Music and sounds have been used throughout history, not only for creative ways to pass the time, but also in battles, religious ceremonies, rituals, gatherings, festivals, celebrations, meditation, healing, teaching, and many other facets of life. Largely, sound was a powerful means by which people could keep “in-tune” with nature. When referring to tuning, we typically think about instruments and voices, but these concepts stretch to the human body, mind, and spirit as well.
The Middle East was full of music emanating from various flutes, lyres, drums, horns, and (surprisingly to most) the first version of bagpipes. Home to snake charming, some of the world’s earliest storytelling traditions, and the oldest music ever discovered, the Middle East was filled with musical accompaniments to festivities, tales, and psalms (poems intended to be sung), including the “Book of Psalms” in the Old Testament.
The oldest artifact of written music in the world was found on a cuneiform tablet in Ugarit, Syria named “Hurrian Hymn No. 6”. Estimated to be around 3,500 years old, not only is this tablet interpreted to be the first preserved form of written music, but it’s also the first to spell out 7-note musical notation (on a 9-stringed lyre) as well as instructions for tuning (Duchesne-Guillemin, 1984, pgs. 6 and 10). Although interpreting which note is which and what rhythm to play them in is still being debated by archaeologists and musicologists, the lyrics are written in Hurrian and have been translated as referring to the goddess Nikkal (Duchesne-Guillemin, 1984, pg. 14).
Ancient Egyptians believed music and harmony were the keys to “understanding the cosmos” (Gadalla, 2000, pg. 32) as well as the keys to uncovering architectural ratios (Gadalla, 2000, pg. 15).
Heavily influenced by Egypt, Greece weaved music into their everyday customs. As stated in “Music in Ancient Greece” (2019), “A flute player for instance would accompany the women with his music while they were kneading, the workers during harvest, the oarsmen as well as the soldiers on their way to battle.” Greeks, like cultures all over the world, felt music was divine in origin (“Music in Ancient Greece”, 2019) and even used it in sporting events.
Many notable ancient Greeks contributed to music theory and established some of the first schools dedicated to music education. Greek philosopher Pythagoras felt that studying music and math could help humanity better understand structures found in nature. “He believed that physical care and healing of the human body could be understood and directed through music, which he believed was capable of creating harmony within the soul and the harmony of existing with nature.” (Strohmeier and Westbrook, 1999).
Tibetan monks from the Himalayan Mountains have used singing bowls, gongs, drums, and other instruments for countless generations. An integral part of their Buddhist traditions, the bowls have unique tunings and are played with a stick by various people, including the Buddha himself, who plays the three “original” singing bowls. They are used in spiritual practices like meditation and healing. According to one monk, Lama Lobsang Leshe, in order to make the bowl sound purely, the person playing it has to have pure karma; if someone’s karma is impure, the bowl either will not sound or the sound will be weak and unclear (Gray, 1989). The monk further explained that when their people listen to the sound, it teaches them about emptiness, and is also used to call monks for meetings from great distances away (Gray, 1989). The Tibetan monks believe sounds from the bowls, conches, bells, and all other sources have their own teachings, that each is used in elevating one’s soul to the next level of understanding, and that there is a connection to sound in all teachings of the Buddha (Gray, 1989).
Tibetan and Indian yoga practices involve the chanting of “om” to strengthen concentration and balanced energy flow during a meditation session. It is meant to symbolize a synchronization of the sounds of the universe and the supreme life energy.
Thailand and Cambodia
Farmers in Thailand and other Asian countries have a long tradition of playing music to their rice paddies to directly stimulate their growth, ward off pests and diseases, and to call upon their rice goddess for help. The same tradition exists/existed in other cultures like the Aztecs, Greeks, Native Americans, Africans, and many more, who created dedicated songs and chants for agricultural, rain, and river gods/goddesses.
