On the wall of my office, there is a New Yorker cartoon of a bird on a branch chirping down to a pot-bellied fellow with bird book and binoculars: “I don’t sing because I’m happy. I’m happy because I sing.” I am a singer and a psychotherapist, and my work-and play-is about what the bird knows, a truth many of us have forgotten to remember: voice affects consciousness. The bird’s truth, and ours, is that sound and self are intertwined like root and flower: interdependent and interpenetrating patterns of energy, forever flowing in and out of form. All of us-birds, humans, trees, and flowers-are instruments for this energy, constellations of pulse, sounding through a vast web of interactive resonance. Nada Brahma-the world is sound. (Berendt, 1983.) We are sound. And in every real sense, the sounds we make are who and what we are.
As the creation stories tell us, “In the beginning was the Word.” God spoke, Great spider sang, the web trembled. Our language and body soundings, the flow of vowels, the click and flutter of consonants, are continually creating fields of energy which define and hold our perceived world in patterns we call Reality. In the early part of this century, in a Tibet still remove from the infant discoveries of “modern civilization,” Alexandra David-Neel met a Buddhist Lama who described the nature of this way:
“All things…are aggregations of atoms that dance and by their movements produce sounds. When the rhythm of the dance changes, the sound it produces also changes… Each atom perpetually sings its song, and the sound, at every moment, creates dense and subtle forms.”
-Alexandra David-Neel, Tibetan Journey
We are now rediscovering what the ancient teacher-healers knew and practiced in mantra and chant-that the human voice, focused with intention, is an instrument of profound and subtle power, capable of charging and changing the structure of the dancing stuff we-mistakenly-call solid form. Sound spins a bridge between matter and spirit, and our voices, riding on the breath, can connect us into the current at the source of life.
“There is no vacuum. The pulse of life is everywhere. An energetic radiance unites us all.”
-Stephen Schwartz, The Prayer of the Body.
“…the voice, not the eyes, is the window to the soul…it stands closer to eternity than flesh to dust…it speaks the center of being…Sound is first cause, and the voice, sound’s preeminent moment.”
-Brian Knave, The Sun, #128
“If you can liberate the voice you can liberate the human being.”
-Jill Purce, Sound in Mind and Body.
My work is with sound-speech sound, sung sound, soundless sound. I work with affect as vibration: disease and illness as dysfunctions in “sonic” patterning. As a psychotherapist, on the staff of a holistic counseling service and in private practice, I work with individuals, families and groups in a mind/body practice I call Resonance Therapy, which focuses on sound, story, and the healing capacity of the voice. I am also a musician and educator, and for the past eighteen years I have led training workshops in sound and self in the U.S., Canada, and Europe.
I’ve found that the principles and practices of Resonance Therapy offer useful cross-cultural metaphors and practical tools for people in all aspects of human service and health care: nurses, hospice workers, ministers, teachers and social workers, as well as psychotherapists and physical therapists. As a singer and songwriter, I have focused my work on creating music which illuminates our relationships with ourselves, with others, and with the world. Initially, it was my own experience with sound, with voice, and with the power of spontaneous group sounding, that led me into exploring the field as a therapy.
The premise behind resonance work is that there is an innate intelligence in every cell which can communicate with every other and knows the patterns proper to its function (Chopra.) Healing can be seen as the act of calling the body back to these constellations of resonance. Like the subtle permutations of frequency that define the crystallization of the snowflake, each one of use is different. And the body’s own elegantly calibrated instrument for modulating these subtle balances is breath and sound-the transformational alchemy of the body’s voice.
In my work with clients, I focus on how things are said as well as what is said, considering the sounds we make, the way we listen, and the dynamics of the sound/silence interaction. In psychology and psycholinguistics, there has been much attention paid to how our use of language can define and create the “presenting problem” (Goolishian and Anderson.) Resonance work sharpens this lens still further, focusing beyond the content of communication into the resonance of the body/voice as it expresses distress.
“We become our talk.”
-Morris Bermen, Common Boundary.
Not only does the voice affect the resonance patterns within us, it influences energy patterns around us as well. Characteristic vocal patterns express the frequency of different affective states: the sigh, the whine, the giggle, the moan. When we are harmonically aligned, our voices express that condition, even without or being aware of it.
In the language of acoustics, we “damp” a bell or a similar resonating instrument by touching it and stopping the transmission of sound through the medium. Similarly, when-because of fear, trauma, old scars or woundings- we block the free flow of energy through our system, we are damping our bells, cutting down on the area of the vibrating field, our resonance, and this limitation reflects in our voices. We hear the blocked heart, the contracted anxiety, the draining depression.
