[SL: I had the pleasure of first publishing this wonderful article on sound healing several years ago in my popular free ezine, DNA MONTHLY. Enjoy!]
Sound as Healer
Many traditions demonstrate a belief that sound plays a role in creation, which is a continuum spanning the macrocosm through the hierarchy of iterations to the infinitesimal microcosm. Creation is beginning. Something becomes where there was previously non-being. This article will discuss sound in the context of healing, which is more accurately the process of re-creation.
Healing, whether emotional, psychological, spiritual or physical, is the act of reorienting a created being back toward its original state of perfection, functionality, and health. Sound has been used to heal for thousands of years in a variety of ways. These have included music, chanting, toning and the use of instruments such as drums, bells, singing bowls, and gongs. In recent times the list has also included the harp. I call all of these sound but will organize them with the following categories: Music, Chanting, Toning, Instrument, and Prayer and Mantras.
In the ancient Chinese text known as the BOOK OF RITES, the author describes the Heaven-like qualities available through sound as music. The pentatonic, or five-tone, music of that culture used a soothing drone along with simple melodies and may well have induced such Heavenly states. The influence of music, however, is complex as many variables come into play on sound. Likewise, one must acknowledge that not all music in our modern times is Heaven-like. Some contemporary music is more Hell-like and likely produces a comparable state of consciousness in its listeners. Instead of healing or re-creating, it is overbearing and destructive. These two extremes point to one of the key elements in sound healing: intention.
To isolate empirically the cause of any phenomenon associated with music is like attempting to describe DNA by measuring its dissected moieties. One can label the parts, but it is a system of interconnected effects. Geneticist Susumu Ohno at the Beckman Research Institute noticed that DNA, like music, holds order greater than the sum of its parts. He assigned notes to the various DNA components which, when transcribed and performed, sounded much like great classical music themes. I suggest that, like DNA, music’s effects are a broad interconnected system. Its components cannot by themselves yield understanding.
Kay Gardner identifies nine elements in healing music. Though much more can be said on this subject, I will limit my discussion of music to these elements:
- Drone—Healing music should have a constant tone that drones behind a simple melody.
- Repetition—Short musical phrases, whether vocal or instrumental, should be repeated over and over in order to produce a calming effect.
- Harmonics—Sustained tones produce harmonic overtones which Gardner says “balance the physical body with the unseen bodies—emotional, mental, and spiritual—that form the aura’s layers.”
- Rhythm—The function of rhythm in music is to duplicate the many pulses in the human body and then through entrainment move the pulses into a more healthy natural pattern.
- Harmony—Harmony affects the emotions. Various keys (major and minor) evoke feeling states, be they sad, joyous, triumphant, soothing, or mysterious. According to Gardner, intervals harmonize the emotions and can bring dis-eased organs back into molecular relationships of harmony.
- Melody—The mind is engaged by melody. This takes the attention away from day-to-day afflictions and allows healing to occur.
- Instrumental Colors—Each instrument has its own unique voice composed of characteristic overtones and waveforms. These penetrate various areas of the body and have a balancing effect.
- Form—The structure of a musical piece determines where the journey will take the listener. Pieces that have many changes in tempo and mood will be stimulating, whereas pieces that are steady and predictable have a calming effect.
- Intention—Music seems written by the hand of the Divine. Many sources herein describe it so. The musician must recognize and honor the power of music’s effects. Music played with focused intention has the power to harm or heal. Intention is perhaps the most important attribute when considering music’s potentials.
Rudolf Steiner expressed some additional attributes of three of these elements of music. “Regardless of man’s relationship to rhythm, all rhythm is based on the mysterious connection between pulse and breath … People understand each other in reference to rhythm.” Steiner also connected rhythm to the will. Melody is associated with mental images that become associated with feeling. “Through melody the head becomes open to feeling, to actual feeling. It is as though you brought the heart into the head through melody.” Finally, he connects harmony to feeling: “The element of harmony takes hold directly of human feeling. What is expressed in harmonies is experienced by human feeling.” Summing up the common connection of feelings, Steiner says: “Melody thus carries harmony inward; rhythm carries harmony in the direction of willing.”
