From Chant: The Origins, Form, Practice, and Healing Power of Gregorian Chant
The Energy of Sound
There is a story told by French physician and internationally renowned ear specialist, Dr. Alfred Tomatis, in an interview with Canadian writer and radio producer Tim Wilson. Dr. Tomatis visited a Benedictine monastery in France just after the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, when there was some discussion as to whether the Latin language should be retained for daily worship or whether the vernacular French, which was encouraged by the Council, should be adopted. Also under consideration was whether chanting should be continued or abandoned in favor of other activities thought to be more useful. The final outcome was the elimination of chant from the Divine Office.
Before long a change took place in the community. Monks who previously had been able to survive rather well on the customary three or four hours of sleep a night became extremely tired and prone to illness. Thinking that too little sleep might be the cause of their malaise, the abbot allowed more, but this did not help. The more the monks slept, the more tired they became. Even a change in diet was attempted – to a meat and potatoes regime, after vegetarianism had been the rule of the community for 700 years – but this too had no positive result.
The situation grew worse and worse until February 1967 when Dr. Tomatis was invited back to the monastery again to see if he could help with the problem. In the same interview, Dr. Tomatis recalls that, when he arrived, “seventy of the ninety monks were slumping in their cells like wet dish rags.” Upon examination, he found that the monks were not only tired but their hearing was not as good as it should have been. His solution to the problem was to use a device called the Electronic Ear to increase the monks’ sensitivity over a period of several months. The Electronic Ear, developed by Tomatis, is a cybernetic device with two channels joined by a gate which gives the patient sounds as normally heard on one side and, on the other side, the same sounds filtered to allow an improved audition, particularly of high frequencies. Changing channels form one side to the other exercises the muscles of the inner ear and makes it possible for the patient to regain auditory acuity and sensitivity. The other aspect of Dr. Tomatis’s treatment was to have the daily chanting brought back immediately into the life of the monastery.
Within nine months the monks had experienced an extraordinary improvement, both in their ability to hear and in their general sense of health and well-being. Most were able to return to the way of life that had been normal in their community for so many hundreds of years – the extended periods of prayer, short nights of sleep, and the demanding schedule of physical work.
What had happened? Continuing the interview with Mr. Wilson, Dr. Tomatis went on to explain the vital role played by the ear in stimulating the brain’s activity; in particular, it serves to charge the cerebral cortex with electrical potential. It is clear, then, that a person with poor hearing is unable to effectively receive the charge of energy being provided by the ear.
A well-tuned ear is able to stimulate the brain – but there is more to the story. Modern research identifies two kinds of sounds, known as “discharge” sounds, which tire and fatigue the listener, and “charge” sounds, which give energy and health and which have the power, like the Electronic Ear, to re-awaken the hearing and recharge the mind and body with energy.
Charge sounds are rich in high frequencies, whereas discharge sounds are of low frequency. Tomatis, in his book, The Conscious Ear, has compared a number of languages in terms of their frequency range, that is, their potential for providing this energy charge to the brain, and finds British English particularly high with a range of selectivity of 2,000 to 12,000 hertz, or cycles per second, whereas the range for French is 1,000 to 2,000 hertz and North American English, from 800 to 3,000 hertz. In speaking or singing, it is not as important to have a highly pitched voice as it is to increase the generation of sounds in the high-frequency range. High frequencies in British English are due to the number of plosive sounds and the generally clipped way of speaking.
Dr. Tomatis points out that putting an oscilloscope to the sounds of Gregorian Chant reveals that it contains all the frequencies of the voice spectrum, roughly 70 to 9,000 hertz, but with a very different envelope curve from that of normal speech. The monks sing in the medium range – that of a baritone – but due to the unity and resonance of the sound, their voices produce rich overtones of higher frequency. It is these high tones, mainly in the range of 2,000 to 4,000 hertz, that provide the charge to the brain. When the monks referred to earlier were not chanting, they were missing their daily dose of energy. It is not difficult to understand the feeling of fatigue that they experienced.
These energies are very small in measurable terms. This is why they are often thought of as being of a subtle nature. The fact is that it is not their energetic contents (i.e., the quantity of watt-seconds ergs, or any other measure we may care to use) that is important, but the information they carry. To draw a simply analogy: It is not the power of the signal sent millions of miles away to a space probe that matters so much as the shape of the energy that carries the information that operates a device or sends a series of pictures back to Earth.
