- Alistair Smith
The Intimacy of Voice
Revealing and Healing the Self Through Sound
Written for “Unknown Quantities 4 - Intimacy” Journal produced by post graduate students at Central St Martins College, Autumn 2016.
The “Intimate Limits” event was at Hornsey Town Hall Arts Centre, 4th September 2016.
The power and properties of the voice
When I was invited to do a workshop at the Intimate Limits event, I realised that my approach to Sound Healing fitted very easily into the theme of Intimacy. I use the voice a lot in my practice, as it is one of the most powerful tools for self healing.
This is because our voice is uniquely our own; its characteristic sound identifies us and expresses us. Not just who we are but how we are as well. We can tell when a person is sad, upset, happy, elated, angry, tired or in pain, just from the sound of their voice. When we speak, we are expressing more than words; the subtle variations and inflections in our voice may reveal more intimate details than we are aware. This is also partly why public speaking or performing can be challenging, even terrifying for some. We can feel very exposed.
This insight into vocal expression can be used to our great benefit. We can learn to become more sensitive to our voice in order to assess our own state of mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. We can, of course, also learn to be more attuned to others’ conditions and needs as well.
Stopping for a moment, taking the time out to go inward and get in touch with yourself, is the first step. Then the idea is to allow yourself to vocally express whatever sensations, feelings or notions are there, without analysing, judging or holding back. We are not really talking about words, however, rather a form of vocalisation where any sound can be appropriate. This kind of true self expression would have to come from a place of pure honesty. This is a depth of self intimacy that can lead to a level of self acceptance that can be very healing in itself.
During the workshop, the group courageously committed themselves to this exercise of going inward and expressing what they found there. I was impressed by their engagement with the process, as it can be daunting and scary to use the voice in this way. I began with a sound of my own, encouraging the group to join in. The soundscape that emerged was a touching blend of idiosyncrasies, each singularity of life experience emanating its sound into the centre of the circle. The sounds ranged from breath filled sighs, clear high tones, sweeping gestures, to simple open and honest vowels, suffused with valiant vulnerability.
Participants found the exercise to have a beneficial effect, even after this relatively short session. They spoke of acknowledging emotions and feeling better after vocalising them, and of some interesting and illuminating physical sensations.
Once you have got in touch with yourself and become present with how you are, the next step is to vocalise a sound with a healing intention. We can use specific sounds that have qualities that are useful therapeutically. This idea actually comes from a natural human impulse. Perhaps everyday, we may spontaneously make sounds to calm, sooth or release something. For example, a mother uses soft calming sounds to settle her baby, and we often make a long ‘ah’ sound when seeing a baby or experiencing something touching. The sound ‘ooh’ is often a sound to soothe pain or we may groan, moan or cry to express discomfort or sadness. Why do we do this? If you have injured or hurt yourself and try not to make a sound, it would feel worse. The sound therefore, is a way of releasing some of the pain to make it more bearable. Similarly, the ‘ah’ sound seems to appeal to a softer, more emotional part of ourselves. So Sound Healing is already there, in our daily life. All we need to do is make the right sound with the right intention, in the right place and we have a self healing practice. It is not complicated, it is a very simple and natural thing for us to do.
These ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ sounds are, of course, examples of vowels. Vowels are very simple and powerful sounds that we can use for healing. We use them all the time when we speak, but what actually is a vowel sound?
The phenomenon of Harmonics
The different sonic qualities that we recognise as the various vowels are due to the phenomenon of harmonics.
Just as light can be split into the spectrum of colours we call the rainbow, so sound can also be split or filtered to reveal a similar spectrum of frequencies we call the harmonic spectrum. These ‘harmonics’ exist in perfect ratios that are the provenance of our whole notion of harmony. A pure musical sound, or ‘note’, for example contains within its fabric a perfection of structure and proportion. In fact, it is the very essence of harmony, contained within an apparently simple, single sound.