Joanne Crandall has applied music and its various elements to self-transformation. Her interpretations differ from Steiner at times. For example, she writes, “The melody gives the mind a rest; it provides space for the heart to open and receive the music.” Crandall points out that melody is a relationship between tones and serves as a method by which we bring ourselves into relationship with others. Likewise, she understands music as representing sound in its most ordered form which can help us experience a world made from sound more fully. The fluid movement of music is a reminder that though the structure and form of the world change around us just as the flow of music, order does not. Crandall, like Gardner, suggests that musicians as well as listeners can be healers through focused intention.
Music has for centuries been used to heal in many cultures along with those mentioned here. The Temiar people living in the rainforests of Malaysia treat all forms of maladies with healing songs designed to effect change in the various souls of the individual. Native American tribes likewise use songs to evoke healing and power. The occidental world is “getting the beat” through works such as those of Don Campbell, who in an interview with Jean Houston stated, “I think music actually raises the very molecular structure of body, brain and being to … larger dimensions. With music, you gain a coherence or bridging of one reality with another.” Helen Bonny’s seminal work aligning various compositions with altered states of consciousness and moods has also opened the Western ear to the power of music.
Every religious practice, tribe and tradition has a form of chant. Chanting resounds in monasteries and on hilltops around the globe. It may be used for healing the spirit, mind, or body. In the words of Alfred A. Tomatis: “If you put an oscilloscope on the sounds of Gregorian chant, you see that they all come within the band-width for charging the ear. There is not a single sound which falls outside of this. Gregorian chant contains all the frequencies of the voice spectrum, roughly from 70 cycles per second up to 9,000 cycles per second, but with a very different envelope curve from that of normal speech … Thus the sounds of Gregorian are, uniquely, a fantastic energy food.” This section will briefly discuss two forms of chanting among the hundreds that exist: Gregorian and Tibetan Tantric chanting.
Gregorian chant follows a simple melody. It has focused the daily practices of Roman Catholic monks in various orders for centuries. Performed in unison, chant produces a rich harmonic field. Cathedral architecture, where chants are traditionally performed, further enhances the harmonic scale. Hildegard von Bingen likely never imagined that her gentle compositions of praise, nor those of other Gregorian composers, would leap the centuries to become bestselling records in today’s music market. Chanting performs several functions in the lives of monks that may contribute to its current appeal outside the monastery.
Composer Robert Glass in an interview with Carol Wright says that chant brings “the consciousness of the group into resonance with itself” by creating a “harmonious field.” Glass goes on to explain that chanting’s sustained notes allow the vibration of the tones themselves to be vivid experiences that cause the individual to entrain with the frequencies. The melodies themselves tend to repeat, producing a soothing predictability as Gardner described. Within the walls of the monastic life chant allowed a common bond of predictability among the chanters, encouraging the collective as well individual search for the Divine.
In light of the fact that monks take an oath of celibacy and often silence, Garfield has proposed that chanting releases enough rerouted energy through the fifth chakra or throat center to maintain good health. She suggested a link between singing and sexual creative energy that may also help channel this energy upward in pursuit of the Divine. Garfield goes on to say that all chanting clears the chakras of blockage and thereby promotes health and growth.
In the words of Don Campbell, “Sound is carried through the vowel sounds. Church Latin has pure vowel sounds, not like the complex diphthongs of English, and tone is extended on the vowel sounds. Self-generated tone—not singing—is the foundation upon which chanting works with the body. Sound is created not only with the mouth, but with the bones and skin. The vibration made through toning actually stimulates the central cortex of the brain. Chanters receive a literal ‘brain massage.’”
In contrast to the ethereal sweetness of Gregorian chant, Tantric harmonic chanting shakes the soul. The sound is at first quite foreign to Western ears. Two Tibetan Buddhist monasteries have brought the sound to the West after Tibet’s rampant destruction under the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The monks of Gyuto and Gyume are among a few hundred individuals who have this unusual vocal capability. Unlike the Gregorian renditions that extend throughout the vocal register, Tantric chants are extremely low frequency. Most unusual is the ability to produce more than one tone simultaneously with the voice. Each chanter produces a chord starting on the B, C, or D flat below middle C. The chord than contains the second and third harmonics above that tone. According to Campbell, up to the tenth harmonic is often audibly prominent. This is reminiscent of Alice Bailey’s description of sounding two tones in the process of transformation. (Bailey claimed a Tibetan llama named Djwal Kuhl sent writings to her psychically, and at times physically, though they never met in person.)
