Volume 49, Issue 3 :: by Susan Elizabeth Hale
Exploring the acoustic mysteries of sacred space and sacred sound
As the species Homo sapiens we have a fundamental need for the sacred. In the Paleolithic we chose the most resonant places in caves to paint animals and shaman figures. Acoustic archeologists believe that sonic rituals were performed here. I have experienced this myself singing in the original Lascaux cave and the Grotte de Niaux.
We are sound beings, highly sensitive acoustic soundboards. As resonators we have encircled the earth with painted caves, cathedrals, stupas, oracle chambers, shrines, kivas, megalithic monuments, pyramids, and other buildings to celebrate and give praise to the divine. We create these places to hear ourselves and the spirit more clearly, to create relationships with the seen and the unseen worlds within and around us.
What makes a place sacred? A sacred space is a natural or created place to enhance spiritual experience and to perform ritual acts of worship. It is a temenos, an enclosure to enter into a relationship with a greater reality. Entering into sacred space one crosses a threshold and moves from chronos, human time and space, into kairos, eternal time.
There are places on the earth, often where ley lines and underground water streams converge, that emanate powerful vibrations that alter our sense of ordinary reality and put us in contact with the numinous, with mythic reality and greater mysteries that cannot be named. Early people from all over the world revered such places as mountains, caves, rocks, or groves of trees. Later, sacred structures were built on these spots, aligned with stars and constellations, to protect, contain, and amplify the energy.
Resonant Sacred Spaces
Sacred spaces are inherently musical. They are places where we go to attune and be tuned, to be in harmony, to resonate with holy realms. Early humans sought out natural places for their acoustic properties. They found resonant caves, echo canyons and other places where sound reverberated in mysterious ways. Later, one might say that “music” was literally built into temples and churches in the form of sacred geometry. They became more than visual masterpieces but acoustic masterpieces as well. From the Taj Mahal, to the Great Pyramid of Giza, to soaring Gothic cathedrals: these places sing!
While we can’t really know if acoustics were used intentionally in the design of sacred sites, I believe knowledge of resonance was passed down from the oral cultures of the Paleolithic, to the Neolithic, right straight to the door of Chartres. From voice to voice, ear to ear, heart to heart, this understanding was passed from generation to generation, like an ancient game of telephone. Connecting through the songlines of the earth, I believe these vocal people noticed when something vibrated and built to enhance these effects. Singing in caves and canyons they heard echoes and later built sacred architecture to enshrine the air, housing the spirits of sound. I believe early shamans were sound technicians that knew how to manipulate sound and space to create portals into other dimensions.
Different religions created buildings that most suited their message. Cavernous stone cathedrals with their incredible reverberation were perfect for Gregorian chant. In Protestant religions, which emphasize speech over music, small chapels with elevated pulpits were built so the minister’s sermon could be heard. The cloth hangings, silk paintings, and wooden ceilings in Tibetan temples “…restrict reverberation and produce a high clear sound.”1 This is ideal for the sounds of horns, drums, and cymbals, which punctuate the chanting of Buddhist monks. Pueblo kivas in New Mexico, built of adobe bricks, create a womb-like space in the earth that enhances the experience of intimacy.
Sacred Sound Qualities
Why is sound considered sacred? To answer this question we must look at different qualities of sound.
Sound is primary in forming consciousness. Iegor Reznikoff, a specialist in early music, antiquity, and the resonance of sacred sites, believes that deep consciousness is mostly structured through sound.2 Sound is always there, imprinting and inspiring us. Sound matters.
Different religions throughout the world consider sound as a spiritual force. The Bible says, “In the beginning was the word. And the word was with God and the word was God.”3 Creation myths all over the world repeat this same basic truth. For people of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico Spider Woman shapes the world through humming and singing. In Egypt the world was created when the singing sun sang its cry of light. These stories are deeply woven into our human matrix.
The Latin word for spirit is spiritus, or in Greek, pneuma, the same word for air. In Hebrew ruach means both the wind and the spirit. The Persian mystic poet Kabir says that God is “…the breath inside the breath.”4
We hear sounds through the ear, home of our earliest sense, which develops in utero. The inner ear is complete at four and a half months, 135 days after conception. The ear starts first at the surface of the skin as a small gill-like slit. Gradually it burrows, spirals inward, deep down in the petrous portion of the temporal bone. According to Dr. Albert Soesman, author of Our Twelve Senses: Wellsprings of the Soul, this is the hardest bone in the body. Humans are the only mammals where the inner ear is protected so carefully. This fetal ear is comparable to a fully functioning adult ear. We are sound beings. Our senses develop out of the matrix of the ear. Touch, taste, smell, and sight all have their foundations in the ear, which “…precedes the nervous system.”5 In evolutionary terms hearing is at least 300 million years old.
