Perfect Harmony

Sonic “wellness” frequencies are more about ideology than health

Full-text audio version of this essay.

Among the conspiracies and pseudoscientific wellness trends currently running rampant on social media platforms are posts that reference “solfeggio frequencies.” These are sound ranges that purportedly can be used to “repair” mental and physiological maladies. By either listening to sustained tones at specific frequencies or retuning musical recordings so that concert pitch (the frequency where the A note above middle C is set) is 432Hz, you can allegedly make your body and mind “mathematically consistent with the patterns of our universe,” be it “the heart of the Sun (recorded by NASA scientists), sunbeams, the rainbow, flowers, grass and even the buzzing of bees,” or the Schumann frequency, an 8ish Hz electromagnetic wave in the ionosphere related to lightning activity.

Virtually anywhere content can be monetized, solfeggio frequencies can be heard. As of mid-September 2020, the hashtag #solfeggiofrequencies on TikTok had racked up about a million views, with videos ranging from pastel-packed Gen Z takes on New Age medicine to paranoid theories about Nazis brainwashing people by “re-tuning music to 440Hz.” YouTube has its complement of solfeggio frequency content as well. For instance, the channel Meditative Mind plays a sequence of nine tones and links each to a specific therapeutic property, including 396Hz, which “eliminates fear,” 417Hz, which “wipes out negativity,” and 639Hz “brings love and compassion in life.” And you can also find solfeggio frequencies in the App Store: There’s this $50 “Water Harmonizer” app, or this more reasonably priced meditation app, both of which claim to use specifically tuned sounds to help users achieve greater health.

Virtually anywhere content can be monetized, solfeggio frequencies can be heard

It would be easy to dismiss solfeggio frequencies as just another niche snake oil for aspiring influencers and startups to leverage into brands. But the ideas behind them have a long history, and the way they are being adopted now points to fundamental resonances between pseudoscience and contemporary political realities. Though they are said to be rooted in ancient Greek music and math, solfeggio frequencies can be better understood as neoliberal updates to Plato’s ideas about the kinds of people who are fit to rule and those who deserve to be ruled.

Solfeggio frequencies are named after the Western musical convention of solfège: the practice of assigning a specific syllable to pronounce when singing each pitch in the scale. The most well-known example is perhaps The Sound of Music’s “Do, Re, Mi” song. But the “solfeggio frequencies” evoked in hashtagged posts are quite different from those of music theorists. These posts tend to draw on ancient and mystical roots instead, citing the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras or the 11th century Italian monk Guido da Arezzo, who assigned the first syllable of consecutive lines in “Ut Queant Laxis” (“Hymn to St. John the Baptist”) to the different pitches in a six-note scale. (At least one contemporary purveyor of solfeggio frequencies has used this link to build a conspiracy theory that the Vatican is hiding knowledge of the healing sounds.) Though solfeggio frequencies are typically presented as rediscoveries of past harmonic systems, if you do the math (like I did here), you’ll find that the harmonic relations follow neither Pythagorean ratios nor Arezzo’s hexachord.

But while practitioners may point to assorted sources — numerology, the Old Testament’s Book of Numbers, and the Pythagorean theorem, etc. — their most significant progenitor, whether acknowledged or not, is Plato. The idea that mental and physical wellness can be achieved by aligning yourself with cosmologically significant ratios is straight out of the Platonic philosophical tradition. Throughout his writings, Plato uses the idea of sophrosyne — usually translated as moderation or harmony — to describe the state of those who live in accordance with the geometric ratios and proportions of the True and who, for that reason, are most free and most deserving of authority over other people.