The way the monks receive energy through the sound is that it acts partly as a signal which, through the complex organization of the body and its energy fields, serves to reorganize the energy distribution within the body. The result is a sense of gaining energy or losing energy, depending on how these energies are redistributed within the centers.
From the point of view of the listener there is one further point to be made. We receive energy from listening to the chant but at the same time experience calm and tranquility. This is due to the fact that we can participate in the same pattern of deep and peaceful breathing as the monks or nuns chanting the long, melismatic lines of Gregorian Chant. Most texts and melodies for Gregorian Chant can be found in the Liber Usualis, the Benedictines’ daily song book. Many texts can also be found in any Missal or Breviary published before the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. Unfortunately, these books are no longer in print. However, if you can find a copy of the Liber Usualis, try singing along with a recording. As Tim Wilson says:
Even if you read only enough music to discern that the melody rises or falls somewhat from note to note, you’ll be surprised to find that it is as if you were singing in precisely the same time, at the same moment, as the voices you hear on the recording. A minor miracle of simultaneity, this – a manifestation of the losing track of time which Tomatics describes as characteristic of Gregorian.
Attention and Sound
One of the most powerful ways that sound acts upon us is to draw us into itself. Some music holds our attention, allowing us, for a few moments, to merge with it completely. If we are closely attentive to the sound, we are taken into it, away from pain, sorrow, agitation, or confusion. Those familiar with meditative practice will recognize the same effect when they listen to and follow the sound of their sacred word or mantra. Through listening, the mind becomes centered and focused. We are no longer at sixes and sevens with ourselves, darting from one thought or bodily sensation to another. We may even find that, as a result of our entering more and more deeply into the center of the sound, our body straightens and we are more comfortable sitting right where we are. The sound holds us in a calm, safe place, one that we are loath to leave. It is as if there is no difference between the listener and the song; both are partaking of the same unity. When this happens, time seems to stop. No longer aware of past or future, we experience only the fullness of the present moment.
During attentive listening to chant, a balancing of body and mind occurs naturally, the direct result of the suspension of all but the gentlest of efforts required to maintain attention on the sound. A profound feeling of peace comes over us.
Music and sound are a form of subtle nourishment, for we are fed not only by food, but also by air and impressions. Digestion, breathing, and the processing of impressions are strongly interconnected. Balance between these functions results in the proper distribution of energy to the appropriate centers. The efficient use of food within the body is obviously dependent on the oxygen brought in by the respiratory system. Equally important is the effect of sense impressions on the operation of both digestion and respiration. Even ordinary language acknowledges this link when we say that a certain impression takes our breath away or whets our appetite. One important element of good health is the maintenance of a suitable balance between these functions. The singing of chant requires the fine regulation and coordination of breathing and listening. When we listen to chant we fall into its rhythm and partake of these benefits.
The Effect of Sound
It is often said that we live in a visual culture. The fact remains that we also live in a strongly sonic atmosphere. Canadian music professor and sound researcher, R. Murray Schafer, conducted an experiment with students from the United States, Canada, and Germany, and other European countries. He asked each student to become deeply relaxed and then spontaneously recall and sing the note that came most naturally. For American and Canadian students, this note was a B-flat, whereas for the Europeans it was a G-sharp. Interestingly enough, in America and Canada electricity operates on an alternating current of 60 cycles per second, which relates to the B-flat; in Europe, it is 50 cycles per second, connecting musically to the G-sharp.
We lose awareness of this background of sound. Nevertheless, we are continually subjected to its humming coming from electronic devices: computers, lights, amplifiers, motors, and the like. In addition, we hear all sorts of loud noises – sirens, buses, airplanes, motors, and lawnmowers, not to mention boom boxes and music blasting from car windows. The American Speech and Hearing Association has estimated that 40,000,000 Americans live, work, or play around music that is dangerously loud. It is well documented that significant loss of hearing results when music is played too loud or too close to the ear. What we listen to matters. This is becoming more and more obvious.
