A long, long time ago, during the dawn of the human epic, music existed as informative entertainment and for healing purposes. Music possesses shamanic roots and through the ages, music poured from the mouths and instruments of bards, troubadours, magicians, shamans, priests, priestesses, meistersingers and others initiated into the power of sound, words and storytelling–initiated in the tradition of healing with sound.
Similar to our verbal (word) languages, music also speaks in rhythm, timbre, bass and treble. Both words and music define our realities, express our emotions and set our moods. Music has been labeled the universal language and it speaks in chords, vibrations, moods and emotions. Just think of this list of the types of musical forms that currently exist; lullabies, ballads, symphonies, salsa, samba, bossa nova, jazz standards, rock n’ roll and religious chants.
However, so many of us relegate music to the halls of entertainment or worse yet, to audio wallpaper, not realizing the powerful healing potential of sound combined with words–magic that can in fact, heal our moods thus boosting our immune systems and creating harmony among the myriad of activity currently happening in our bodies. According to Japanese water researcher, Masaru Emoto and author of several water-related books, the hundred trillion cells in our body create a symphony. (Emoto, 2006). So why wouldn’t those hundred trillion cells respond to the healing powers of music?
In the first portion of this paper, I will explore that healing potential on our bodies. I will travel backwards in time to the true origins of healing through music and move forward to the age of sound healers and quantum physics. I will introduce you to Dr. Emoto’s compelling work with water crystals and use French Impressionist composer, Claude Debussy’s "Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun" as an example of music which caused an uproar during the Victorian Age, but is now used to calm moods; according to Emoto, help with lower back pain (Emoto, 2006).
The remaining portion of the paper will explore the universal language of music as it communicates a sense of place and identity. I will be sharing one culture in this section, the defiant people of the French Mediterranean Island, Corsica. Music creates a healing effect, not just for individuals, but also for a populace. But first, let’s explore the shamanic and ancient roots of the musical language.
According to renowned metaphysician Ted Andrews in his book, Sacred Sounds, "Every society, tradition, and religion has had teachings both magical and wondrous. The relaying and demonstrating of these wondrous teachings fell to individuals who were schooled in the natural and spiritual laws of the universe." (Andrews, 2001, 2003, p.ix). These were the ancient priests, priestesses, magicians, and shamans they we often hear archaeologists mention.
Those of us who research the origins of music, also read about prehistoric flutes and drums. And every culture, both nomadic and sedentary has possessed some type of fiddle, lute, flute and drum–everything from shepherds flutes, oracles lyres and medieval harps. These ancient and not-so ancient cultures also possessed the knowledge of healing with the power of sound and words. Many of these healing words were embedded in myths and legends, such as the Finnish national treasure, the Kalevala or the Icelandic Elder Edda. It was not enough to tell an accompanied story, an initiate needed to understand the sacred symbolism hidden in the various phrases and one needed to know which story to recite depending on the various tribal occasions.
Although sound healers and musicians today employ various instruments such as drums, flutes and harps in their healing modalities, many ancient healing traditions are extinct or about to be. According to a National Geographic News article, "Lord of the Rings Inspired by an Ancient Epic," first published in 2001, only one Finnish shamanic elder, Jussi Houvinen exists in Finland who understands the healing powers of the epic Kalevala. (Handwerk, 2001, 2004, online).
National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence, Wade Davis had traveled to Finland to research the shamanic aspects of the pre-Christian era, Finnish legend. The oral tradition which is sung by what are known as, rune singers is a thousands year old tradition that has been passed down from singer to singer. According to Davis, "In an oral tradition, the total richness of the language is no more than the vocabulary of the best storyteller. In other words, at any one point in time the boundaries of the language are being stretched according to the memory of the best storyteller.
National Geographic News journalist Handwerk reported, "In what was the Viena Karelia region, the oral tradition of the Finnish language is still alive, but now contained in the memory of just a single storyteller. His name is Jussi Houvinen, and he is Finland’s last rune singer. This elderly man is a living link to myths and languages that have been passed mouth-to-ear over the ages in an unbroken chain."
Powerful stories have been extracted from the legend and transformed into children’s literature and folk-pop groups such as Värttinä and Hedningarna have modernized the old shamanic rune songs that were once sung by initiates. The language and shamanic magic and healing intent has all but been lost because these musicians and children’s storytellers lack the intent and training of a shamanic initiate so it is possible that the power of this oral legend will fade into the mist of time, at least in Finland. We will be left however with a few token souvenirs.