Following the same philosophy that music can promote growth and healing, present-day dance, instrumental, and choral groups are encouraging emotional and psychological healing, like the NKFC School of Dance in Cambodia, which provides a fun form of therapy through music and dance to a land of poverty-stricken individuals (Davis, 2010).
Japanese Gagaku music, the oldest currently known to Japan, was played in songs, dances, and Shintō rituals (concerning the Japanese deities) (“Gagaku Japanese Music”, 1998).
The famous Japanese spiritual healing technique of Reiki (rei = “universal life/higher power” and ki = “energy/spirit”) largely works off of meditation, but can also be accompanied by sound. Since life energy flows through all living things, when someone is in a state of illness, their body and mind get “retuned” during a Reiki session. Though Reiki is not meant to cure any specific disease, it is used to improve overall health and state of mind. Reiki practitioners use meditation, light touch, musical tuning forks, and stones/crystals to gage what the individual needs, administer treatment, remove energy blockages and imbalances, and realign the patient’s chakras (centers of energy/spiritual fields).
In the Vedic Scriptures of Hinduism, there is a list of 9 gemstones correlating to the 9 planets in our solar system, as well as Vedic astrology (“Navratnas/Navaratnas…”, 2019). Each stone has a unique chemical composition of minerals. There are thousands of different known minerals on earth, and since each mineral’s composition varies by different element types and quantities, they all have a unique atomic structure, resulting in distinct physical shapes and other properties, including but not limited to vibrational frequencies. Frequencies (of light) are used in identification of these minerals in rock, soil, and water samples, but frequencies (of light and resonant sound) are also used in determining healing techniques. For example, each of the 9 stones from the Vedic texts are used to open up a person’s chakras and the specific stone used depends on a person’s specific problem (which chakra is “clogged”). People in India, Pakistan, and other locations still use gemstones and crystals to accompany their use of therapy and medicines for different illnesses.
Classical Indian music styles largely retain traditional methods from thousands of years ago, and feature ragas (set of notes played or sung one after the other or together in different patterns). Passed down from generation to generation, there are over 100 ragas, each for a different cause like the time of day, season, festival, or a person’s mood (Raga School of Indian Classical Music). Each has their own origin story. When consulting the Raga School of Indian Music, they explained two examples: The Raag Deepak (Hindi word for “fire”) was sung by San Sing when he would go to King Akbar and sing this raga that lit all of the candles in his palace. The Raag Megh (Hindi for “cloud”) would be sung by farmers asking for water from the river and rain in times of drought. Some ragas result in the change of a person’s perception of temperature. In addition to teaching music, the Raga School of Indian Classical Music also helps to heal people with various physical issues who seek holistic therapy. According to the school, one man suffering from paralysis was exposed to music therapy for 2 hours every day for a span of 1.5 months. Using only the music therapy, he made about a 75% recovery. A second example the school gave was a young girl with a vocal cord issue, which caused her voice to shake and prevented her from speaking correctly or learning vowel sounds. She sought music therapy instead of Botox injections and was able to recover through learning to sing.
We all know stress can kill; perhaps these are two extreme examples of that – but with a positive outcome. There are ragas correlated with each chakra (Raga School of Indian Music) and it is also said that each chakra is associated with different frequency ranges of both sound and light. Numerous examples exist of various kinds of sound therapy used to successfully heal different conditions, shrinking tumors and blood clots, and remedying other medical anomalies, even outside of traditional Indian practices.
Home to many types of rhythmic music styles, Africa has various tribes who use music in ancestral communication, ceremonies, rain dances, healing of individuals and groups, and more. Many tribes use drums and other instruments in storytelling and signaling. Different tones and rhythms indicate diverse meanings and subjects, while some are used to accentuate points, and each style is unique to the language of specific tribes. Though many unique percussive instruments stem from Africa, the talking drums have exceptional voices and are often grouped. For example, Yoruba batâ drums in Nigeria are played in groups of three with the drums acting as a family that “call” and “respond” to one another (Kernan, 2000).
