Home/Rod Dreher/Sound as a Means of Healing

Sound as a Means of Healing

Tibetan singing bowls (Karen Kaspar/Shutterstock)

We had friend from Atlanta over for dinner tonight. He’s in the area on business. I said, “So I was listening to the new Mars Hill Audio Journal today, and –”

“You listen to that too?” said my friend. “Isn’t it great?”

“For sure,” I said. “It has had a huge influence on my thinking. Ken Myers has sold so many books to me through his interviews.”

“Me too,” said my friend, who is in classical education. “I’ve been subscribing since back in the day when it came on cassette tapes, something like since Volume 16.”

(The new edition of the Journal, which comes out quarterly, is Vol. 124. This guy has been listening to Ken Myers for a long, long time.)

It’s funny how we Journal fans are, but once you’ve subscribed to it, you find it hard to imagine how any intellectually serious Christian does without it. Listen to this four-minute talk by host Ken Myers; it will tell you whether or not the Journal is for you. If you are a Christian who likes this blog, chances are you will love the Journal.

Well, I didn’t start out to do a commercial for the thing, but that’s just how it goes. Anyway, what I was talking about at the table was a couple of interviews on the current edition of the Journal with two musicians (who, by the way, may or may not be Christian; Ken interviews all kinds of people who are serious about culture) who practice what is called “music therapy.” Kate Tamarkin, music director and conductor of the Charlottesville and University [of Virginia] Symphony Orchestra, and violinist Fiona Hughes talk on the Journal about the healing power of music. Have you heard of music therapy? I had not. Here’s a definition:

Music Therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.

Music Therapy is an established health profession in which music is used within a therapeutic relationship to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals. After assessing the strengths and needs of each client, the qualified music therapist provides the indicated treatment including creating, singing, moving to, and/or listening to music. Through musical involvement in the therapeutic context, clients’ abilities are strengthened and transferred to other areas of their lives.

There’s no transcript of the two interviews, so I’m going on memory. Tamarkin, who plays the Celtic harp, spoke of her experience going into neonatal ICUs to play for premature babies there. She said once she was playing for a one-pound newborn who was struggling, and she could see the monitor measuring oxygen in the baby’s blood rise as she played. The nurse saw it happening too, and called five other nurses to come see. I believe it was Tamarkin, not Hughes, who said that they have observed that medieval chant is best for people who are dying. There is something about the simplicity of the melody and the slow rhythm of the singing that particularly soothes those who are at the end. It’s not the lyrical content that matters, but the quality of the sound.

Tamarkin told a story about when she was a small child, her older brothers took up rock music, and practiced in their living room. There was a lemon tree outside the living room window, and another lemon tree on the other side of the house. The fruit of the tree by the rock-music window grew into weird, spiky shapes, while the fruit of the lemon tree that “heard” no music was normal. After the brothers moved out for college, the lemons went back to normal.

Later, when Tamarkin was in high school and took up the French horn, she practiced it in that same living room. She said that the lemons on the tree stayed round, but became unusually large, like a grapefruit. Again, the lemons on the other side of the house remained normal. She laughed telling the story, conceding that it’s just anecdotal, but she suspects there was something organic going on with the quality of the sound waves coming out of the house, and the response of the fruit tree.

Listening to the entire segment made me think about during the most difficult years of my oldest son’s life — the time when his Asperger’s was at its worst — he could not get to sleep at night without listening to Gregorian chants, played on a loop all night long. He was seven and eight during this period. He changed from Gregorian chants to a short Bach piece played on the classical guitar by Andres Segovia. He played it so loud, and all night long, that you wondered how anybody could sleep. Having heard Tamarkin and Hughes talking about their experiences as musical therapists, and the physiological responses they’ve observed in others, I thought about how the Gregorian chants and the Bach must have affected Matt’s extremely sensitive nervous system. Those sounds made it possible for him to sleep.

Tamarkin mentioned that there are people who use Tibetan singing bowls for sound healing. Have you ever heard a Tibetan bowl? It’s a standing bell. I had never seen or heard of them until coming across several in a shop in Philadelphia. They were different sizes, and had different tones. I struck each, once, and the physiological effect was immediate. I became so calm; it was almost like a drug.

I didn’t buy one because I don’t feel spiritually comfortable owning an object that may have been created as part of a ritual for a religion not my own. Traditionally, I read, Tibetan monks pray while they’re making those things, in the same way an Orthodox Christian iconographer prays when he is creating an icon, or an Orthodox monk does when he is knotting a prayer rope. The idea is to charge the object, in some sense, with sanctity. It seems unwise at best for a Christian to own such an object — and I would not blame a devout Muslim, Jew, or Buddhist for not wanting to own a devotional object that had been prayed into being, so to speak, by a Christian. I can appreciate them as art objects, but I believe there are often spiritual realities attached to these things. A couple of decades ago, I had two bizarre and profoundly unsettling paranormal experiences with such objects (not Tibetan singing bowls, but sculptures that had been used in pagan rituals), and that was enough to make me unwilling to take a chance on that kind of thing.

To be clear, though, I don’t believe the bowls I sounded in that store had an effect on me because of any kind of spiritual juju associated with them. I believe it was physiological. But the effect was amazing. When I struck each of them, I didn’t have any idea what to expect. I didn’t even know what they were for. I had to ask. If I could find one that had been manufactured simply as an object, and that had not been prayed over or otherwise designated as a religious object, I would buy one for the effect, which I found to be both tranquilizing and clarifying.

Listening to the Journal interview made me wonder if I should think about some form of music therapy for my stress-related chronic mono. It is the hardest thing in the world for me to still my mind and be meditative. Some days doing my prayer rule I’m into the flow, but most of the time I’m fighting distraction constantly. Have any of you had beneficial experiences with music therapy? What would you listen to? I’m wondering if recorded music is not as useful. The reason I ask is that I feel very differently — not emotionally, but physically — when I’m listening to the children practice piano, versus listening to recorded music. I can hear Mozart on the stereo, and appreciate its beauty, but it does nothing much for me physiologically. But when I hear one of my kids playing a simple tune with uncomplicated chords, I don’t want them to stop. It has some sort of pleasing effect on me that I can’t explain, but I can observe. Understand: it’s not the quality of their playing (they are just kids) but rather the harmonies and the vibrations produced by the keyboard. Random banging on the piano doesn’t work. It has to be harmonic.

My son Lucas learned to play a simple arrangement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” for his recent recital. He got pretty good at it, but he was very far from Murray Perahia. The strangest thing, though: I’ve heard that piece a thousand times, on CD or on the radio, and it never had the physiological effect on me that my 11-year-old son playing it did, and does. It has nothing to do with fatherly feelings about him. It’s something to do with the sound.

I know, I know. It sounds crackpot. But I’m telling you, there’s a mystery there. Have you observed it?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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