Indeed, sound literally matters. It has the power to give shape to materials. The Swiss physicist, Hans Jenny, performed a number of stunning experiments illustrative of the effect of sound on inert matter. He placed substances such as iron filings, drops of water, soap bubbles, and lycopodium powder (spores of club moss) on a diaphragm and subjected them to a variety of sounds. As the sound changed, the result was a series of flowing, changing patterns of great beauty and complexity, which have been recorded and are shown in Professor Jenny’s videotapes and two-volume presentation entitled, Cymatics (the science of the way the properties of a medium change under the influence of vibration).
The effect of sound on living organisms is also well documented. Studies done in India by Dr. S. K. Bose and reported in The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird show that trees increase their yield under the influence of music. In response to the music played, some plants grew toward or away from the speakers. With certain music some plants even withered and died. Human beings are obviously also very sensitive to what they hear. John Beaulieu, naturopathic physician and music therapist, recalling his college days and the propensity of his friends for immersing themselves in radically different types of music, remembers being able to differentiate the classical music devotees from the rock-and-rollers and from the country-and-western fans by their physical appearance, the way they talked, and the way they walked. An interesting parlor game, we might say; but with something to teach us nevertheless. With practice it was possible for Beaulieu to identify the Bach-lovers from the Mozart- or Beethoven-lovers. In each case, the music had left its imprint in the appearance of its habitual listeners, to the extent that the effect was noticeable.
The reason for this imprinting is that although we have five senses, five groups of organs through which we are in contact with external reality, we relate to this reality in three ways: intellectually, emotionally, and actively. These modes constitute the basis, as understood traditionally, for the formation of the personality, which is envisaged as being oriented along three great currents of psychic activity, intellectual, emotional, and motor. Each of these is associated in a psychosomatic relation with a body location where it appears to evoke a resonance. Of course the somatic seat of these functions cannot be precisely located, yet popular language, often vivid and direct, speaks of head, heart, and guts in this connection. This is a rather simple and elementary, yet profound, observation. Such a framework provides a useful and practical model, grounded in a robust common sense and informed by keen psychological observation through centuries of practice. It can be developed into a very fine instrument for self-observation as well as for gaining insight into other’s behavior.
This was what Beaulieu was referring to. The music we hear is primarily apprehended by one center, emotional, intellectual, or active, although all music contains elements of each. Repeatedly acting on that center, it imparts its quality to our personality.
In military marches such as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” we hear music inspiring strength and courage, therefore addressing itself to the active and emotional centers. Some rock-and-roll music that makes the pelvis gyrate hardly moves above the belt. Love and devotion, which obviously speak to the emotional center, are strongly evoked by the chants themselves. Baroque music – by Bach, Handel, or Vivaldi, for example – has a strong intellectual component and is related to the head, although the rhythm affects our active principle and the timbre and sonority, our emotions. Mozart’s music seems to provide food for all three principles.
It may be interesting to note here that language, spoken or sung, is formed of consonantic and vocalic sounds. The consonants carry most of the information, the intelligence in a word, whereas the vowels carry the color and the emotional aspect of the meaning. Vowels are the result of the vibration produced by the flow of air on the vocal cords and in the speech organs. These sounds, in turn, resonate in the cavities of the body, in specific locations. Experimenting with the vowels, U, O, A, E, and I, it is easy to verify that U resonates at the base of the spine; O, in the belly; A, in the chest or heart; E, in the throat; I, in the middle of the forehead, so that U and O are connected with the active principle, A, with the emotional, I, with the intellectual, and E participates in both intellectual and emotional. Thus these vowels have the power to tune these principles and the organs connected with them.
Consonants (meaning “sounding with”) are simply used to start and stop the vocalic sounds. They limit and form the sounds, giving them intelligence. Latin is rich in vowels and this language therefore contributes to the emotional quality of Gregorian Chant. This is particularly apparent when vowels are sung over many notes, as in melismatic passages.
The resonance created in the bodies of the singers by the chanting of these vowels creates overtones high in frequency, which have an awakening effect. These are the charged sounds spoken of earlier.
It would be difficult to think of music that is more balanced than Gregorian Chant, rising and falling like the gentle ebb and flow of the sea. Neither attracting nor repelling, it remains centered as a point of rest and stability. It does not overwhelm us with sentiment but invites us to join in the devotion it calls forth. There is nothing in the music to set us thinking or incite us to action. Instead, it provides relief from the surfeit of ideas and activity that fatigues and weakens us, providing something that is of much greater importance: nourishment for the heart.