Khen Rinpoche, in an interview with Campbell, says that Tantric chanting is not a direct path to enlightenment but is rather an invocation of certain deities with the request that these deities protect and guide the entire world. It also protects the monk from obstacles he may meet with on his path to enlightenment. Rinpoche states that the sound of Tantric chanting produces chemical and electrical transformations in the body that intensify the immune system.
“The way we would explain how this works is that it happens in the mind first through the aural consciousness and secondarily through the mental consciousness,” he elaborates. “There is a feeling of a certain kind of delight that stimulates these physical changes. Rather than it being the sound going into the brain or skull, which is a more mechanical model, I would explain it through the system of sixfold consciousness. We understand the body as a secondary effect which corresponds with the state of mental consciousness … It is this sixth element of consciousness which determines the state of the body.”
In recent years toning has gained acceptance as a personal transformation tool and therapeutic modality. Toning has been defined as the use of human voice for the purpose of healing. Three forms are included here: Kabbalistic toning, Chinese healing tones, and the work of Laurel Elizabeth Keyes. Each is slightly different in its approach to healing.
In Kabbalistic toning, the force of sound plays on one of the Sefirat, or elements of the Tree of Life. Each individual as well as each Sefirah have a resonant frequency. Sounding the correct frequency releases blocked energy in the targeted area, restoring balance and harmony. In this system there are two types, or modes, of toning. One is for banishing negative qualities and influences. The other invokes the positive energy of love, light, and right thoughts. The two form a cycle like breathing. The out breath banishes that which no longer serves the individual, while the in breath revitalizes and restores the Sefirat of the four bodies. The banishing or releasing tones are generally sharp, loud, and high-pitched. The invoking tones are soothing, harmonious, and soft. After the cycle is complete with the negative qualities released and replenished with healing light, smooth high tones of pure simple wave form invoke healing energies from higher realms.
Healing tones are also part of a larger Chinese health system called QiGong. Along with the use of “singing stones”—flat pieces of jade that produce musical tones when struck—six special sounds allegedly heal and vitalize the organs. Each sound correlates with a certain posture and focused intention on the breath. Though assigned no specific pitch, I include them here because they most closely resemble toning as healing exercises. I will list the sounds only and the healing they perform:
SSSSSSSSS—This sound clears and heals the lungs.
WOOOOOO—The kidney and bladder are treated with this sound.
SHHHHHH—This practice clears the liver and gall bladder.
HAWWW—The heart sound dissipates excess heat build-up from the heart.
WHOOOO—This sound cleanses the spleen and stomach.
HEEEEEEE—This sound revitalizes and balances the entire body, but is especially important for the sex organs.
The sounds are written as they are vocalized. As with music and Kabbalistic toning, focused intention directs the healing energy. In the case of Chinese healing tones, this energy is called chi.
The toning theories of Laurel Keyes came out of her own spontaneous experiences, which she describes as “a sensation in my chest and throat as though a force were rising, wanting to be released in sound, but it would subside again … I observed this as it rose and subsided, almost a thing apart because certainly I was doing nothing to cause it.” Continues Keyes, “I found my lips parting and my mouth opened very slightly in an easy relaxed manner … Unexpectedly a sound bubbled up, like something tossed up on a fountain spray. A single syllable emerged—‘Ra.’”
The spontaneity of Keyes’ experience characterizes her toning work. She proposes that we need to allow the body to express its sounds, its voice, and not be subjugated to the mind alone in communication.
Keyes’ toning system is very similar to Kabbalistic toning, though it espouses no direct connection. She emphasizes, however, the need to develop one’s approach as a feeling voice, pointing out the need for balance between the generative and conceptive forces in the creative process. She urges the release of the voice from cognitive control to enhance the receptive feeling nature and thus the creative process: “Feeling must be fecundated by idea or image to bring about results.” She goes on to warn that when the mind dominates ruthlessly, “feeling rejects the idea.” Keyes’ method of toning thus differs from the more mentally focused Kabbalistic toning by bringing the head into cooperation with the heart in order to free the body through vibration.
Like chant, every culture has developed its own musical instruments. Whether with a Pan flute or pipe organ, lyre or lute, gong or gamelan, steel drum or sitar, people find a way to make “a joyful noise” unto their Lord. Ethnomusicologists have spent entire careers cataloging the history and evolution of such instruments. Discussing instruments in any detail greatly exceeds the limits of this section.
