Published first in: Caduceus issue 23 / April 1994
Therapy of pure sound reaching deep consciousness to heal
Our perception of sound has changed: we have lost our ability to hear
natural intervals, that is, pure sound. Since the 19th century, music
has been based on the temperate scale, or equal tuning system, which is
false except for the octaves. From Antiquity to classical times,
Caduceus: What is the effect of our having lost our perception of natural resonance?
IR. It has profound consequences for our whole relationship to life. Our bodies and consciousness are constructed upon natural laws of physics and biology. In the same way that impure air and water puts our body on the defensive, sounds which are not pure have an analogous impact while pure sounds, especially of the human voice if used in deep sound waves, can have a very beneficial effect. This principle of sound ecology is of great importance for our society.
How did you come to the work of healing with sound?
IR. Over 20 years ago I realized that if I wanted to recover the finer perceptions in sound I had to stop playing the piano, singing in choirs and even listening to classical music as it is performed now. I would listen just to the resonance of one string, or eventually recordings in which there was no influence from the modern European scales, like traditional music of India or Tibet, or the pygmies of Africa. Then after nine months it was as though a veil was lifted: I could hear the natural intervals, and I could hear the slight difference between Ïenese and the temperate intervals. This is what I have been teaching since 1976: to sing in true intonation and to rediscover its power.
My intention was to return to early Christian chant as it was performed 1500 years ago, and in my courses I found that the purer the sound, the more remarkable the effect it had on everybody, myself included, both physically and psychologically. It was like going into pure, clear water. Then I started to notice something more. Whereas some people were not perceiving true intonation or even some vibrations in the body because they had not yet recovered more subtle perception, others had a definite bloc}; which I realized was probably related to physical or psychological blockages. This is how I came to sound therapy, by observing the effect of this approach to sound.
I emphasize that what I do is not 'music therapy' in the way it is practised as an adjunct by psychotherapists and psychoanalysits: how can you use music, such as a little Brahms or Debussy, when these composers did not write with a therapeutic aim, and how can you use music without understanding first the effect of sound?
Also, I believe that the human voice is the most powerful
instrument. This is supported by the results of a research project
carried out in a department of the University of Paris on the effect of
sound on premature babies. The criterion was how far each type of music
could calm the disturbed rhythm which is typical of a premature infant,
and bring its heartbeat back to a firm, regular and slow rhythm.
I have worked intensively with the voice, researching sound therapy, applying it with many people with many diverse conditions either directly or through my students - I don't have my own clinical practice. We use sound in a very simple way. I have discovered how powerful it is to produce just very pure sound waves such as 'O' and 'Aa', perhaps with a group of singers, then adding some elementary intervals, like a fifth because it gives the sense of space, and some very simple chants of Antiquity based on pure natural resonances.
Whom do you treat with sound therapy?
One of my pupils was working with a group of 40 or 50 people with severe mental disability from birth who could only sit around, unable to speak or walk, making noises and contorting their faces. A group of five or six of us made soft, pure sound waves as I have just described.
There was one severely handicapped man of 30 years old who had never spoken. After only ten minutes of our singing he began to say some words, then very clearly he said 'Maman' ('Mummy'). we wonder what would have happened if 1le had heard this kind of music at the stage of development when he would normally have started to say 'Maman'.
In the same group there was another man of about the same age who was severely mentally and physically handicapped - he had never stood up or walked. He began to make a small movement with his finger. The attendants knew it meant that he wanted something and when they went over he showed that he wanted to stand up. With help, because of course he didn't have the muscles to stand, he eventually stood up and took four or five steps for the first time in his life. After this one session there were others also who recovered for a time their sense of verticality and with help could stand, and some of them took some steps. The sounds we chanted were the only factor, and when you see this you realize that there must be a relationship between sound and deep consciousness. The masters of antiquity like Pythagoras and Plato said that the soul is musical if you understand that 'soul' means consciousness, and that music also means sound, we can say that consciousness has a sounding nature. The response ofthe severely handicapped people to sound shows that these masters of antiquity were right.
Sound therapy is very powerful because it reaches deep consciousness, so it enables us to work with people who have lost the external level of consciousness, like people with mental disability Or people in a coma. It is coming to be recognized that people in coma do hear. They retain the sense of touch and sound, and sound goes much deeper than touch. Sounds and singing reach deeper than speaking, and songs that a person heard in early Childhood can bring to life their deep consciousness and the corresponding parts of their brain. As these parts begin to work so the blood flows to the brain and they can eventually recover other parts of the brain and other levels of consciousness. But if not used, then even this faculty and the corresponding parts of the brain will deteriorate and the consciousness and whole person will die progressively.