However, Norwegian vocalist and kantale player, (a harp that derives from the Kalevala Legends), Sinikka Langeland and kantale player, Ove Berg discovered remnants of the rune song tradition on wax-cylinders recordings of shamanic elders. Langeland and Berg featured those archival recordings along with contemporary rune songs on their CD, Tirun Lirun. While the featured elders, Puro-Juhoin Pekka and Kaisa Vilhuinen passed away during the early part of the last century, Langeland and Berg featured archival interviews with the elders on their label, Finnskogen Kulturverksted web site. The site lists a selection of rune songs with healing effects.
In my World Music Central article, "Rune Songs: Vainamoinen Returns," (Herlevi, 2004), I mention a quote that appears on the label’s web site of what one of the last shamans, Puro-Juhoin Pekka told the last wise woman in Finnskogen, Kaisa Vilhuinen. "’You must not place the sword in the hands of a fool; With sorcery both good and evil can be done.’ And often is in both legends and reality in places where this sort of magic is practiced. The rune songs featured on this CD were once used to protect people and their animals, to heal wounds and to cast a spell over bees."
Further in the article, "The rune songs that appear on Tirun Lirun run the gamut of epic poetry, such as track 4, "Vainamoinen" (from Kalevala Legends), to practical purposes, (the shamanic-inspired "Rollota" used to fire up the oven). "Kanteleensoitto" is an epic song that focuses on the musical instrument kantale (a lap harp believed in the legend to have been created by the shaman Vainamoinen). "Anfallsrune" is an incantation against fits and "Turskarune" is an incantation against wounds. "Jonnrune/Raudan jalgea" can stop a wound from bleeding and according to Professor Timo Leisio, ‘The Skogfinn’s runes to heal open wounds are so remarkable that they should be the subject of comprehensive research.’" (World Music Central, 2004, online).
However, some ancient healing musical traditions still thrive today, mainly because the traditions were passed down through generations of healers. Mainly these traditions can be found on the African continent and the Indian subcontinent.
African Music and Spirits
Music journalist Elijah Wald had been following the West African griot tradition and in the pages of his book, Global Minstrels, he brought up the tradition in an interview with Zimbabwean village minstrel, Ephat Mujuru for contrast and comparison between the West African and Zimbabwean traditions. Mujuru explained, "From ancient times there were people who used to travel from place to place with their instruments, playing music and telling stories. They would go from village to village, bring the news from another area. My family had done this for generations; they are even written in history books." (Wald, 2006, p. 7).
Similar to West African griot, French troubadours or European bards, these musician-messengers educated, informed and entertained. The Shona people of Zimbabwe perform a shamanic healing music on a mbira, or thumb piano, which keeps both the storytelling and spiritual traditions alive.
Compatriot mbira player, Stella Chiweshe became the first woman mbira player in her country and a world renown at that. Yet, she does not take credit for the music she performs citing that the music comes from Spirit. "The mbira player is a medium, who plays for the spirits. Also the living–when I say for the ‘spirits," it does not mean to say that I leave out use human beings. Uh-uh. The spirits live together with the living." (p. 11).
The late Malian "King of the Desert Blues," Ali Farka Toure criticizes the griot because he claims that they spend their time praising their patrons. Although Ali Farka had not come from a musical, but a noble family, one of his many professions was as a phenomenal blues guitarist. Although he would be the first to point out that he was not performing American blues, but a music that hailed back to ancient times. Similar to Chiweshe who was mentioned earlier, Ali Farka also conversed with Spirits. In fact, he refused to translate his lyrics for Wald, due to its symbolic spiritual content. And he brought up the topic of a very dangerous instrument, the Malian traditional njurkel, "a little guitar." Toure explained, "…it is the most dangerous instrument in Africa, because it is an instrument uniquely for the spirits. It can do things that no other instrument can bring out." (p. 14).
Although seemingly some ancient traditions still exists today, Andrews cites that most of what we know about these ancient traditions has been pieced together from archaeological remnants. We know that the ancient Chinese healers used "singing stones," and that the ancient Hindus, Egyptians, Japanese and Greeks all employed music for healing purposes, to name only a handful. "By the time Egypt built the pyramids and sphinxes, it had organized choruses of 12,000 voices and orchestras of 600 pieces. Many believe that it was through their use of direct and controlled sound that much of the heaviest labor was accomplished on the pyramids." (Andrews, 2001, 2003, p. 4).