All instruments have the capacity to affect us; however, certain of them consistently produce changes in consciousness. These include the drum, rattle, gong, bell, “singing” bowl, bull-roarer, didgeridoo, and droning string instruments like the sitar. An impressive number of researchers note the use of such instruments to change consciousness.
Don Wright, for example, explored Peruvian whistling vessels, a Pre-Colombian instrument originally thought to be a water vessel by anthropologists. Wright’s exploration with these vessels revealed that they produce powerful transcendent experiences. He proposes that the indigenous culture kept knowledge of their true use from Spanish conquerors and thus did not depict them in any records of their civilization. Clearly on every continent, in culture after culture, instruments are part of an elaborate consciousness technology.
Prayers & Mantras
Neil Douglas-Klotz reminds us in PRAYERS OF THE COSMOS that words have power. They invoke and move energy into action. He indicates that the Lord’s Prayer was more than just words in the Aramaic language which Jesus spoke—it wielded the power of the Divine into action. Prayers and mantras, when used with intention, change consciousness.
Western religions have for the most part forgotten that prayer is an avenue to move our consciousness into relationship with God rather than a wish list eloquently recited. Perhaps because prayer often becomes commonplace, a moment of public oration or collective recitation, one might speculate that we have come to accept God as deaf and mute. It is as if many believe that God does not answer our prayers directly. God must not hear, nor has S/He in thousands of years. But perhaps it is we who are deaf and mute, knowing little about how to pray correctly and even less about how, and where, to listen for God’s response.
Western societies are primarily empirical. Like Thomas who said, “Except I shall see in his hands … and put my finger into the print of the nails … I will not believe,” many Westerners are hard to convince. Physician Larry Dossey has explored the difficulty science has studying prayer in healing. He has also conducted independent research in this area. According to Dossey, “The evidence seems to show that prayer works.” I direct the reader to his book HEALING WORDS for a comprehensive and balanced review of the research and results.
Summary of Sound as Healer
This article has reviewed the various ways sound is used in healing, defined as an intentional act of re-creation. As such, sound healing exhibits a strong connection to the cosmologies expressed by many traditions. Sound healing, in its various forms, appears to evoke a resonance that changes consciousness and thereby alters misalignments in our being.
Unfortunately, no efficacious method of application has been delimited in these systems, with the possible exception of guarded secret teachings. Selected application relies predominantly on the intuitive skills of the practitioner. Since most of the world’s population receives treatments other than those of Western medicine, it is likely that sound therapies play a role in much of healing worldwide. It therefore seems appropriate to develop a methodology for the application of sound to various infirmities through empirical and phenomenological research.
This could enhance sound healing’s effectiveness and expand its accepted use. Such research could first qualify the various sounds’ effects—pitch and intervals of tones, kinds of prayer or mantras, etc. The Chinese healing sounds are from this perspective the most sophisticated. Such knowledge could then be categorized into a coherent treatment modality within a holistic medical science.
The Latin term personare means to “sound through” something. Joachim-Ernst Berendt notes: “At the basis of the concept of the person … stands the concept of sound: through the tone.” We are a silent symphony, interacting nodes upon nodes of resonance the music of which we cannot hear, or have learned to ignore. Perhaps we can never hear the sound of creation and must leave it in the world of myth, but science peers upon its borders with growing credence to these quixotic ancient cosmologies. Perhaps we have trained ourselves not to hear the sound that is the name of the Most High lest we pronounce the ineffable. Perhaps we have not listened to our own resonant being.
Though most of us cannot hear such sounds, we can observe our interaction with them. We are drawn to repetitive sounds like the babble of a brook or the beat of a heart. We watch the shimmer of moonlight on fluttering leaves at times hypnotically as if reassured that our origin is vibration. Vibration moves us. We dance before an altar of the Most High. We dance to the beat of a resonant universe as resonant beings. As we listen, opening doorways in consciousness, we come into harmony and may someday thus learn how to heal the world.
Copyright © Carlisle Bergquist. All Rights Reserved.
Devoted to the creative process and consciousness studies all his life, Carlisle Bergquist was a songwriter, producer and performer for Suitewinds Productions, Hollywood before graduate study in transpersonal psychology. He is author of THE COYOTE OAK; BURGEONING WISDOM (Reality Entertainment—Reality Press) and developer of Vantage Quest, a therapeutic sound application that evokes deep states of awareness, available on CD. For more information visit http://www.vantagequest.org.