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The Power of Sound

Meryl explores the idea of sound itself as a vehicle for communication that is unencumbered by the trappings of words. She introduces the concept that all created things and human affections embody a tonal resonance and that an evolved insensitivity has caused us to focus heavily on the meanings of words rather than experiencing the inherent power of sound. - Editor

My husband and I have started to attend a weekly discussion group hosted by some friends of ours. The topics range from religion and philosophy to bioethics and local politics, depending on the invited guest speaker's field of study or profession. We really enjoy participating in this open forum, especially as it provides a space to dialogue with people from many worldviews and backgrounds, in a spirit of respect and curiousity. Recently the guest speaker was an ordained West African Chieftan. I was deeply moved by the words of this wise woman, so powerful and yet so gracious in spirit. She began her talk with a burst of singing, delivered to a roomful of strangers without the least bit of hesitation. Several people shifted uneasily in their seats at this surprise, but as her singing continued the group relaxed and began to absorb this unusual experience.

She concluded her opening song and then with the twinkling eyes of a storyteller, she told us it's purpose. “Words,” she said, “are filled with meaning. They carry with them all the meanings and associated experiences of our lives and the lives of our ancestors. That's why, when we begin a ceremony, we sing. In this way we can experience the sound itself. The pure vibrations.” I pondered this statement for several days afterwards, and I even played around with spontanous bursts of sound as I drove to and from work. Although my experiments caused me (and possibly some people next to me at the stoplight) to laugh, I found that creating a loud burst of nonesenese singing made a physical difference to my body. Similar to the sensation of relaxing after a yoga class, I felt a burst of energy surge through my body, relaxing my limbs and inspiring me to take deeper breaths. Hmmm, I thought. I can see what she means. Sound has its own power, distinct from words.

Some of my worst disagreements in life have been about words. Many times issues between my friends and me center around the words we chose. A simple offhand question leads to a discussion that goes something like this: “Why didn't you say it THIS way? When you say it with those words, it sounds like you are upset/blaming me/being insensitive, etc.” A good part of the time the intentions behind the words were good, and after we are each reassured of this, the problem goes away. But the words themselves speak loudly, sometimes louder than the intented meaning. What tiptoed politely from his lips may stomp rudely into my ears.

It seems to me the words of our language are not always able to construct and deliver the messages within our hearts. Too often the meaning is lost with the syntax, meanwhile the power of the sounds themselves is left untapped. Perhaps this was not always the case, however. Swedenborg writes that “angelic language has nothing in common with human language except with a few of our words whose sound reflects some feeling, and in this case not with the words themselves but with their sound” (Heaven and Hell 237). I remembered a fascinating book I once read, called Nada Brahma: A World of Sound by Joachim Ernst Berendt. I googled it and found this piece of insight from composer and musicologist, Joscelyn Godwin. He writes, “The fact that the ‘world is sound’ isn't just a widespread myth or legend. It is confirmed in the established findings of fundamental internal harmonic research and many other disciplines. We have found the world's tonal character confirmed in internal DNA genes and internal electron spins, in the solar wind and geomagnetism, in the weather and in the ‘song’ of flowers and plants. Ever since the time of his incarnation, man has progressively lost his original spiritual internal perception. This has worked to divorce music and internal language from the natural harmonies and rhythms, which were and remain the primordial condition of all things.”

This passage suggests to me that language was not always so distinct from the “pure vibrations” of which the chieftan spoke. According to Swedenborg, angelic language encompasses a union between affection and sound, such that, “the only things they [angels] can utter are the ones that are in complete accord with their own affection. Anything that does not agree offends their very life, since their life is a matter of affection and their language flows from it. I have been told that the first language of people on our earth shared this nature because it was given them from heaven” (Heaven and Hell 237). Perhaps it is possible to communicate directly through sound, apart from the lingering associations and various interpretations that accompany words.

Certainly music can evoke emotions. As I sat there with fifteen others on folded chairs in a tiny apartment living room, and listened to this unusual woman pour out her heart with such dignity, I was moved. I was glad I heard the song before the words.

Meryl Machado

Meryl teaches piano and preschool in Phoenix, Arizona and lives with her husband, Diogo, and two dogs. She spends most of her free time learning Portuguese, deciding what room of the house to paint next, and making travel plans with Diogo.

Reader Comments (2)

Thank you for your article! As a musician, I was really excited as soon as I read the title of your essay. I thought it was interesting how you started with a story from your life and wove that into some ideas from both the Writings and professional research. Sound is such an important part of our existence, even if we've learned to tune out many of its frequencies on a daily basis. Thanks for the reminder that the power to release tension lies within us, through the medium of sound, at any given moment.

November 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterErin Schnarr


December 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterIsaac Synnestvedt
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