It is a similar affair with vowels. When we vocalise different vowels, our vocal chords are producing a set of frequencies or harmonics, the same for each vowel. What alters the sound is the shape of the mouth. The changes in shape and size of the vocal cavity produce varying resonant chambers that accentuate or obscure certain harmonics already present in the voice. What we hear is a different quality of sound we identify as a particular vowel, which is in fact a particular balance of harmonics created by our mouth. If we add a simple pitch or note to the vowels then we are introducing this perfection of structure that we identified earlier. The result is a series of well balanced, perfectly harmonious sounds that comprise certain unique qualities.
We can use each vowel’s qualities to work with different parts of ourselves. Just as the ‘ah’ vowel touches the emotions or heart, we can sing or ‘tone’ an ‘ah’, with a note, in order to balance and calm the emotions. This is part of the science behind the mother’s lullaby-like soothing sounds.
With the workshop group we tried using two vowels, the ‘ooh’ sound which is good for soothing and grounding and is associated with the lower parts of the body. ‘Ah’ as we have already indicated, is associated with the heart and relevant emotions such as love and affection. We were clear, each time, to make a healing intention for each sounding session.
As the first session began, an initially evocative harmonic field emerged, shifting and evolving as it breathed in and out of the space, individual tones winding round each other. Gently, the sound began moving into a more settled and soothing sphere as the effect of the vowel was felt. I wouldn’t normally describe a sound session in this way, as the focus is on each individual’s personal experience. But I feel that the group’s journey together and dynamic was a significant part of the day’s theme and aim. The sound clearly expressed this process and had a catalytic effect.
Afterwards, the group indicated that making a specific sound felt quite different from the first session. It was a little more challenging for some and highlighted some areas that perhaps needed further exploration. However, the duration of the session was much longer than the first, everyone seemingly absorbed in the activity, and a natural cessation came much later than I expected. A comment was made about the group’s connection through the sound, an effect that was potentially advantageous for the remainder of the event.
Adding a Therapeutic Frequency
For the second session I added a further component, that of pitch. The aim was for all to sing or tone a specific pitch along with the vowel. One frequency or pitch system considered to be therapeutic in Sound Healing, is that derived from the orbits and rotations of the planets. These extremely low orbital frequencies are multiplied by octaves (numbers of cycles per second multiplied by 2, up to 40 times) to produce a corresponding frequency in the audible range. This is to provide a very natural frequency, present in our solar system, that can give a greater sense of harmony and belonging. For this exercise we would be using the frequency of an Earth year, that is, 136.1Hz or cycles per second. In practice, this pitch is a very grounding and comforting note that is popular with many therapists.
After becoming silent and still, the group was asked to draw their attention to the area of their heart. Whatever they felt or experienced there was to be acknowledged and welcomed without resistance or judgement.
Toning along with a tuned gong, the group’s united tone swelled with a powerful fusion and the gong softly pulsed and shimmered underneath. The simplicity had a strength and purpose to it that was an undeniably moving conclusion to the workshop.
The immediate response to this last exploration of sound was of its ‘cosmic’ nature. Encouraged by the sound of the gong, most agreed to this feeling, as their sound seemed to be held and reflected back from the centre.
There was a key comment made also about the nature of accepting our inner state: that it is hard not to immediately translate what one finds there into a meaning or association with something in our lives. As soon as we do this we create attachments to it, as it becomes part of the structure of our daily life, our history and belief system. This makes it harder to work with. If we can sense or feel this state and then move directly on to the sounding process, it makes it easier, less set and more malleable to the healing process. It can often move and shift more easily when it is not attached to a cause or reason. This shows how sound can work beyond thought and concept, can engage directly with the raw material or energy of an experience or issue and help it to move without our judgemental mind getting in the way.
As we have already said, Sound Healing is not complicated. It is already there in our daily lives as a simple and natural response to external or internal conditions. We have seen how the intimate nature of the voice can be used for self inquiry and exploration, and how we can, with the right intention and setting, use it as a method for self healing. The voice also connects us, through communication yes, but this occurs on more levels than the mere meaning of words. There is a hidden subtlety that reveals more intimate details that we can become more aware of, thus deepening our knowledge of ourselves and of each other. Perhaps in this world of fast, quick fire electronic interaction, we are missing this level of intimacy. Perhaps we could stop for a moment and feel exactly where and how we are, evoking a more profound and intimate presence of being.