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What is the Vagus Nerve?

We’ve heard a lot about the vagus nerve and its role in the effectiveness of music therapy, so we decided to look a bit further into why this nerve is so important.

The vagus nerve is the largest of 12 cranial nerve pairs. Cranial nerves are responsible for communication between the brain and body. The vagus nerve in particular communicates with almost all of our organs. It is responsible for sensory function in the throat, heart, lungs, and abdomen, ‘special’ sensory function such as the taste sensation behind the tongue, and motor function in the muscles in the neck that are used for swallowing and speech. It is also responsible for parasympathetic function which regulates the digestive tract, respiration, and heart rate functioning. In other words, the vagus nerve is responsible for decreasing alertness, blood pressure, and heart rate and helps with calmness, relaxation, and digestion (Sampson 2017).

Because the vagus nerve plays a big part in our ‘rest and digest’ state (as opposed to our ‘fight or flight’ state), researchers have been studying vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) as a potential treatment for various afflictions including epilepsy (Jiao et al. 2015), mental illness and chronic inflammation across a range of diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes mellitus, Crohn’s disease and more (Sampson 2017).

So how does bass play into all of this? Historically, VNS entailed an invasive surgical procedure where a battery powered device designed to transmit small electrical signals was implanted in the body (image below). Today there is ongoing research into non-invasive options; one of the most popular being transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) which uses the same electrical signaling concept only applied externally. While most of the current focus is centered around TENS, there are interesting similarities between TENS and vibroacoustic therapy (electrical vs. mechanical stimulation) that warrant more investigation. For example, in one study researchers found that vibration and TENS could both be as effective if not more effective than aspirin (Lundeberg 1984).

Implanted ‘Vagus Nerve Stimulator’

We also know that singing, humming, chanting and gargling have been shown to increase heart-rate variability and vagal tone (an indicator of vagus nerve stimulation): “increasing your vagal tone activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and having higher vagal tone means that your body can relax faster after stress” (Fallis 2017). The range of frequencies used in successful TENS studies are also conveniently in the bass and infrabass range (10-180hz) further suggesting that similar results may be achieved through vibroacoustic therapy.

While there is still much more to learn, it's worth considering that the vagus nerve does indeed play a key role in producing the profoundly relaxing effects experienced through vibroacoustic therapy.

Fun Fact:

The vagus nerve can also be stimulated by massaging several specific areas of the body. Foot massages (reflexology) have been shown to increase vagal modulation and heart rate variability, and decrease the “fight or flight” sympathetic response. Massaging the carotid sinus, an area located near the right side of your throat, can also stimulate the vagus nerve to reduce seizures. (Fallis 2017).


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