On the west coast, several countries speak Bantu, a language mixed with Swahili that involves many clicking sounds which represent consonants. There are many Bantu languages, and each click varies by inflection and pitch, comparable in a way to the massive use of tonal inflections in Asian languages.
Australia and Hawai’i
Also making use of storytelling through music, Native Australians have an entirely oral tradition of passing down their history and life lessons, which is accompanied by music and dance. In a traditional sense, not one of these songs is written down in the form of sheet music, yet, they have carefully retained an entirely distinctive set of melodies from the rest of the world (Telford, 2019).
Hawaiians too passed down their traditions through music and dance (including hula and fire dances), which they continue to do so today. Even the last ruler of Hawai’i, Queen Lili’uokalini, used a song (her own song “Aloha Oe”; originally intended to be a love song) as a farewell when Hawai’i lost their independence (Dekneef, 2016). Present day Hawaiians also share the ancient beliefs that illness is caused by an energy imbalance, and use mele (songs and chants) to pray and promote physical and spiritual healing.
North and South America
The Incas of ancient Peru “…and their predecessors used music to communicate with the ancestors, heal the sick, and bury the dead. Music followed them in war and pilgrimages, perhaps providing them with supernatural power.” (Bernier, 2009). Pre-Incan Peruvian cultures like the Moche had very detailed instruments, including intricate drums, flutes, whistles, and other instruments that were either decorated on the surface with engravings of animals and people, or fully designed into those shapes, while others like the Paracas, Sicán, and Chimú sculpted vessels that whistled when water was poured out, as well as figurines of musicians playing various instruments (Bernier, 2009).
As found in surviving Aztec codices and artifacts, the Aztecs had a wide array of musical instruments, two gods of music (Both, 2009), and connected specific instruments and sounds to different levels of the universe (Both, 2010).
Many cultures in the Americas and Asia have shaman-like figures and/or specified elders who heal people through various means, like music, using ancient practices. As stated in “Shamanism and Music Therapy…”, there are many parallels “between modern music therapy techniques and shamanic practices that would be beneficial for music therapists to learn and apply to their work with patients” (Winn, et al., 1989).
North and South Native American tribes still use music and dance in various ceremonies and through storytelling. Native North Americans used music for everything from games to healing the sick, love charms, war, in social greetings between people of different tribes, and to greet other visitors (“Genre Spotlight…”, 2013).
Some researchers feel that the ancient Egyptians, Celtic Druids, and other civilizations may have used basic knowledge of tuning and resonance to build the pyramids, Stonehenge, and countless other massive structures scattered throughout the entire world.
To put things into context, there were more than 2,300,000 blocks used in the Great Pyramid alone with the average block weighing about 2.5 tons (“Pyramids”, 1997). Some of these were cut from locations miles away from the Giza plateau, where they are currently stacked. Stonehenge (not even the largest structure of its kind) is comprised of blocks weighing an average of 25 tons each and current geologic research shows they were taken from at least 20 miles away (Jarus, 2017).
The only person in modern times to ever replicate such a feat was Edward Leedskalnin. You can visit his amazing creation, Coral Castle, in Florida. Now a tourist attraction, the park has many interesting designs and each section of wall weighs over 5.8 tons (Coral Castle Museum, 2018). It was built in just 28 years, from 1923-1951, by Leedskalnin “using only hand tools” (some of which were made from old car parts (McClure and Heffron, 2009). He moved the oolitic limestone blocks (no they’re not true coral) “a distance of 10 miles” (Coral Castle Museum, 2018) largely at night and at times when no one could see what Leedskalnin was doing. He also authored 3 pamphlets about magnetic current (Coral Castle Museum, 2018) and said himself that he found a way to manipulate electricity and magnetism to supersede gravitational effects like he believed the ancient Egyptians (and other civilizations) did. Neighbors reported seeing stones being levitated in his yard. Though things are not always as they appear, (or as difficult as they appear), objects can certainly be moved with the use of sound alone, and they can also be moved with the use of a tuning fork and a magnet combined. Tuning forks can be used to get an object of the same frequency to resonate while magnets can be used to push or pull the object in a given direction, and lessen the effects of gravity (and the weight of the object). The only key missing between the fork and the magnet is something that will make the tuning fork sound constantly for an extended period of time, but this can be accomplished using none other than electromagnetism.
