whipple, 2004). Music had a  measurable effect on increased seed germination compared with noise and a control group  (Creath, 2004). The Johns Hopkins Center for Music & Medicine was founded in 2015, has 80  faculty members, and offers treatments to help patients with Parkinson’s disease and dementia.  (Johns Hopkins website).  

The first chapter of The Oxford Handbook of Medical Ethnomusicology, (Koen, Barz, &  Brummel-Smith, 2011) Confluence of Consciousness in Music, Medicine, and Culture, describes: 

“The burgeoning area of medical ethnomusicology, a new  

field of integrative research and applied practice that explores  

holistically the roles of music and sound phenomena and related  

praxes in any cultural and clinical context of health and healing. This  

is viewed as being intimately related to and intertwined with the  

biological, psychological, social, emotional, and spiritual domains of  

life, all of which frame our experiences, beliefs, and understandings  

of health and healing, illness and disease, and life and death.” 

The study of music and its effects is an extremely broad category. Whilst there is a  growing popularity of gongs baths and sound meditations (Kalaichandran, 2019), there has been  scant research done on gong therapy. What follows is a description of potential biophysical  mechanisms of action which may induce the altered states caused by exposure to the direct  vibrations of a large gong.

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