How Sound Can Bring Us Together
By Lily Whitehawk, co-founder of HUSO
Whenever humans gather together to celebrate, to mourn, to mark the seasons, to honor sacred moments, you will find the sound of voices raised in unison, harmonizing to sing out joy, to give voice to grief, to lift the spirit, to transform a singular emotional experience into something greater through the sharing of it in song and chant. Why is this tradition so ingrained in cultures the world over? How does the harmonious blending of voices knit us together as a people?
On a beautiful sunny day in early July, I stood under a fragrant green bower of freshly cut pine, rhythmic waves of love flowing from my heart, spilling out through my eyes in an ocean of ecstatic joy. My head, my chest, every cell in my body was physically pulsating in time with the thunderous pounding of drums, the stomping of thousands of feet, with hundreds of voices raised in a unified chant rising up from the ceremonial grounds, echoing across the violet mountains, flying high into the clear blue vastness of space.
It was powwow season – a gathering of indigenous tribes from across the Americas. A time to dance, to pray, to sing, to tell story, to strengthen old bonds and forge new ones. All races were represented in the multi-colored wreath of faces surrounding the sacred dance ground – red, yellow, black and white. There were people wearing jeans, tee shirts, and tennis shoes, women in long flowing skirts, people in street clothes, in traditional dress and beaded moccasins, in feathered regalia. Tiny babies, young and vibrant bodies, ancient beauties, wrinkled sages… every variety of human was represented in the sacred circle. Many languages, cultures, religions, those whose ancestors were sworn enemies, those who had been persecuted and those whose ancestors had done the persecuting stood shoulder to shoulder, honoring an unspoken agreement to set down their differences this day.
For this day we were all one family, all moving as one many-headed holy being to the same rhythm, hundreds of voices chanting the same sacred words and sounds over and over until we melted from the many into one. One heart open in love. One mind open to magic. One soul set free to acknowledge the Truth: we are not separate. We just believe that we are. We choose to build walls with our minds rather than bridges with our voices, with our hearts.
I looked at those beautiful faces and realized we were all feeling the deeply transformative ecstatic shock of recognition; the acknowledgment that underneath all the seeming differences, the violent history, we are indeed all related.
At that moment a powerful Truth flew out of my heart and into my soul. It staggered me: this is how we will heal the world. Billions of voices raised in the same sacred song. Trillions of feet pounding the ground in time to a universal, ancient rhythm, hearts beating as one in perfect undeniable harmony. Sound is how the world began, sound gave the universe its form and substance, and sound can knit back together all that has been broken. Broken souls, broken families, broken communities, broken land, broken hearts, and spirits can be made new by the mutual sharing of individual voices to create one harmonic, pulsating, powerful, earth-shaking, soul splitting sound. Illusion shattered. Cracked wide open, set free to soar.
And now science seems to be lending credence to my aha! moment all those years ago. Recent studies by several groups of researchers have found that profound, measurable, physical changes happen when groups of people sing and chant together. They observed choirs, monks and indigenous communities who got together on a regular basis, blending voices to create a powerful harmonic vibration in their bodies and their immediate environment.
They used various scientific methods to measure specific physical and emotional responses. Their findings were astounding. The singers showed significant changes in hormone levels, heart rate, mood, and stress levels.
Specifically, there was an increase in serotonin, a hormone that generates feelings of well-being, pleasure and heightened awareness.
Oxytocin, the bonding hormone also increased in the participants. This hormone is released into the body to strengthen feelings of closeness, safety, love, and belonging. It is the hormone that binds mother and child, that cements the connection between lovers and close friends and family.
The singers also reported heightened levels of creativity and calmness, decreases in depression and anxiety, and a deepening sense of belonging.
Perhaps most remarkable of all, the researchers found that when people blend their voices together in harmony, their heart rates synchronize! Their hearts begin to beat as one great heart, generating a combined frequency that when paired with the harmonic sound of interwoven voices, becomes palpable… not only to the singers but to those who are listening in the same room.
So by generating an audible frequency with breath, vocal cords and larynx, and then releasing that frequency into the air to blend with the harmonic frequencies created by their fellow singers, each individual actually is changing their environment by creating a resonant response in the air and the people nearby, altering those people at an emotional and physical level that can be scientifically verified.
Another study isolated a distinct part of the brain (specifically a portion in the right brain) that seems to respond only to music – repetitive rhythmic melodious input.
Which leads to the obvious conclusion that gathering together to share in the making of musical sounds in unison offered a compelling means of survival, so much so that our brains evolved to include a section specifically devoted to the enhancement of and responsiveness to this vital instinct. The ancient tradition of sharing through sound strengthened the intimate bonds holding societies together and enabled the enhancement of memory by “singing” the history and life-wisdom of each group into the collective consciousness.
We are hardwired to respond to voices unified in sound by dropping our differences and drawing closer together. If we want to heal our loneliness, our depression, our alienation, and despair… if we want to uplift our society and transform the world, perhaps it can be as simple as weaving our many individual songs into one singular harmonious joyful sound.
To learn more or read the studies, check out these links:
How Music Bonds Us Together
Brain Structure Wired For Musical Rhythmic Sound
How Singing Together Creates Community
Synchronized Sound Promotes Social Commitment
Sound Frequency Therapy Derived from Human Toning and Chanting