Though many still feel that some components in solving this puzzle are still missing, like the lack of magnetic elements in oolitic limestone, we are on our way to understanding sound in the use of levitation. Besides modern acoustic levitation applied to small objects, researchers are working on understanding how to use acoustics to move larger objects. Researchers at Ohio State University proved in 2015 that, “acoustic phonons – the elemental particles that transmit both heat and sound – have magnetic properties” (Ohio State University, 2015). So long as atoms move or resonate (which they constantly do else they’d cease to exist), they produce heat. So, this breakthrough discovery means that whether or not a piece of matter has actual magnets/magnetic elements or not becomes irrelevant – so long as it vibrates and produces heat, it will have magnetic properties. By making the object resonate more, and, in turn, amplifying these magnetic properties, a person would have better control in moving it with acoustic levitation. (Think about that the next time you find a song to be “moving”.)
An extraordinary architectural feat, the Vitthala Temple in Hampi, India is famous for its symmetrically-placed, multi-columned musical pillars. One of the most outstanding attributes of this temple is that each pillar, when lightly struck, sounds like music. Unfortunately, some parts of the temple have been damaged, but nonetheless, findings on 54 of the pillars by scientists from both the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research and the Indian National Science Academy showed the differences in sound were due to variations in the dimensions and shape of the columns in any given pillar (the number of pillars in each column also varies) (Kumar, et al., 2008). What’s even more amazing is that 11 of the pillars produce the identifiable sound of specific instruments (bells, percussion, a shell, water instruments, etc.) despite all of them being made of solid granite (Kumar, et al., 2008). Not only is it astounding that granite can produce a musical instrument sound to begin with, but it’s also perplexing that it can mimic such a wide variety of these sounds.
Archaeoacoustic research has also been conducted on Stonehenge by the University of Salford, England. Since this site too has suffered damage, a study done on the model site, built to replicate the way Stonehenge looked back in 1500 B.C., showed the stones reverberated within around 0.8 seconds – typical of a lecture hall, and perfect for making speeches or chants (Fazenda, 2012). Stones placed within the main circle also serve as diffusers, pushing the sound in every direction within the space when a sound originates from the center (Fazenda, 2012).
Amazing acoustics can also be found at the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, a 5,000-year-old underground temple complex on the island of Malta. Not only do the natural acoustics of the room resonate at frequencies that alter the frequency of human brain activity to mimic stages of natural meditation, but the curved shape in the ceiling of the Oracle Chamber in this temple is shaped like a wave guide, similar to modern acoustically engineered performance spaces (Eneix, 2014). Prehistoric caves like this and religious structures that share the same level of eerily advanced acoustic properties can be found in France, Spain, Greece, Iran, and elsewhere around the globe (Eneix, 2014). Perhaps more are yet to be unearthed.
The examples above represent just a small handful of ways music and sound have had a profound impact on civilization and healing methodologies (as well as an interesting theory on how they could be even more deeply connected with ancient structures than we originally thought). Who knows what more await discovery?
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Both, Arnd Adje. “Aztec Music Culture.” The World of Music, Vol. 52, No. 1/3, 2010, www.jstor.org/stable/41700022?seq=1.
Both, Arnd Adje. “Music, Song, and Dance Among the Aztecs – a Short Introduction.” Mexicolore, 2009, www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/music/music-song-and-dance-among-the-aztecs-a-short-introduction.