We can and do make accurate assessments about the mental and physical health of people based simply on the sound of their voices. And as the state of our health affects our sound, so the sounds we make can affect our health. Like the bird, we can change the way we feel by the way we use our voices
In Resonance Therapy, we explore ways to communicate beyond language, freeing the voice of the body to sound what often can’t be said. This non-language sounding, or “free speech,” is particularly effective when one’s experience has gone beyond the capacity of language to describe and hold, it, as in cases of trauma and abuse. The experience of free sounding is, in itself, a training in trust, an extending into the formless, the chartless realm of creative repatterning.
Theory and practice
“Every act of the body is a word of the soul.”
–Catherine Madsen, The Sun.
“If, as I believe, the urge to make a kind of music is as much a characteristic of biology as our other fundamental functions, there ought to be an explanation for it… The (sounds) might be the recapitulation of something else- an earliest memory, a core for the transformation of inanimate, random matter into the improbable, ordered dance of living forms.”
–Lewis Thomas, 1974, Music of This Sphere.
I access a wide range of techniques in my work with resonance, from expressive therapies and systemic family work, to art and drama therapy, mindfulness practice, movement, rituals, and the light bodywork practice of cranio-sacral therapy. At the hub of this wheel is the work with the voice and the ear-heightened expression and deepened listening skills using toning, harmonics, bone resonance, non-language sounding and vocal improvisation- all geared to creating a vibrational environment in which the alchemical magic of change can occur.
In workshops and training sessions, we focus on three areas:
Personal and Inter-relational- working with individuals, diads and small groups;
Practical-technical- exploring the mechanics and dynamics of the body/voice;
Systemic-contextual- experiencing the group as a sounding bell which is gathering energy over the course of the training and considering how that resonance affects the circles or our lives, from self to family to greater world. It is important that abstract and experiential work be linked into our daily practice and work in the world. History bears our the conviction that a resonant core of clear, empowered voices can affect radical changes in the world.
The theory which undergirds this work draws essential concepts and metaphors from the language of music and acoustics, and the new paradigm sciences such as quantum physics, psychoneuroimmunology, and the study of nonlinear dynamics or chaos theory. Two central principles inform the theory and practice of Resonance Therapy: entrainment, or sympathetic resonance, and aperiodicity, as imaged in chaos theory.
Entrainment, also called modelocking, is a phenomenon observable throughout all vibrating systems in which one regular frequency cycle locks into another. (Gleick, Gardner, Beredt, Leonard.) This tendency of one field to call another into its resonance applies across wave forms from heart and nerve cells to ocean currents and the flights of birds. We entrain in the intricate homeostasis of our biological lives, in the winds of our emotional weather, and the relational webs we weave with each other.
This ability for one sound to enter into the rhythm of another is at the heart of the therapeutic relationship. This principle is of particular value to health care workers relating to comatose or language dystonic patients. We now know that our hearing never sleeps; the capacity to hear is still vital in coma and unconscious states (Mindell.) Our voices give us a means to entrain with the resonant field of nonverbal patients, soothing, releasing stress, and offering comfort and care, and at deep levels even when people cannot actively communicate with us.
Sound is the first of the fetal senses to develop and is the last sense to leave us when we die. At birthbed and deathbed, a tuned caretaker can make a substantial difference in the sonic environment of passage. Through the sound field she/he creates, even in settings where singing or sounding is not possible, quiet humming or modulated speaking can entrain and activate the relation field. Developing a proprioceptive capacity for sonic assessment and treatment is a strong component of training in resonance work, and a rich field for continuing research in the effect of sound on the brain/body field.
The principle of entrainment can be demonstrated in a simple acoustical experiment with two tuning forks calibrated to the same frequency. When one is struck and sounds in the other’s presence, the unstruck tuning fork will begin to resonate and sound the same note. We humans are like highly-sophisticated tuning forks, capable of tuning ourselves and each other by intentionally aligning and sounding the frequencies of our subtle patterning. Unlike metal tuning forks, we can and do change our tuning to suit our needs.
We are receivers and sender of energy, capable of tuning in vibrational impulses that are flowing through us and translating them out into thought, idea, intention, action. Using electronic tuners-radio and television-as models offers us useful metaphors for mind and body states. For example, just as unfocused, incoherent frequencies experienced as noise or static in a radio receiver can be translated into coherent sound by tuning them in, so the dissonant frequencies of dis-ease and emotional stress are experienced by the body/mind as noise in the system and need to be received and tuned into coherent psycho-physical pattern.
