by Roslyn McGrath
“Vroom-vroom-vrOOM” roars the motorcycle below my open bedroom window, followed by silence, intermittent bird song and eventually far-off mowing sounds. Each elicits a response from my body and mind, as I tense or relax with my perception of each. Every day, every moment, we hear, make and respond to sounds. We can close our eyes to sights, but not to sounds, even when we sleep.
And it’s not just the ear that is sensitive to sound. As naturopath, musician and psychologist Dr. John Beaulieu explains so well in his book Music and Sound in the Healing Arts, every cell in our body vibrates, so they too can receive and respond to sound.
The link between sound and health has been recognized since ancient times, most notably with Apollo’s position in Greek mythology as a God of both medicine and music.
In the more recent past, Harpo Marx regaled audiences with his mesmerizing harp music, bringing moments of tranquility to the manic mayhem of the Marx brothers’ comic films. And currently, organizations such as the Chalice of Repose project offer compassionate end-of-life vigils of contemplative music chosen to meet the individual needs of the dying.
Greek mathematician, philosopher and musician Pythagoras considered the universe a vast musical instrument. This view is echoed by Native American author Joseph Rael in his book Being and Vibration, as he describes, “We are nature’s music singing to God.” Indeed, modern science has shown us that everything has a vibration, though we usually experience most of them subliminally.
So what is music? According to Dr. Beaulieu, it’s the appreciation of sound, and this appreciation can impact us profoundly.
And we can create music from our very own bodies – just open your mouth and . . . SING! As Marquette Choral Society Director Dr. Floyd Slotterback explains, “Singing leads to many healthy outcomes. When you sing you use your breathing apparatus and lower abdominals more actively. You are encouraged to sit with good posture by stretching the spine and feeling an expansion of the rib cage. There are also benefits to the social aspects of singing, including attainment of group goals, enjoyment of working together, and the opportunity to laugh and share a love of singing. For those choirs who move or dance, the physical workout adds an extra dimension. Any age can be involved (I have a woman in my church choir who is 105 years old!) And, it’s just plain fun!”
Musician Jan Cloutier has performed for many local elders and veterans, sharing a repertoire from their era with her guitar and voice. She actively encouraged group members to sing as much as they were willing and also made percussive instruments available for use. Jan says it wasn’t long before feet began tapping, shakers rattled and gentlemen rose to ask ladies for a dance or two, thus enhancing their cardio-vascular systems and pleasure.
Many elders have trouble with their short-term memory, though their long-term memory is basically intact. Hearing these songs would bring back detailed personal memories from the era when these tunes were popular. All benefited from their recollections. Jan adds, “For me personally, I feel that music transcends self. Without it, life would be like living in black and white.”
Recently, Toby Christenson, a recognized expert and innovator in the field of healing music, shared his work at Marquette’s People’s Festival. Toby uses the sound energy of the drum to create a force that disrupts unhealthy patterns and then combines elemental rhythms to restore and realign the mind, body and spirit. Toby says, “What I have found in my work is that the greatness of our being resides in our bones – hidden gifts from our ancestors and our souls’ journey are waiting to be awakened. The sound vibrations and rhythm of the drum resonates through the body, releasing our greatness and providing unmatched power and balance. The sound of the drum is the tuning of the soul!
Another sound healer, Nicole LaVoie, had a revelation about the primacy of sound when considering the biblical quote “In the beginning was the Word.” She realized the “word” was sound, and came to conclude that sound is key to everything on earth. Within the full range of frequencies – matter, sound, light, x-rays, gamma rays, etc., matter is the lowest frequency, and sound is the next-to-lowest. Nicole theorizes this may be why “Matter responds very well to sound because it is the closest neighbor in the frequency spectrum.”
The impact of sound on matter has been studied. Dr. Hans Jenny spent thousands of hours experimenting on the effects of different frequencies on inorganic substances, such as plastic, dust, etc. In the hundreds of photographs he and his staff took, these materials come to look like marine life, bacteria, human organs, and other living, breathing creations while under the influence of the vibrations.
There have been many studies on the impact of sound on human health as well. For instance, Dr. Norman Weinberger, research professor in neurobiology and behavior at the University of California, Irvine, cites studies showing that passive musical involvement can reduce the release of stress hormones in various circumstances, including some types of pre-surgical anxiety; decrease distress in newborns and in certain cases, reduce the length of hospital stays. [“The Musical Hormone”, MRN, Fall 1997, IV (2)].
Dr. Weinberger also explains, “Perhaps the most unexpected use of music in therapy is in a highly passive and unique situation, that of comatose patients who have uncontrollable epilepsy, that is, brain seizures, even while they are unconscious. Playing classical music reduces the incidence of brain seizures.” [“The Powers of Music: A Treatment for Epilepsy?”, MRN, Fall 1998, V (3)].
So what about unavoidable sounds that grate on our nerves? As a fairly sound-sensitive person, I’ve coped with this in various ways. If I try to ignore the offending noise, I tend to become more aware of it and increasingly irritated. When I pay attention to something else, something more important to me, it becomes a non-issue. I can also block annoying sounds with ones I prefer. For instance, when a nearby warm weather outdoor party goes late into the night, my best antidote is playing a recording of ocean sounds loud enough to cover the partiers’ noise – I actually sleep better with it on!
Recently, I was on a conference call for a silent group meditation when a car horn began going off outside. I felt disturbed, then brought my attention back to the focus of the meditation, without trying to wish the sound away. Within seconds, I spontaneously began experiencing the sound as Gabriel’s horn and blissfully soaked it in.
I am not always in such an ecstatic state of mind, and I’m guessing you’re probably not either. Thankfully, there are many more enjoyable and therapeutic sounds we can choose in creating our auditory environment. Take some time to notice how your body and mind feel when you hear wind chimes, waterfalls, rock ’n roll, classical, therapeutic and other forms of music. Pay attention to what kinds of sounds serve you in different situations. And consider increasing your exposure to them. You just might reap the pleasures of more sound physical, mental, emotional, spiritual health.
Marquette resident Roslyn Elena McGrath has been sharing healing arts since 1996. She has am M.A. in Painting and a B.S. in Art Education from the State University of New York, New Paltz, and has published well being-focused periodicals, including this magazine, since 2002.
Music and Sound in the Healing Arts, John Beaulieu, Station Hill Press, 1987
Being & Vibration, Joseph Rael, Council Oak Books, 1993
Return to Harmony, Nicole LaVoie, Sound Wave Energy Press, 1998
Healing Sounds: The Power of Harmonics, Jonathan Goldman, Element Inc., 1992
MuSICA, the Music & Science Information Computer Archive, www.musica.uci.edu/index.html
From Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, Fall 2010