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Musical Instruments Conducive to Meditation

By Nobleman Nash Hollowhill – November 9, 2009

As I have described in other articles, Throat Singing, didgeridoo, and drum playing can be excellent ways to meditate. They place lots of emphasis on the regulation of the breath, posture, and the concentration on the present moment to create a unique, texturally simple, but with practice a sufficiently complex musical phrase. The act of creating musical phrases hinges on the ability to sustain a period of tension created by complex mathematical ratios between separate tones, which releases, an auditory sensation caused by an opening into very simple ratios between these tones. The principles of tension and release hold true for any spiritual practice, be it MeditationYoga, Tai Chi, artistic creation of any kind, or the use of entheogenic drugs. But simplicity in the structure of these creations is not always essential. For instance, playing music that compliments the complex jazz aesthetic (which can be highly enjoyable during Meditation) with any of the above mentioned mediums on its own would be very difficult, if not impossible.

I have found it very helpful, however difficult, in my practice of guitar and piano playing to gradually but consistently bring my focus to my breath rather than the maddening repetition of a difficult phrase. Likewise meditative states can be very good for rejuvenating a sense of creativity and joy in the process of transcribing or other somewhat tedious aspects of composition. Music, like meditation, is fundamentally liberating, a concept that exists because of tension and release. Without tension, there would be no release, likewise without repose, there would be no motion. Because the mental tension required in order to learn to properly play an instrument as complex as the guitar is so great, that the sensation of freedom once progress has been made is equally, if not even more satisfying. But for some people this may seem like a chore, especially developmentally challenged people. So the process of finding a meditative balance between two opposing modes of musical expression can easily be mirrored in less complex musical instruments such as singing bowls, meditation balls, theremin, and overtone singing.

A singing bowl only produces one tone, depending on its diameter this can range from quite low, to very high-pitched. By rubbing a wooden stick around the outer edge of the metal or quartz bowl, the entire physical structure begins to vibrate sympathetically, creating soundwaves that are the shape of the bowl itself. As one twists the wrist in order to keep the angle of the stick consistent, the soundwaves push and pull at the stick, according to how fast or slow it is being played. A balance must be found in order to properly play the bowl, so as not to ring percussively against it, nor to lose the momentum of the tone. The higher the tone of the bowl and the longer the note is sustained, the easier it is to reach states of paradigm-shifting awareness of the present moment by reprogramming the sensory input our brains are accustomed to. The lower the tone of the bowl, the easier it is to let the soundwaves do the work by pushing the stick around like a spirograph of positive and negative air pressure.

Meditation balls are used as a medicinal practice as well as a tool for relaxation. Two iron balls of nearly the same size are rotated in the palm of the hand, while musical ringing emanates from within them. One is slightly larger, heavier, and lower in tone than the other, and the object is to find a balance between rotating too slowly and too quickly in order to maintain the sound as continuously and fluidly as possible. If rotated too slowly, the balls begin to move jerkily and the music stops momentarily throughout the process. If rotated too quickly, the balls can bang against eachother, or fall out of the hand. This is very similar to Tai Chi and the sensation of playing the balls for even short amounts of time is the same as having exercised the Chi of that local area of the body.

An instrument measurably responsive to the Chi, or the body’s electromagnetic field of energy, is the theremin. An invaluably simple instrument, and a pioneering synthesizer, the theremin is sometimes no more than a wooden box with a metal telescoping antenna sticking vertically out of it. Many theremins have a horizontal, semicircular sensor on the side. The operating principle of the theremin is that in order to increase the tone or amplitude, one must simply move any part of the body, most commonly the hand, closer to the antenna. Touching the antenna causes the signal to ground out and no sound is produced. This provides an easy mechanism for manipulating silence. A method developed for producing distinct notes is by using prescribed hand positions which progressively engage or disengage the antenna’s field at fixed intervals which must be practiced, but this is not necessary to engage in the joyous process of effortless musical creation of alien or submarine soundscapes.

Overtone Singing is a variant of Throat Singing, but obviously not requiring the vocal chords in the throat. Anyone can sing using overtones, and the process is easy, fun, and sounds beautiful. In fact, overtones exist in common, everyday speech, but because we do not condition our brains to be receptive to this region of auditory phenomena, we are unconscious of them. Overtone-rich consonants like S, T, CH, K, X, etc. occupy a very high frequency vibration that our brains allocate to only those consonants. Whereas vowels have overtones that are not easily audible. Each has its own overtone series, corresponding to the base note that it is spoken at, and can be heard in smooth progressions from one vowel sound to another. YOW, or WHY is one of the most overtone-rich phrases our mouths can form because it is an uninterrupted path that the tongue makes from the full EEE sound, where overtones are most tangible to the OOO sound, in which they are less so. Substituting other vowels between these start and end points will give a different, though no less continuous overtone structure. By steadily humming any single comfortable note, one can manipulate the tongue exactly as in whistling to create simple melodies such as Amazing Grace, Auld Lang Syne, or Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. These processes help integrate concentrative states of mind into ordinary operations and eventually, one can tune the brain to be able to pick up the overtones in everyday speech, opening the mind to an entire world of auditory experience never before heard.

The processes of playing any and all of these instruments is not only a meditative art form, but an analogy for absolutely any process of life. By establishing a fundamental understanding of the concepts of meditation and musical expression, one first sets the tone for further exploration of these areas of creation through free play in the more subtle manipulations and configurations they can manifest into. Balancing between the drone and the overtone, the slow and fast, tension and release, it is possible to find oneself, or to lose oneself in the act of creation.

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