Critical to this process for therapists and healers is sensitivity to the other’s unique patterning. There is a law of diversity operative here: what is experienced as chaos at one level of a system, may be coherent and healing at another. One of the goals of Resonance Therapy is to make this tuning process more conscious so that we can open ourselves as instruments to this frequency alignment and allow the need of the other to tune through us.
At the most basic level, we do this with talk, playing with the dynamics of conversation. We can also make simple sounds which align energies-soft, soothing sounds which entrain the heartbeat, and the lilting frequencies of laughter which call the brain field into heightened resonance (Tomatis.) At a deeper level, entrainment can mean meeting the dense frequencies of another’s distress, joining with them in sympathetic resonance we call empathy, and through this intensified field, enabling the other’s impacted pattern to breathe and loosen into flow.
This is a vibrational explanation of therapy as service: the act of tuning to another, receiving and sending, listening and responding from the heart. The heart is the tuner for the vibrational instruments that we are. And this expansive energy, the spaciousness that arises when we let go to be truly present in the breath and the sounding silence is what we call Love.
Time transforms in the sound current. For most of us in industrial society, time is no longer determined by our biorhythms, or the cyclical rhythms of the earth, but by the rigid regimentation of electronic time, from the nano-seconds of our computers to the digital pulse or our wristwatches. Sounding with the body/voice can reel us in from the electronically keyed “hurry sickness” of our daily lives (Macy) and bring us back to the natural rhythms of breath, blood, gut, and bone.
With non-language sounding, we can entrain with our bodies, communicating with areas of pain or psychic distress, and even dialoguing with voices from our past and future time. To be able to explore the dynamics of one’s life in this curious and playful way is healing in itself. Sounding across time has value for people in conditions of crises, gifting us with multiple perspectives and the expanded context of what is sometimes called “non-local mind” (Kafastos.)
In a sociopolitical context, it is useful for those of us grieving over the abused condition of our world to give voice to our grief, sounding what cannot be said because there are not words enough to hold our feelings. And when we do this, the cycles of healing and empowerment which follow despair (Macy, Kubler-Ross) can lift us into more expanded, hopeful vision. In a very real way, we can experience giving voice to those who will come after us.
“Pattern born amid formlessness: that is biology’s basic beauty and its basic mystery. Life sucks order from a sea of disorder.”
-James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science.
The principle of aperiodicity provides an important metaphor in my work with therapeutic resonance. Along with the ability to entrain, a healthy system needs to be able to afford a diversity of dynamic frequencies over a wide range. Psychiatrist and researcher, Arnold Mandell defined health is systems as “not static structures, but dynamical systems, capable of phase transitions,” and asks, “Is it possible that mathematical pathology, i.e., chaos, is health? And that mathematical health, which is the predictability and differentiability of this kind of structure, is disease?” This provocative notion expands on the idea of health as balance and synchrony which the concept of entrainment seems to suggest.
As I noted above, nature does not operate in strict, metronomic time. Mandell goes further to state, “When you reach an equilibrium in biology, you’re dead,” Aperiodicity is part of the difference our ear hear between the dull regularity of electronically produced “pure” tones, and the warm natural sounds of acoustic instruments. Even the basic building block of our genetic structure, DNA, embodies this flexibility and was, in fact, first called an aperiodic crystal (Gleick.)
The ramifications for therapy of concept of healthy aperiodicity is that the kind of harmony our systems need- physical, emotional socioeconomic, ecological systems- is not necessarily what we have been taught is right and proper. What works is not the perfect smiling family of Mommy, Daddy, Baby and Spot-the-dog, not endless sunny equanimity, nor simply the ordered consonance of the major scale, but diversity: thunder and lightning, conflict, dissonance, colors and changes and the flexibility to move this spectrum of vibrations trough our systems.
In this view, harmony does not mean conformity to one, but the ability to embrace the many. At every level, from cellular to global-political, healthy systems have permeable borders and the ability to hold and move a wide range of frequency. An operative concept is that the layers of our life-onion are infinitely unfolding and infolding (Bohm) and that what appears to be chaos-disease at one level may be order-healing at another.
This concept of aperiodicity, of chaos as healthy, is a key concept in training programs for health professionals and human service workers. In this model, the most valuable attributes of a helper-healer is that she/he be sufficiently flexible, expanded, clear and empathic, to hold the dissonant experience of another without contraction and withdrawal. An essential element in healing work is this ability to be truly present with another. It is what Buddhist scholar and peace worker Joanna Macy calls, “sustaining the gaze.” (Macy, 1991.) It is the stretching of the boundaries of self implied in the concept of the “wonder healer,” exemplified in the training rites of Shamans and medicine people around the world (Achterberg.)