It would be a mistake if we thought of sound as only physical – what is perceivable by the ear. We also hear sound in our minds as echoes of what we have already heard, or as figments of our thoughts and imagination – subtle sounds perhaps, but nonetheless sounds. Tunes, voices, advertising jingles, and conversations circle like a merry-go-round. Throughout our days we are constantly listening to this din. These self-perpetuating thought patterns run on relatively unnoticed. We become especially aware of them when we try to fall asleep. We recognize the mechanically repetitious, catchy tune that simply will not stop insinuating its way into our head all day long, the often-rehearsed conversation that may never even take place.
All these sounds and music are playing within us continually, a kind of subtle and discordant orchestra never heard by anyone but ourselves. At times we hang on to this inner sonic baggage; at other times, we would just as soon send it off to a different destination and simply be quiet. The important thing to notice is that these sounds, for better or worse, act as a screen for whatever experience is coming our way. Like tinted sunglasses, they can completely change our perception of whatever is in front of us.
Every day we are in a position to choose, to a certain extent, what we place before our mind, what we give our attention to. As far as our selection of music is concerned, if we want the balanced, gracious, reasonable, and quite healthy approach to life, listening to Gregorian Chant is a good idea.
The Therapeutic Power of Chant
In the same way that chanting mantra is said gradually to change the mind-set of the devotee, Gregorian Chant is designed to create awe, reverence, and gratitude in those who sing it and those who listen to it. It acts as a protection against the onslaught of less positive thoughts that take over the mind when it is not being watched. This positive effect of the chant is enhanced through the work of the liturgy in the monastic setting.
Gregorian Chant is fundamentally a communal and liturgical activity that brings wholeness to communities. It was formulated when the state of society was at a low ebb and, as we have seen, it had a powerful influence in restoring a degree of cohesion and stability to the empire of Charlemagne. Gregorian Chant was not designed for curing individuals of any particular illness. However, if the individual is not well, then society cannot be well either. Gregorian Chant is prayer. As such, its effect depends on the grace of God and on the intentionality of the congregation: singers and listeners, healers and the healed, for they form a single community in the act of worship.
The effect of chant is to balance mind, emotions, and body. Singing or simply actively listening to chant with directed attention, we feel whole and part of a greater whole. It is precisely this integrating tendency that constitutes healing.
To heal is to make whole, but to heal is not necessarily to cure. The dying patient can be healed, though he cannot be cured. This was well understood in the early days of hospitals and hospices, when they were founded in the twelfth century. It is being rediscovered in our own day. Through chant, a dignity, awe, simplicity, directness, and detachment are brought into a situation culturally overlaid by denial and indifference.
The healing process begins with a desire for wholeness, a wholeness that is as encompassing as the state of consciousness of the community will allow. It demonstrates the degree of their attention, the strength of their faith, the perseverance of their effort. It is through the openness and generosity of their hearts that this radius of concern, shaped by tradition and limited only by the power of listening, expands from individuals to families, nations, humankind, and eventually to the sustained active communion with the whole creation of a Francis of Assisi. Here in his words we find the culmination of this power of love, cultivated by the chant, resonating with clarity and balance on a global scale, bringing peace and healing even among the elements:
Be thou praise, my Lord, of Sister Water which is much useful and humble and precious and pure. Be thou praised, my Lord, of Brother Fire, by which thou has lightened the night. And he is beautiful and joyful and robust and strong. Be thou praised, my Lord, of our sister Mother Earth which sustains us and hath us in rule. And produces diverse fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
The surge of interest in chant may perhaps be telling us that the time has come to address our problems differently, forgetting old, tired paradigms of failed wars, be they wars on poverty or on crime. Perhaps a belief is at large that there is still enough power in the ancient chants to tame the wolves stalking our cities with their Uzis as Francis tamed the wolf at Gubbio, or to care for the homeless who are clearly becoming a new class, a new order in society beside the managerial class and the dwindling class of the fully employed. The have-nots, the have-it-alls, and the have-it-as-the-have-it-alls-decide undoubtedly constitute a new feudal order for the new millennium.
If the present interest in Gregorian Chant is indicative of future trends, perhaps with enough persistence this new generation will have as much luck with its songs in building a new order, as the passing one had in bringing down walls, curtains, and screens of brick, iron, and smoke.