In era of quantum physics, we gaze at these ancient shamanic traditions and often blend them with scientific prowess. Those who heal with music in this era call themselves sound healers and you can find music therapists or sound healers in numerous settings ranging from hospitals and hospices, to new age workshops and healing arts clinics around the world.
Today’s sound and musical language speaks of toning with tuning forks, Tibetan bowls and bells, as well as, balancing the chakras with notes from the do re mi scale. The theory now is that if your chakras are not in balance then illness can result. Today we speak about moving energy through channels and we speak about low and high vibrations, not so much as it relates to musical instruments such as bass and flute, but how we physically bring energy into the world with despair equating low vibration and joy equating the high vibration.
Ever heard the say, "she’s got bad vibes"? Even so, sound healers use instruments on the high end such as flutes, high range of the piano keyboard, harps to heal the upper chakras and low instruments such as bass as an example, to heal the lower chakras. A flute goes a long ways in clearing unwanted energy in the crown chakra, which might be why listening to Native American flute brings clarity to some listeners or why a harp has been associated with lofty spiritual principles.
Leading sound therapist Joshua Leeds describes the elements of sound healing on the CD, Dr. Andrew Weil’s Music For Self-Healing Relax and de-Stress, which include resonance, entrainment, auditory pattern identification and beauty. "Resonance is the impact of one vibration upon another, ie., something external setting something else into motion, or changing its vibratory pattern." (Leeds, 2005, p. 7-9). So if you were feeling depressed and you listened to uplifting music, eventually that music would lift your vibration.
Leeds continues, "entrainment is a natural process whereby the heartbeat, breath, and brainwaves speed up or slow down to match an external periodic rhythm. Fast rhythms excite our pulses; slow rhythms calm us down."
"Auditory pattern identification and orchestral density techniques facilitate the middle-ear processes of active listening or passive hearing. Active listening takes place when the auditory mechanism is fully engaged. This occurs when we cannot find a pattern in the soundscape or when we are really focused on listening."
Finally, beauty is self explanatory and more than likely reflects the collection of classical music that appeared on the recording.
Speaking of beautiful music, French Impressionist composer Claude Debussy’s "Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun" as mentioned earlier, possesses healing potential. What you might not know about this composition is the controversy it stirred during the end of the 19th century due to its pagan overtones. When Russian dancer Nijinsky performed the role as the controversial faun (Pan), Paris erupted in scandal. Today you might hear the song playing in a dental office and not think twice about it. Hopefully, you would listen to the composition on your stereo or in a concert hall where it can be fully appreciated.
According to Japanese researcher Masaru Emoto, who I mentioned at the beginning of this paper, we can actually see what this musical composition looks like in the form of a frozen water crystal. The particular Hado of the song, (energy, qi), clears your heart and relieves us from environmental stress. It also improves back pain in your lower back. So let’s listen to a portion of this beautiful masterpiece. (Emoto, 2006).
After many years of researching water and how to purify it, Dr. Emoto stumbled onto the concept that no snowflake is exactly alike. This led him to his work with frozen water crystals and the field of quantum physics. (Emoto, 2004).
In an article I wrote about Dr. Emoto’s work for World Music Central, "Power of Music Part 2: Dr. Emoto’s Hidden Messages in Water," I briefly described the origins of Dr. Emoto’s work and the effects of musical vibration on water molecules.
Over time and after much effort, Dr. Emoto devised a method using high speed photography to capture frozen water crystals. The fact that crystals form in water attests to the presence of healthy energy. Polluted and chlorine-treated water revealed no crystals. When destructive words were either spoken to or typed on a piece of paper and taped to bottles filled with water either no crystals formed or the ones that did were clearly distorted.
While Dr. Emoto’s research delves into a variety of areas from water purification, to quantum physics, the use of prayer to purify water, this article will only focus on his research involving the energies found in different types of music." (Herlevi, 2004, online)
Playing music for bottles of water manifested amazing results. "In the prologue of his book, The Hidden Messages in Water, Dr. Emoto explains how the experiment with music began. The researchers would place bottles of water between two speakers while playing music at the volume humans would normally listen to music… When researching the effects of classical music on water, Dr. Emoto and the researchers were astounded with the results. ‘Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, with its bright clear tones, resulted in beautifully and well-formed crystals. Mozart’s 40th Symphony, a graceful prayer of beauty, created crystals that were delicate and elegant…’" (online).
These results are significant because depending on our age, our bodies can be anywhere between 90 percent to 50 percent water. And if water is an actual conduit that picks up vibrations through thoughts, sounds, words and especially music which combines words, sound and vibration, we need to be aware of the healing or toxic potential of music. By the way, when the water was exposed to heavy-metal music no water crystals formed and in fact, what did form resembled a black hole.
