As we explore the ancient roots of traditional and popular music, we can also delve into the healing power and consciousness of our favorite music. In my (currently unpublished) book Whole Music (Soul Food for the Mind Body Spirit), I delved into both the academic and metaphysical sides of music by wedding ethnomusicology with new age philosophies while including experiential practices at the end of the fourteen chapters. Here is one of my favorite excerpts from the book from Chapter One, Delphi Temples & Pyramids: Healing Music of the Ancients.
Where does human music originate? Were the first humans inspired by frogs chirping in ponds, by the songbirds in trees, from the wind whispering in reeds (which flutes were made), and the hush that appeared after the sun set below the horizon and stars peppered the twilight skies? We do know that early humans played flutes made from bird bones, drums made from wood and animal skins, and stringed instruments (most likely lyres). Nature, sounds, and the cosmos fused together creating a human sonic experience, in which today, we attempt to recreate so we can usher in thousands of years of harmony.
We know that these early humans employed voice and instruments for a variety of purposes from organizing war campaigns to healing their fellow humans to sacred temples, to assisting with various tasks, for reproduction (frenzied music for orgies), and educating children. Since music always possessed a purpose, the potential for music was most likely common knowledge, unlike music is today. While musicians composed and performed music for entertainment, such as with Greek theater and festival games, music often fulfilled a task. Much of the music we enjoy today has roots in sacred music practices, military marches, healing rituals, or preceded modern reporters, shamans, and educators rolled into court musicians.
Today, indigenous people from around the globe still carry on the traditions of their elders. The Sami people (one of the oldest people on earth), of Nordic countries still sing the magical yoik, even if the sorcery element has disappeared in favor of praise songs (for the deceased), or fused to rock music for entertainment; ditto for the ancient Finnish runo-song that finds its roots in the Kalevala Legend, according to the late Ted Andrews in his book Sacred Sounds, was conceived three thousand years ago.
According to a National Geographic News article, “Lord of the Rings Inspired by an Ancient Epic,” only one Finnish elder, Jussi Houvinen exists in Finland who understands the powers and intricacies of the epic Kalevala.
When did we lose the magical side and healing consciousness of music? As dominant cultures moved into regions occupied by tribal people, indigenous people often lost connections to their language, rituals, music, and nature-based healing practices due to dominant cultures and religions enforcing new rules that forbid “animistic” practices, often seen as the devil’s work and definitely viewed as uncivilized.
Some cultures such as in Latin America, fused Catholic saints to Yoruba gods (Brazil and Cuba), or lost their spiritual roots completely, but not the rhythms of West Africa (US American slaves whose work songs fostered the birth of gospel, jazz, blues, and early rock music). Is it ironic that musicians from the Black Church (the church of African-Americans), such as Stevie Wonder, Miles Davis, and the cosmopolitan band Earth, Wind & Fire gazed backwards to ancient Egypt, West Africa and Latin America for spiritual and musical inspiration? However, ancient Egyptian music with its harps, lutes, rousing drums, and esoteric renderings would have sounded nothing like contemporary African-American music, and gave roots to belly dancing and Coptic Christian music and not American funk.
Court musicians were initiated and trained in the power of words and sound architecture.
The biggest different between today’s pop musicians and celebrated ancient musicians was that the purposes went beyond entertainment, and these musicians possessed an awareness for resonance and rhythmic entrainment. They knew about magic, alchemy, and intent. Contemporary musicians still supply the intent, and instead of alchemy, they provide cathartic music that is often therapeutic given the right circumstances. Musicians have not completely lost the ancient groove.
From Pan’s Flute to Rock Guitar
However, to give you an idea about the evolution of music, we need to also look at the evolution of humanity from pastoralists and hunting gatherers to urban dwellers. While we find wool gathering songs or sea shanties quaint, these songs performed the purpose of energizing workers and sailors of another age. The sung-legends with magical songs educated both adults and children about pre-Christian culture and about alchemy. Shamanic heroes on quests provided listeners with archetypical healing long before Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell arrived on the scene. Hero-worship is not a new thing.
Early Christians had their music too that spread the word of Christ’s teachings and to share “the good news”. Sufis of the Moslem faith employed trance dancing and sacred poetry to connect with the Divine. Jewish, Hindus, and Buddhists as well as animistic religions also included music for worship in temples, for weddings, for meditation, and ceremonial uses. If you listen to modern adaptation of ancient music from these religions, you can feel the sacred lingering in the room, even if you don’t practice any of these religions. Music with intent powerfully impacts our hearts, minds, and souls. As we listen to Persian Sufi poetry set to Iranian classical music, to ragas of India, or Native American sacred chants, or American gospel, we pay homage to a Universal God; we connect with the rainbow of humanity and all creatures.
A Quest for Whole Music
My definition of “whole music” revolves around music that wakes up consciousness through intent, resonance, and entrainment. Whole music comes in many guises from overtone harmonic chants of Tibetan monks, to the power of drum circles, didgeridoo players, to renaissance Christian chants, to the lush vocal harmonies of the Canadian band the Wailin’ Jennys. Whole music appears on street corners, farmers markets, outdoor music festivals, concert halls, temples, and Cathedrals. And in Bellingham, Washington, whole music drifts out of a chocolate and dessert shop on the corner of Cornwall Avenue and Champion.
Sound healers and psychoacoustic experts (they study sound’s effect on the nervous system) promote toning the body with vowel sounds. According to Jonathan Goldman, a sound-healer and proponent of over-toning (singing harmonics overtones to balance the body), musical practices that emphasize vowel sounds including Gregorian chant, Tibetan monk chant, and Indian raga vocals. When the chanter elongates vowel sounds harmonics result. Harmonics exist in all musical vibration, but when used with intent, healing occurs in the mind, body, and spirit.
Goldman quotes Sarmad Brody in his book, Healing Sounds describing the healing effects of Gyuto Monk overtone chants. “If you can be conscious of that fourth overtone you can begin to heal yourself through sound since this brings one’s whole being into tune and raises consciousness to a high pitch. Also, if you can sing very softly and send this sound, while being conscious of this fourth overtone, into an area where energy is blocked or tensed, you can release tension.”
We don’t often hear about overtones, yet, this important aspect of music provides healing frequencies. When we strike a note on a piano, notes above that note resonate, creating overtones. And it is overtones that shape the timbre of an instrument causing the flute to sound different than a piano, and a clarinet to sound different than a trumpet. If you elongate three vowels in a row such “o,” “u,” and “e,” you will hear yourself singing overtones. For most singers this takes practice, but I have developed throat-singing capabilities by using this method.
The ancients from Egypt to India practiced overtone singing and I once heard a story that the Giza Pyramid’s crystal floors once provided a resonating chamber where healers practiced overtone singing on their patients.
While we have forgotten this knowledge as music took the unfortunate journey from purposeful to a product of the entertainment industry, we still have the tools in our self-healing toolkits, including quartz crystals, vocal harmonics (which you could teach yourself in a manner of hours), and shakers which you can make by filling a container with dried beans. You can follow your intuition in combination with reading books by sound healers…
Excerpt from Whole Music (Soul Food for the Mind Body Spirit) by Patricia Herlevi, copyright, Patricia Herlevi 2013
Patricia Herlevi is a former music journalist turned music researcher. She is especially interested in raising music consciousness. She is looking for an agent and publisher for her book Whole Music (Soul Food for the Mind Body Spirit). She founded and hosts the blog
The Whole Music Experience and has contributed to World Music Central since 2003.