Coral Castle Museum, 2018, coralcastle.com/whos-ed.
Davis, Kent. “Psychological Healing from Cambodian Dance Arts.” Devata.org, 14 February 2010, www.devata.org/psychological-healing-from-cambodian-dance-arts/#.XXvdEmpKiM8.
Dekneef, Matthew. “5 Beautiful Versions of ‘Aloha Oe’, Queen Liliuokalani’s Most Famous Song.” Hawai’i Magazine, 6 September 2016, www.hawaiimagazine.com/content/5-beautiful-versions-aloha-oe-queen-liliuokalanis-most-famous-song.
Duchesne-Guillemin, Marcelle. “A Hurrian Musical Score from Ugarit: The Discovery of Mesopotamian Music.” Sources from the Ancient Near East, Vol. 2, Fascicle 2, Undena Publications, Malibu, 1984, urkesh.org/attach/duchesne-guillermin%201984%20the%20discovery%20of%20mesopotamian%20music.pdf.
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Fazenda, Bruno. “Acoustics of Stonehenge.” Acoustics Research Centre, University of Salford, 2012, www.salford.ac.uk/research/sirc/research-groups/acoustics/architecture-and-building-acoustics/acoustics-of-stonehenge.
Gadalla, Moustafa. Egyptian Harmony: The Visual Music. Greensboro, NC, Tehuti Research Foundation, 2000.
“Genre Spotlight… Native American.” Southern Museum of Music, 2013, www.southernmuseumofmusic.com/Spotlight/01-Genre/Native-American.htm.
Gray, Rain. “Tibetan Singing Bowl History. An Interview with Lama Lobsang Leshe.” Bodhisattva Trading Co. Inc., 1989, www.bodhisattva.com/singing_bowl_history.htm.
Jarus, Owen. “Stonehenge: Facts & Theories About Mysterious Monument.” LiveScience, 19 August 2017, www.livescience.com/22427-stonehenge-facts.html.
Kernan, Michael. “The Talking Drums.” Smithsonian Magazine, June 2000, www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-talking-drums-29197334.
Kumar, Anish, et al. “Nondestructive Characterization of Musical Pillars of Mahamandapam of Vitthala Temple at Hampi, India.” Acoustical Society of America, August 2008, www.researchgate.net/publication/23150630_Nondestructive_characterization_of_musical_pillars_of_Mahamandapam_of_Vitthala_Temple_at_Hampi_India.
McClure, Rusty, and Jack Heffron. Coral Castle: The Mystery of Ed Leeskalnin and His American Stonehenge. Ternary Publishing LLC, 2009.
“Music in Ancient Greece.” LyrAvlos Center of Greek Musical Heritage, 2019, www.lyravlos.gr/ancient-greek-music-en.asp.
“Navratnas/ Navaratnas – The Sacred Nine Gemstones as per Vedic Texts and Indian Astrology.” Gemstone Universe, 2019, www.navaratnagems.com.
Ohio State University. “Magnets Can Control Heat and Sound: Experiment Reveals New Mysterious Properties of Sound Wave.” ScienceDaily, 23 March 2015, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150323130847.htm.
“Pyramids.” NOVA, PBS, 1997, www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/pyramid/geometry/blocks.html.
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Strohmeier, John and Peter Westbrook. Divine Harmony: The Life and teachings of Pythagoras. Berkeley, CA, Berkeley Hills Books, 1999.
Telford, Hans W. “Australian Aboriginal Music.” School of Arts and Social Sciences, Accessed 2019, hmcs.scu.edu.au/musicarchive/AusGeneral.html.
Winn, Thomas, et al. “Shamanism and Music Therapy: Ancient Healing Techniques in Modern Practice.” Music Therapy Perspectives, Vol. 7, Issue 1, 1 January 1989, academic.oup.com/mtp/article-abstract/7/1/67/1413512?redirectedFrom=fulltext.