I have a story about this. There was a man called Monsieur
Baudet, who was in a hospital in the south France, in a coma which was
not improving. In French baudet means ´little donkey`,and there
is a children's song which goes A-da-da sur mon baudet, meaning
'La-la-la on my little donkey'. One day a nurse from a different ward
happened to be passing through Monsieur Baudet's ward and because she
heard his name she was singing to herself A-da-da sur mon baudet. About
two months later a man came up to this nurse in another part of the
hospital, saying 'My name is Monsieur Baudet. You were singing A-da-da
sur mon baudet'. She thought she had insulted him and apologised, but
he said, 'Oh no, you saved my life, because my consciousness started to
return as soon as you sangA-da-da sermon haudet' As a child he must
have been often teased with this song by other children because of his
name, and as soon as he heard the nurse singing it his consciousness
was pulled back out of the coma and he could remember the very moment
that it happened.
One of my students is a yoga teacher. She had a woman in her classwho had been unable to speak since giving birth to her daughter 17 years previously. At the end of the course,the teacher chanted some simple Sounds m tme consciousness, mostly 'O' and ´Aa`,and the woman suddenly recovered her her speech. The yoga teacher took her to the phone to speak to her daughter who had never heard her mother's voice. This was brought about just through the action of sound going through to deep consciousness which has the capacity to unblock if moved properly.
Another example of our work is with people who are close to death. Common in all oral traditions is the practice of people singing when they feel death approaching, to help them go into the eternal light of universal consciousness. Tihe Venerable Bode did this, and in 604AD Gregory the Great wrote, 'Singing helps the soul to part well from the body'. If the person were unable to sing, or even if they had already died, then the people around them would sing for them. Through sound one can awaken the deep consciousness of the dying, because on this level of sound the person is always young, and one can say helpful words like 'Now through peace you are coming to the light'.
At the opposite end, the moment of giving birth, sound is also very effective. Especially with her first baby, a mother is often anxious, and this anxiety can cut her off from her normal consciousness. Just by chanting very simple sounds like 'O', 'Aa' and 'Mm' she is able to reconnect with her deep levelof consciousness in her body and in this state by using sounds she can follow the contractions in a natural way, as one follows a wave in the sea rather than confronting and resisting them. A gynaecologist whom we work with has said that sound is the best way for a woman to become active in giving birth.
We also have a therapist who works with autistic children, creating contact with them by making very gentle, soft, loving sounds with them. This is very suited to such children who are very closed, hypersensitive, and looking for any pretext to withdraw. The autististic child is very attracted to soft sounds, and when she makes the sounds herself she can recover her consciousness and find confidence in herself to be here with us.
Surprisingly, for a person healing with sound, you haven´t mentioned the use of harmonic chanting.
I have taught the hearing and emission of harmonics sincc l 976, but I am reluctant to encourage the current fashion for harmonics. There is no sound without harmonics because harmonics are the totality of sound and we have to open our hearing to them. To hear them means to open our ears to the natural sounds, and the effect of this is to open deep consciousness, so of course they play a role in healing.
The best way to hear them is in one's own voice, then one can master them and hear them better. They are always there. It is just a matter of attention and fine perception. So we practise making harmonics, but we do it in a very simple way without tricks of the tongue or throat. The tricks keep you in the external consciousness, the fashion or harmonics is now a kind of showand the subtle aspect is veiled.
Do you direct sound to specific parts of the body?
IR. Sound therapy is clinically effective in the cases where you have to gointo deep consciousness, as in the examples I have given where sound is the only means to make contact. Sound also has another category of effects, which is working on the physiological level of the normal person.I don't believe in a mechanical approach to sound therapy which prescribes one sound to heal the liver, another for the stomach, another for a sore throat. People come to alternative medicine as a reaction against the exaggerated mechanical aspect of our otherwise remarkable tradition of classical western medicine, yet within alternative therapies - they seek a mechanical method again. The way i prefer to work is always through conciousness: when you bring harmony between conciousness and the body then you bring harmony to specific parts of the body
However, there are some cases in which there is a direct action of sound on the physical body. For example, there is a relationship between syllables and parts of the body. I am not talking about chakras,about the invisible, I am speaking very concretely. If you put your hand on your chest and chant 'Aa', you feel the vibration there; 'Oo' resonates in the throat and mouth and lower of the part of the face; if you chant 'Mm' and put your hand on the top of your head, you feel the vibration there. 'Mm' also has a powerful resonation in the bones. Generally when a person has a poor consciousness of a particular part of their body, they will also have a bad sound perception of these parts, and sounding is the best way to recover consciousness of these parts of the body.
Then we also have to look at these sounds in terms of
harmonics. In sound you have the physical mechanical effect directly
from the vibrations and then you have the higher or lower harmonics,
and then it depends on the particular quality of the vowel sound that
My final question about the difference in pitch used by Tibetan and western Christian monks in their chanting. Tibetans sing very low, and Christians sing much higher.
That was only a development of the 19th century, the monastic convention of the 19th century. I regard it as being part of the decadence of the western liturgical tradition. An important part of my work is to return to the roots of sacred chant and liturgy.