Oct. 7, 2017

OM ~ Music, Mind and Brain, and the Relationship of Colour & Sound

Om – We’ve all heard this word and many know exactly what it is, and what its purpose is. Om is a sacred sound, and a spiritual icon in the Hindu religion. It is really only a syllable, but is identified as a mystic syllable, connected to the female divine energy. Our Western World has only recently become interested in what this is all about, and I would say that most are still oblivious to it. (Did you know that we can thank the Beatles for bringing awareness of this to the Western world?)  I believe this obliviousness is because we have not made the time to explore it, and what it can do for us. It is said to be the primordial sound associated with the creation of the universe from nothing.

In many Yoga practises, it is used as an utterance at the beginning of a mantra. For those who meditate, Om is hummed and held until the breath is gone, and then hummed again and again, repeated until the individual falls into a meditative state, or trance. The vibration of the humming sound is connected to our own individual human physicality and spirituality ~ we would typically choose an Om pitch to work with just arbitrarily, but it would likely turn out to be close to a perfect 4th above the lowest note we can comfortably sing.

In the Hindi belief system, Om is described as ‘the highest song’ where speech and breath combine and produce music. Wikipedia defines it here

  1. Rik (ऋच्, Ṛc) is speech, states the text, and Sāman (सामन्) is breath; they are pairs, and because they have love and desire for each other, speech and breath find themselves together and mate to produce song.[47][48] The highest song is Om, asserts section 1.1 of Chandogya Upanishad. It is the symbol of awe, of reverence, of threefold knowledge because Adhvaryu invokes it, the Hotr recites it, and Udgatr sings it.

How can a sound take us away, into nothingness, or a state of suspension? What is our brain doing in order for this to happen? Through practise, we can train ourselves to focus, and this is related to our brainwaves and what frequency they are operating on. Meditation allows us to move between frequencies, which activate different centres of the brain. A slower wavelength means that there is more time between thoughts. Eventually, through repeating Om, we can clear our minds of the invasive clutter of our daily word, and focus on the frequency of the sound we are making, and the vibration in our body and soul becomes in tune with it. Ultimately, the creation of the Om sound starts with breath, as opposed to simply humming, we must focus on our breath in order to create and support the sound. This is the basis of how to sing fully and freely, when we are ‘connected with our breath’ and ‘delivering our air’ freely, we are able to produce supported and clear sounds; a true mind/body connection that is the ongoing pursuit to achieve, for all singers. When we become stressed, a method of calming our anxiety is to recognize that we must slow our breathing down, even just to the point of noticing our own breath and its pattern, helps us to relax. A slower breath pattern is innately connected to brain wavelengths slowing down.

Finding our Om is akin to connecting to our own musical aura, another level of the colour that radiates around our souls. After all, colour is a vibration too. Have you heard of Synesthesia? Here is a fascinating article on the subject. It is a rare neurological phenomenon (I’d call it a gift) that allows people to translate what they hear, into colours. Click here to read the article on artist Melissa McCracken.

In our lectures surrounding ‘The Big Picture’ we return often to the question of when language and music became separate. Since Hinduism is considered to be one of the oldest religions in the world, it makes sense that the definition of Om connects the speech and breath and says that combining it produces the ‘highest song’. Now that we can study our brain activity, we are aware that music is processed in one hemisphere of our brain, and speech is processed in another, even while they have many things in common. It makes sense that they also work together and that we can benefit by drawing from both areas of our brain for each function.

In many languages, the tone of what is being said can completely change the meaning of the same word. This is most prevalent in languages such as Mandarin, a very tonal language. Examining further, we know that the stresses in our language can be easily connected to a musical beat. The ‘arcuate fasciculus’ area of our brains is the one that is responsible for language, and how we process sound. Some studies have shown that in 9 out of 10 people who are tone deaf, the arcuate fasciculus could not be found!

Reference:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3338120/

I can easily connect the importance of the relationship between words and music. It is the essence of what we are trying to deliver as a singer. Above all of the other efforts, from breath support, to pitch, duration, voice quality, dynamics and more, the way in which we communicate the meaning of the words through our song is of utmost importance. This was driven home to me again just yesterday in my weekly coaching session! (‘You’re doing it, but you can deliver MORE’, was the comment I got from my beloved coach.)

It is of particular importance, then, for a singer who is working in a language that is not their own, for them to understand the words and to convey them as strongly as one would in our own native tongue.

How exciting, to learn other languages, and take them apart, and put them back together again, striving to bring passion to something new to us! Singers must learn the meaning, the phonetic pronunciation and enunciation, and then COLOUR it in. 

If you’re not familiar with what a Recitative is, here’s the definition:
1. musical declamation of the kind usual in the narrative and dialogue parts of opera and oratorio, sung in the rhythm of ordinary speech with many words on the same note.
"singing in recitative"

Some singers (myself included) can struggle with this part of the music because it is not as melodic…but the trick to learning a Recitative passage is to first fully translate it, and then SPEAK the words over and over again until you recognize that the stresses in the words are directly related to the stresses in the music. It then flows out of us, a sung speech that delivers a point home, proclaims something new, or brings the audience into our inner thoughts, as an aside or soliloquy might do in theatre. It’s not easy, but once you figure it out, it can be the most exciting part of the piece! Here is one of my favourite Recitatives.

[For my non-singing friends, see if you can tell the difference between the Recitative and the Aria!]

We really are told over and over again that before we sing, we must speak the words, and that singing itself, especially in Italian, must sound as though we are speaking it through our song.

So, the relationship between speech/language and sound/music is kind of like a chicken and egg scenario isn’t it? They are so connected, it is hard to separate them. When we break language down into many parts of a structure, the relationship to sound is apparent in every area. The way we learn speech is by collecting sounds, (assimilating) putting them together, (generating) and then through a mentor, creating our grammar. The Phonetic Alphabet is an alphabet of sounds. The most prevalent way in which we recognize vibrations is through sound, and vibrations are the common thread between sound, colour, and light.

Yet again, we are reminded that after we learn to make a sound, form the word, and find the meaning, that COLOUR is the essence of what must be delivered.

Visit Roel Hollander’s site to explore the relationship of colour and sound, a bit further!

And now I'm off to go meditate.  Maybe it will help me figure out how to prioritize my homework!