Essay and Sketch by Mary Reddy
In fifth grade, the nuns taught us to read music. They counted music as an essential member of the family whose siblings were reading, writing, and mathematics. After a year of studying the treble clef; whole, half, and quarter notes; rhythms and key signatures; we each had to pass a final sight-reading exam. When it was my turn, I stood up and sang to my classmates from a piece of sheet music that I’d never seen before. I had the curious sensation of being terrified that people were looking at me mingled with the surety that I could do this! It was not my anxious mind that succeeded, it was my voice and my eyes in sync, acting together to vocalize the visual and spatial relationships I saw on the page before me. I passed the exam.
In grade school, I sang alto in the church choir. It often meant learning counterintuitive melodies that underlined or counterpointed the primary melody. I loved these sounds that felt all the more powerful because they sat back behind the song, underpinning it, providing a shadow to its light so that the whole was more clearly etched in the listener’s heart.
But for much of my life, music was the lover that got away. I enjoyed brief periods with the piano as a child and later in young adulthood with the guitar followed by years of simply listening to others play. But when alone listening to recorded music, I have always sung along. If I love a song I cannot NOT participate, raising my voice to sound the notes. And now I am seeking out that love once more, not to abandon it again.
For that love is a sacred communion. Over the centuries, people instinctively sensed the spiritual power of song—as hymns, psalms, and chants woven into rituals, augmented by drums or musical instruments. One of my aunts wrote liturgical music on the piano but was adamant that the human voice itself was the best instrument to praise God. I regret that I never asked her why she thought that. But in musing about the sacredness of sound, it occurred to me that the human voice is a unique incarnational instrument.
First, consider the impact of music on the body. In recent studies, neuroscientists have discovered that multiple parts of the brain light up when listening to music. The musicians themselves show even more intense brain activity especially in the areas governing auditory, visual, and motor functions. Though fewer studies have been done on the effects of singing on the brain, they reveal a similar increased activity across multiple areas of the brain.
Outside the brain, singing engages over a hundred muscles around the vocal cords, the larynx, the trachea, and the lungs, creating vibrations fueled by breath, changing pitch by speeding up or slowing down the vibratory frequency, adjusting volume by working the breath through the resonating passages of the throat, mouth, and nose. The listening ears are also involved to sense the quality of the sound and the accuracy of the pitch as it’s produced. And think of how that sound is heard by the singer both externally and internally as it resonates within the singer’s skull.
The vagus nerve, the “wanderer,” is the longest cranial nerve linking the brain to the rest of the body. It connects to the vocal cords, the muscles in the back of the throat, as well as to the diaphragm which works the bellows of the lungs. It’s no surprise that studies suggest singing, humming, and chanting improve the tone of the vagus nerve, helping us to access the “rest and recover” mode when needed. The vagus nerve regulates things below the level of consciousness—another hint as to the sacred power of song, for it engages much more of us than just our conscious mental process.
Thus singing is healing for us as it calls forth a great deal of energy and interaction within the body. But how are we to define its sacred qualities? Songs have the power to open our hearts to a range of deep emotions—intensifying our human experience. And music of any kind creates sounding boards in the environment. Things resonate in kind. I was fascinated by this twin effect, both on the person singing and on the singer’s environment. But I still wondered about the sacredness of song. What happens in the subtle realms when a person sings.
One day while working with the Sidhe cards, I asked to understand how singing evokes the sacred. I found myself creating the stone circle within me, inside my body. I became aware of the Grail that I am, that we each are. I (somewhat impatiently) thought, “Yes, the Grail, but how does this relate to song?” Then I saw the vibratory tones of song resonating within this Grail then flowing out to the world. It seems, in singing, we partake in the circulatory system of the world on both ordinary and subtle levels. I later learned my friend Anne Gambling had synchronistically put into words what I saw in this attunement: singing is “the means to ‘dig the trench’ for liquid light to flow, further wider deeper each time.”
Singing knits our spirits and bodies together in a coherent resonance but doesn’t stop there, as the song moves out of our bodies into the air, sending out waves in increasing circles to engage with everything in the vicinity. I sensed that singing can be an alchemical act, translating the music of the spheres through flesh and blood then flowing out to the surrounding environment.
We may envision our grail selves as containers, holding the Sacred. But David Spangler emphasizes that this is not a passive function. And he chose a musical analogy to explain that the Grail is an active presence, a sacred doing. “Think of it as analogous to a ‘violin self’ a consciousness within you that loves to play the violin … as you practice, you will be able to ‘hold’ and play ever more complex pieces of music. … so we have in the grail a sacramental instrument, one that delivers and shares sacredness in a communion of being.” Perhaps the sacredness of song resides in this process of both holding and sharing.
In David’s Conversations with the Sidhe, his Sidhe colleague Mariel says we carry within us “the memory of the telluric technology of node, connection, and flow, shaped by song and dance and ritual.” Raising our own voices in song activates the flow from node to node, enhancing the harmony and coherence of our world. And the Singing Hare (from The Sidhe Oracle of the Fleeting Hare, by John Matthews and Will Kinghan) exhorts us, “Wake then, listen, hear again the song of life and the song of being amidst the fields of your daily life. Will you join in the sing? … Stand under the dome of heaven if you dare and let the song well up within you, silent or loud.”
Essay and Sketch by Mary Reddy