Thoughts On...Music, Sound & Language
"I firmly believe that WORDS have POWER – beyond the power of the intellect; they also have a very, very spiritual power behind them."
– Gary Jansen, Conscious Community Podcast Episode 17
What is sound? What defines music? What is the voice? What defines a language? Why does music have power? What gives language its power? Why do we sing? Why do we speak? Is one preferable to another? What is the significance of the written word? Working on these questions are central to the work and even the sense of self and purpose of anyone who dedicates their lives to music, sound, and/or language. While words and music may seem to belong to the ethereal realms, they are very much part of our physical reality.
Today, I am simply asking questions of myself. I am in the process of digging deep into sound and words to find from where the power comes. In the series of posts about “seed sounds” that I have done, as well as the Finding the Song of Your Soul workshops, I keep coming back to seeing that there is something deep within language that is tied to music and vice versa. It feels that one cannot exist without the other. There must be rhythm, melody, and harmony for words to have meaning, for stories to be told, and for emotions and other seemingly abstract and fleeting concepts to enter into the concrete world.
So, What is Sound?
On the most basically level, sound is vibrations that travel through the air (or another medium such as water) that are received and interpreted by a person or animal. I would say this goes beyond hearing or listening, as even deaf people can feelthe power of sound. Or, through the use of visualizers, we are able to see sound. For example, in the film Mr. Holland’s Opus during the performance of his great opus, Mr. Holland includes lights along with the music so that his deaf son is able to sensethe piece as well. I feel that sensing, rather than hearing is a better way to describe how we perceive sound. It is more than just the ear, we sense it with our bones.
"To become a true human, one must become conscious of listening and hearing the voice of the Great Mystery speaking through everything, through the sound of a tree, or the bird flying overhead, or in the wind in the room, or someone breathing, or someone talking, or a moment of silence. The activity of sound is what made the people. It is, therefore, simply through listening, and using that listening and paying attention, that one finds the guidance of the Great Mystery along the path of life."
– Uté artist, Joseph Rael “Beautiful Painted Arrow” in his book Being and Vibration
The Great Scope of Sound
To limit, sound to only what the ears perceive seems to limit the Great Mystery behind life. So, sound incorporates more than merely what we hear. The sounds that come from us voices and hands are part of this mystery as well. But, what is music? Does it exist outside of us? Or, is it a part of who we are? If a recording of music is played in a room where no room is listening is that music? Is that even sound?
Primitive cultures have used music since the dawning of culture. The earliest religions used music as a key to invoke states of consciousness and to relate to the cosmos. Even formal religions teach that there is an intrinsic relationship between sound, word and existence itself.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
– John 1:1.
“The Voice is not only indicative of a man’s character but is an expression of his spirit.”
– Hazrat Inayat Khan from The Mysticism of Sound and Music
Have you ever listened to a vocal performance and felt the sound vibrating on your own vocal cords? I know I have. Our voices naturally want to sing along with another way. We crave to create harmony; we desire to be a part of the melody. A few years ago, I attended SXSW (South by Southwest) and heard a top neurological researcher speaking about music and physical responses are one in our brains. When we hear music, we cannot help but sing… and dance. Sound is an activating force, it vibrates us to the core and inspires us from the inside out. Our perceptions of sound go far beyond merely hearing or even listening, it is part of us; its most direct outward manifestation that comes from within us is the voice.
Words and Music
In a recent interview for the Conscious Community Podcast, I asked singer and author, Snatam Kaur about whether or now she believes singing has the power to heal. (The entire conversation is included here in the YouTube video below.) She responded,
“There’s no doubt about it. You can shift your energy in just the act of singing alone. Of course, to bring in these sacred words and sacred vibrations allows you to embark onto an energy field that’s really powerful. I look at these sacred chants as energy fields that have existed since the very inception, the very first time that they were sung by some human form who had the wisdom, the intelligence and humility to sing these words.”
Snatam’s response reflects one that musicians, philosophers, poets, and even medical professionals know. Music has the power to heal, to transform us. The significance of singing cannot be overemphasized. Speaking is known to be damaging to our vocal cords. Many of the ways people force themselves to “sing” as damaging as well. The voice is meant to flow naturally.
Singing is a consequence of breathing. As I learn more about music and contemplative practices from around the world, the more I experience this firsthand. Last month, I attended A Sufi Immersion at the Theosophical Society in Wheaton, IL (see picture,) where three different scholars spoke about the relationship between poetry, breath, and music/chant in the Sufi mystical tradition. This supports the thesis that I’ve been building by exploring the “seed sounds” from around the globe that behind that there was one historic, primordial language where breath, sound, and meaning were one.
What makes music?
“Music is sonorous air.”
– Ferruccio Busoni, composer
Music seems to be the next natural step from our breath to sound to meaning. Music is the intrinsic meaning behind sound. A week after the Sufi Immersion, I attended a scientific exploration of sound and meaning Dr. Nina Kraus (see picture) of Northwestern University spoke as part of the Art and Lecture series at Fermilab in Batavia, IL on Sound - Invisible Ally & Enemy of Brain Health. Dr. Kraus, who considers sound from a research-based perspective, made the observation that “Sound is invisible, so we don’t realize how important a force it is, like gravity.” Sound is always there, supporting us and guiding us. She went on to explain while music is a based in rhythms and patterns, noise is not. All languages share that music; they are based in repeating patterns. The word “nausea” is the same root word as “noise.” Without musicality in our language, it is not just meaningless, but makes us ill.
So, what makes music, music? What creates a language? It is something innate within us. It is something individual that we all, not just as musicians, scientists, and philosophers, need to discover for ourselves. I intend to continue to dive deep into sound and find where meaning beings. I believe it is something that is slightly different for everyone but shares a universal source. For me, music just is. Just take time to stop and hear the sounds around you. Hear the music within you. Hear water rush, leaves rustle, footsteps coming up the walk. Listen to your own pulse. A friend of mine sent me a meme recently that said, “Music is life… that’s why our hearts have beats.” Move through life to the rhythm of yours. I believe there is something essentially human about music, sound, and language. We are the way we are because we are made of music.... Just listen close.
Why is music called the divine art, while all other arts are not so called? We may certainly see God in all arts and in all sciences, but in music alone we see God free from all forms and thoughts. In every other art there is idolatory. Every thought, every word has its form. Sound alone is free from form. Every word of poetry forms a picture in our mind. Sound alone does not make any object appear.
– Hazrat Inayat Khan from The Mysticism of Sound and Music
Daniel Greenberg, Ph.D. What is Music…Exactly? https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-power-music/201608/what-is-music-exactly (accessed May 27, 2018.)
Ferruccio Busoni. Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music. New York Schirmer. 1911. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/31799/31799-h/31799-h.htm
Janae Jean and Spencer Schluter. Humble Warrior – Interview with Snatam Kaur. https://consciouscommunitymagazine.com/humble-warrior-interview-with-snatam-kaur/ Conducted 02/09/2018.
Janae Jean and Spencer Schluter. Deep From The Well – Interview with Gary Jansen. https://consciouscommunitymagazine.com/deep-from-the-well-interview-with-gary-jansen/ Conducted 03/31/2018.
Hazrat Inayat Khan. The Mysticism of Sound and Music. Boston, MA. Shambhala Publications. 1991. https://www.shambhala.com
Snatam Kaur. http://www.snatamkaur.com (accessed May 27, 2018.)
Dr. Nina Kraus et al. Brainvolts. https://www.brainvolts.northwestern.edu (accessed May 27, 2018.)
Joseph Rael. Being and Vibration. Tulsa, Ok. Council Oak Books,1993. http://www.josephrael.org