While I have found that many music lovers and musicians that heal through music focus on music from far-off exotic places such as Africa or India, some cultures heal by building community and striking a chord of solidarity in their own backyards as is the case, with Corsican polyphony vocalists. This concept is not new to me, I recall an interview I did with Simon Emerson from the popular world music group, Afro Celts in which Simon said that musicians do not need to travel far from their homeland to find their musical roots and build community. (Herlevi, Cranky Crow Whole Music, 2002, online). This seems to be the case with traditional Corsican musicians.
In April 2005, I tumbled down a flight of stairs, badly spraining my ankle. Without health insurance or a doctor, I decided that I would heal myself and I did so in part, by listening to what is known as Corsican polyphony. What I discovered through listening to this vocal tradition was how music heals a people by connecting them to their homeland and identity. I also would like to add the ironic note that one of the biggest injuries tourists experience when visiting the Corsican island is sprained and broken ankles, acquired while hiking in the rugged mountains.
I will quote a segment of a radio show I produced on Corsican polyphony for KBCS’ The Old Country and without getting too deep into the complex history of the Corsican people, who have been conquered and re-conquered over the centuries.
"During the 20th century this tradition became endangered due to a French government ban on the Corsican language and also due to migration of the rural population to the French mainland. However, a folk revival spearheaded by Corsican singers, Petru Guelfucci and Jean-Paul Poletti in the 1970’s rescued this tradition from obscurity. Today you will hear a variety of polyphony, traditional and contemporary, a cappella and with instruments as well as, sacred and secular." (Herlevi, 2006).
Corsicans are not the only people who passionately equate their music with their homeland and identity. The music comes from a highly charged atmosphere and often from a separatist movement because some Corsicans would like to break away from France. And even the most sublime polyphony echoes a violent reality and outcries from a people that feel oppressed.
I summed it up in an article in Global Rhythm entitled, "Polyphony the Voice of the People." "Corsican polyphony originated with shepherds who drove their herds into the rugged mountains during the summer months. These are songs of identity and community on which many voices join as one, causing riots and transcendental bliss." (Herlevi, 2005, p. 24)
In conclusion, the first step in harnessing the healing powers of music is awareness. When we listen to music, we must also listen to our bodies. We need to explore music that lifts our moods, boost our immune systems and brings harmony to our communities. With this new awareness intact, it is my hope that you will begin a dialogue with vibrations, rhythm, melody, harmony and timbre. As well as, further exploring the field of sound healing and or using music as a tool to build community and heal the populace.
Andrews, T. (2001, 2003), Sacred Sounds, Magic & Healing Through Words & Music, St. Paul: Llewellyn Worldwide.
Emoto, M. (2006), Water Crystal Healing, Music & Images to Restore Your Well-Being, Portland/New York: Beyond Word Publishing and Atria Books.
Emoto, M. (2004), The Hidden Messages in Water, Portland: Beyond Word Publishing.
Wald, E. (2006), Global Minstrels, Voices of World Music, New York: Routledge/Taylor and Francis Group.
Herlevi, P. (2005, December.), Polyphony: The Voices of the People, pp. 24-25.
Handwerk, B. (2004, March 1 updated). Lord of the Rings Inspired by an Ancient Epic. National Geographic News [online]. Available: http://news.nationalgeographics.com/2001/12/1219_tolkienroots.html
Herlevi, P. (2004, April 23 with revision in 2007). The Power of Music, Part 2: Dr. Emoto’s Hidden Messages in Water. World Music Central [online]. Available: worldmusiccentral.org/2004/04/25/power-of-music-part-2-dr-emotos-hidden-messages-in-water.
Herlevi, P. (2004, January 21). Rune Songs: Vainamoinen Returns. World Music Central [online]. Available: https://worldmusiccentral.org/2004/01/21/rune-songs-vainamoinen-returns
Herlevi, P. (2002, Summer). Return of the Ancestors: Simon Emerson (Afro Celts). Cranky Crow Whole Music, [online]. Available: http://www.geocities.com/pherlevi/Simonemerson.htm
Herlevi, P., Corsican Polyphony segment, The Old Country, KBCS, http://kbcs.fm, [April 30, 2006].
Compilation Classical, (2005). Dr. Andrew Weill’s Music For Self-Healing, Relax and de-Stress, (Compact Disc). Boulder: Sounds True.
This is a college term paper written by Patricia Herlevi.
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.