Sound shapes the air as vowels. Pythagoras believed that vowels embodied the creative principle and that the voice is the primal instrument. It is the only instrument that can produce vowels. Vowel sounds are universal, common to every language. They are the emotional content of speech. The high “Ee” of excitement, the groaning “Oh” of pain, the “Ah” of love are all instinctually understood by every culture. Spiritual traditions refine the vowels and elongate them vocally. Latin Mass, Gregorian chant, Hindu mantras, and the Muslim call to prayer are all vowel rich.
Vowels are also the spiritual content of speech. In ancient Egyptian and Hebrew languages vowels were sacred and not notated with writing. To read these languages one must participate vocally. When the vowels are intoned words become alive. Words are magic.
“Ah,” the shape of the mouth on exhalation, is cleansing, like water washing over the body. “Ah” vibrates the heart and is the sound of praise and wonder. Allah! Alleluia! “Ee” lifts up into the head, clearing and stimulating the region of the third eye. “Ou” descends into the interior vibrating the lower portions of the body. “Oh” explores the deep cavern of the body’s core. “Oh” as in Om sounds the void and fills emptiness. Perhaps vowels inspired forms in sacred architecture: I for columns, A for arches, O for domes.
When vowels are intoned in sacred places they take wings as overtones, magical bell-like tones that float above the fundamental note. Gregorian chant is the earliest example of Western harmony where singers move in parallel fifths above the melody line. The fifth is the first naturally occurring harmonic and has a characteristic open sound that generates a feeling of power and strength. The monks initially sang in unison. Musician Kay Gardner believes that the harmony of the fifth was added when “…the singers, chanting in highly resonant stone cathedrals and monasteries, were hearing the fifth naturally occurring as a harmonic above a single melody line… soon they began singing what they heard.”6
Sound and Sacred Consciousness
Sound alters consciousness. One of the primary ways sound and music influence consciousness is through entrainment, a process where weaker rhythms lock in phase with more dominant rhythms. When we hear a bass drum in a parade our feet automatically tap along. When an infant hears its mother’s lullabies it is lulled into sleep. Heart beat, respiration, and brain wave rhythms can all be influenced by sound and music through the process of entrainment.
Our brain state is a composite of brain wave patterns. These patterns are measured in different frequency ranges. Beta brain waves (13-30 cycles per second) are predominant when we are alert, awake, and rational, engaged with the outside world. The slower rhythms of Alpha brain waves (8-13 cycles per second) are generated when we are relaxed. Even slower Theta waves (4-7 cycles per second) show up when we are in a trance state where visual images are seen on the screen of our minds. This is a state of deep meditation, the threshold between the conscious and the unconscious. When we listen to the slow sounds of chanted drones we can reach Alpha and Theta brain waves, matching their rhythms. In deep sleep, or profound states of meditation, Delta brain waves (0.5-4 cycles per second) are predominant.
Sounding together creates community through a shared aural space. From congregational hymn singing, to chanting in a ceremonial kiva, to the Dances of Universal Peace, people are brought together into harmony. When words are added as in hymns and mantras sacred stories travel more deeply into our consciousness through repetition and entrainment.
Intention is central to our role in creating the sacred. A circus tent becomes a revival church with the joyful noise of a gospel choir. Dances at Southwestern Pueblos transform a dusty courtyard into a giant prayer. What matters is that we become part of the dance, that we bring our attention, intention, ecstasy, despair, and receptivity to a greater reality, that we blow our prayers onto cornmeal and scatter it over the food we pick, that we make our own joyful noise whether at Chaco Canyon or in our own backyard.
As we continue to struggle with racism and religious persecution it is important to remember our common roots and the universal need for harmony. It is hoped that these tools of sacred space and sacred sound can help us evolve from Homo sapiens, thinking man, to the more enlightened consciousness of Homo luminous.7
- Tim Wilson, “Chant” in Don Campbell, editor, Music: Physician for Times to Come (Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1991) p.12.
- Iegor Reznikoff, lecture at Voices of Heaven and Earth Conference, Findhorn, Scotland, 1996.
- John 1:1.
- Kabir in Robert Bly, editor, The Soul is Here For Its Own Joy (Hopewell, NJ: The Ecco Press, 1999) p. 88.
- Bradford Weeks, M.D., “The Physician, the Ear and Sacred Music,” in Don Campbell, editor, Music: Physician for Times to Come (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Books, 1991) p. 45.
- Kay Gardner, Sounding the Inner Landscape: Music as Medicine, (Stonington, ME: Caduceus Publications, 1990) p. 109.
- Alberto Villoldo quoted in Vincent Bridges and Jay Weidner, The Mysteries of the Great Cross of Hendaye: Alchemy and the End of Time) Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 2003) p. 392.