In his theory of the divided line from the Republic, Plato claims that the metaphysical or “intelligible” dimension is proportionally more real than mere physical, visible existence — and the relation between the two can be expressed by a ratio “of their comparative clearness and obscurity.” Sophrosyne is the practice of keeping your soul (the metaphysical dimension) and body (physical existence) in this same proportion. But sophrosyne is not merely about proportion but also hierarchy. As Plato puts it, sophrosyne is “a symphonia [consonance] of the naturally inferior and the naturally superior.” In other words, sophrosyne is not just a mathematical or musical relationship among proportions but a power relationship among the “naturally” dominant and subordinate.

Solfeggio frequencies translate this idea of “natural dominance” from Plato’s metaphysical language into pseudoscientific claims about physical and physiological reality (e.g. “528Hz is the bioenergy of health and longevity” or “417 Hz releases negativity and all past trauma”). This links physical and mental illness to an individual’s insubordination to that supposedly natural hierarchical order. Listening to solfeggio frequencies, then, restores your alignment to the purportedly proper order between ruler (nature) and ruled (individual humans).

Sophrosyne is not just a musical relationship among proportions but a power relationship among the “naturally” dominant and subordinate

This helps account for the appeal of “solfeggio frequencies” and other similar forms of contemporary pseudoscience, despite their lack of efficacy. These practices certainly have no medicinal healing power, but they do resuture individuals to hegemonic power relations so that they fit in better with the dominant conceptions of subjectivity and personhood. In other words, the “healing” power of solfeggio frequencies and other such pseudoscientific alternative medicine lies in how they help “fix” the balance of ruler and ruled.

Though the ancient Greeks thought public reason should rule over private irrationality, these days neoliberalism puts forward the inverse: that private reason should rule over public irrationality. Both neoliberals and neoconservatives, as Melinda Cooper demonstrates in her book Family Values, subscribe to this, prioritizing private individual responsibility over non-privatizeable dependencies — i.e., publicly subsidized health care, education, and the like. “Neoliberal economists and legal theorists wish to re-establish the private family as the primary source of economic security and a comprehensive alternative to the welfare state,” Cooper explains. Hence the U.S. is a place where those who demonstrate adequate private responsibility for themselves are seen as fit to rule and can enjoy maximum liberty, whereas those who cannot are subject to being ruled, through mechanisms like lifelong debt or punitive state measures.

When people turn to pseudoscientific wellness gimmicks like solfeggio frequencies, they align themselves with a social order that ranks those who are thought to privately assume risk above those who supposedly can’t or won’t. This plays out clearly in another form of pseudoscience: anti-vaccination rhetoric. Sociologist Jennifer Reich surveyed anti-vax parents and found that they saw health not as primarily a medical matter but a matter of managing risk. Her study found that these parents consistently believed that families were obligated to manage health privately, and that to depend on doctors’ expertise or biological interventions like vaccines was an abdication. This “sense of duty to remain vigilant,” Reich explains, “allows mothers who question vaccines to be critical of parents who do not.” But of course, as Reich points out, that ability is underwritten by all sorts of privilege. Anti-vaxxing serves as a kind of proof that they have the time and money to parent intensively and the confidence of being above the law of public health mandates.

When the CDC and state health departments spread misinformation about the virus, rejecting institutional and expert advice may seem less like fringe behavior and more like common sense. Neoliberal wellness culture, too, as Gabriel Winant points out in this review of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes, reinforces the idea that systemic obstacles are individuals’ responsibility. By rejecting established medical knowledge in favor of cures you have individually evaluated and chosen, you demonstrate the individual responsibility (or ability to rule yourself) required of those who are made exempt from the otherwise punitive processes that states and corporations force people through to access basic needs like health care, education, food, and housing assistance.

Today’s pseudoscientific wellness trends are one dimension of a system designed to maintain existing distributions of power and autonomy

While anti-vaxxers choose private responsibility as a status display, most of us have the personal responsibility mandate thrust upon us by ever-intensifying austerity (i.e., the reduction of government spending and offloading state responsibilities to private business). Systemic obstacles — such as stress from navigating the gig economy to illness compounded by inadequate access to health care — are to be overcome by individuals working on themselves. The heartbreaking comments on a solfeggio frequencies video titled “528 Hz Whole Body Regeneration” from people struggling with everything from addiction, depression, cancer, and Covid-19 illustrate how austerity can fuel interest in pseudoscience, leaving people with nowhere else to turn. The incoherence of state and federal responses to the Covid crisis can also be interpreted in this light: an implicit demand that individuals fend for themselves.