The attitude of entraining resonance by simply being present to another is beautifully modeled in Steve Levine and Ondrea Levine’s deeply respectful work with people with terminal illness (Levine.) We cannot really determine the outcome of anyone’s healing, but we can catalyze the process, enter and hold the chaos, and let the mysterious dance of order/disorder play through us.
“At the heart of every emotion is an innocent wave of energy which is inherently free from psychological and moral dichotomies.”
In group Resonance Therapy training sessions, we stretch our capacity to hold a wide range of frequencies by inviting them as sound and working with them in the safety of the group. To be able to hear the sound of another’s grief, to be able to make these sounds oneself, expands the capacity of our psychophysical instruments to hold the experience of another.
It is sometimes said that there is no training for empathy, but I have seen it develop in people working this way with sound and feeling, sound and healing. Just as we can nurture courage, curiosity, and hopefulness through the explorations of non-language-sounding, when we learn to let go into the formless soup of group sound, we experience something new arising from the chaos, another kind of knowing, expanding with creative possibility.
Like the spider, sonically spinning her web from her body, when we sign and sound at the edge of ourselves, we are stretching beyond our immediate problems allowing the future to resonated through us and come into form. In an immediate, relational way, we are also training and rehearsing our ability to enter compassionately into the chaos of another’s experience, and by staying present, allowing the patterns of distress to loosen and shift into more healthy alignment.
Back to What the Bird Knows
If we were to add another frame to the cartoon of the singing bird, it would most likely be that the birdwatcher responds to the bird’s singing-to-be-happy statement, sadly declaring: But I can’t sing. Then he would recount the story I have heard over and over in sessions and workshops in many settings, many countries. The story of the child whose natural flow of song was severed by a well-meaning someone saying, “Sorry, but you can’t sing.”
While I no longer teach singing per se, it is my experience in resonance work that everyone can sing, and that it is part of keeping ourselves mentally and physically health to do so. I have worked with hundreds of people in private practice and in groups who were shushed, and muffled as children, sometimes in service to secret family abuse, sometimes simply in service to the ideas of a muffled society. I have rejoiced with them at the increased flexibility, range of affect, and general well-being which the freed voice catalyzes. Singing/sounding is our birthright and a source of our joy. It is part of the path that leads us back to deeper connection with the earth, ourselves and each other. We all deserve to be singers.
Further, I believe that intentioned use of the voice has an important role to play in public health, preventive care, and the energy medicine of the not-so-distant future. There are many areas here which await research: exploring intentioned vocal sound as electrical potential; assessing the effect of voice on the immune system, on cancer cells, respiratory illness, heart disease; and examining the effect on the brain/body of ultra and infrasonic frequencies invoked by vocal harmonics.
As health practitioners increasingly look for preventive care techniques, it is my hope that this powerful tool of the body-voice will be given attention and credence appropriate to its demonstrated effectiveness.
I see therapeutic sound work in the context of social, culture, and political interactions as well. The times are calling for more of us to speak and sing out in the service of our shared biocracy. As global problems become more complex, and massive refugee migrations change the mix of cultures all over the world, there is more need to find ways to communicate beyond language-to be able to dance in the chaos of unstructured becoming, so that the patterns which bind us to the past can reabsorb, and our future can come out singing.
We are awakening to who we really are: open energy instruments aware and interactive from the most minute sub-cellular level of inner space to the far reaches of the universe. And in this pulsing web-of-the-world, every child’s voice, every bird’s call is felt by the whole and matters to it. If I may circle back to the verse with which I began this piece, I would respond to Rilke that we are a great song. The poet’s voice, the bird’s voice, our voices do make a difference in the world.
Molly Scott is a psychotherapist, educator, singer-songwriter and poet who leads trainings and workshops in the integrated practice of psychotherapy and therapeutic sound work called Resonance Therapy, in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. She has a BA in English and Music from Smith College, a Master’ s Degree in individual and family therapy from the University of Massachusetts, has trained with the Upledger Institute in Cranio-Sacral bodywork, and is currently doing Doctoral research on the role of the voice in therapeutic relationship.
A singer and songwriter, she has focused her music on peace and environmental concerns and her anthem, We Are All One Planet, is well known in the peace movement. She maintains a private practice in Charlemont, MA, and at Synthesis Center, a community counseling service in Amherst, MA.