As Cooper has shown, the boundaries of the private are drawn in racialized and gendered terms: Welfare recipients — who are stereotypically non-white women — are punished, surveilled, and demonized for their purported failure to privately assume the costs of living, whereas corporations continue to be rewarded with government bailouts, tax exemptions, and ongoing venture capital support for their failure. A 2017 report from the National Conference of State Legislatures notes that “at least 15 states have passed legislation regarding drug testing or screening for public assistance applicants or recipients.” Similarly, in 2005, just before state funding for public higher education nosedived, the U.S. Congress amended bankruptcy rules to make private student loans ineligible for forgiveness (i.e., “discharge”). And the new Covid-19 relief bill under consideration by the U.S. Senate prioritizes liability protections for businesses (so they can’t get sued by employees or customers who might contract the virus) over extending unemployment benefits. However, at the same time this bill has been debated, mutual aid projects such as the Jail Support group in Charlotte, which provides essential support to people being released from jail, are criminalized by county police and government. Private charitable activities, even those as benign as giving people a free change of clothes or bottle of water, are taken not as “private responsibility” but as flagrant and threatening insubordination when they don’t funnel resources to elites and echo the patriarchal racial capitalist order of ruler and ruled.

The contemporary discourses that are taken as demonstrations of “private individual responsibility” accordingly draw from the most reactionary end of the conservative spectrum of contemporary discourse: not only solfeggio frequencies and anti-vax rhetoric but also Qanon — itself a rebranding of an old Nazi myth — which draws a significant number of new members from New Agey and wellness-oriented social media groups.

Though pseudoscientific cures like solfeggio frequencies may literally sound like nonsense, they are in perfect harmony with the imperative to distrust expert wisdom and make choices that ultimately amplify existing inequalities (such as racialized health and income disparities). In a political climate where asking for a handout is about the last remaining taboo there is, practicing solfeggio frequencies healing can make people feel empowered and independent. For people at the bottom of racist and sexist hierarchies, pseudoscientific wellness practices may function as a form of respectability politics: for relatively privileged members of oppressed groups, showing that you are “one of the good ones” can partly and conditionally mask or “cancel” the noise you might otherwise be perceived to be making. Unlike providing jail support or advocacy for universal health coverage, engaging with fringe content is in perfect consistent with contemporary capitalism.

Today’s pseudoscientific wellness trends are one dimension of a system designed to reaffirm and justify the patriarchal racial capitalist balance of ruler and ruled, maintaining existing distributions of power and autonomy. People relatively unmarked by marginalized identity — such as the bourgeois white cis women who comprise the primary audience for Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness publication GOOP — use such practices to demonstrate their fitness for inclusion in the class which rules over those whose marginalization impedes their real or perceived capacity to successfully care for themselves. When people listen to solfeggio frequencies, they believe they are bringing their mind and body into alignment with the universe, but more broadly, such practices align so-called health with power while aligning practitioners with the status quo against its enemies.

Tracing contemporary pseudoscientific wellness trends back to sophrosyne points us to the register in which we need to respond to these ideas. It’s not a matter of debunking the fake science but of addressing its ideological appeal. Alternative healing protocols and pseudoscientific practices promise to bring those who are relatively unmarked by marginalized identity into alignment with the dominant social order and help them meet its criteria for full personhood. The real alternative medicine here would be an idea of social harmony that didn’t assume some people were naturally more fit to rule than others.

Robin James is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte. She writes about music, politics, gender, race, and sexuality at its-her-factory.blogspot.com.