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The Ancient Wisdom of the Voice: Chant as an Instrument of Healing, Part 1

Most of us can agree on the human voice's vital role in communication, expression, and connection throughout history; however, the voice's innate ability to heal and bring peace to both those who sing and to those who listen is too often forgotten or overlooked.

Gregorian chant, a type of Western plainchant developed in the 9th and 10th centuries, is noted for its ability to calm the body, mind, and spirit. Traditionally sung in Latin, each phrase is crafted from one sustained breath. Melismatic syllables span multiple floating and expansive notes. Just hearing recordings of Gregorian chant can transport the listener to the echoing halls of a cathedral, or to an inner sacred space of their imagination.

Chant is not restricted to the Western European, Christian traditions. Chant and sacred song are part of many cultures that exist today, including First Nations people of North America, Hawaiian, African, Australian aboriginal, as well as utilized in Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and others. Chant can be written or composed beforehand, handed down orally from generation to generation, or improvised as the spirit moves the chanter.

The reason why chant has such a profound affect on the listener is no mystery. The answers lie both within our nervous systems and in a process called entrainment. A well-known and much studied example of entrainment is the eventual synchronization of two once independently swinging pendulums. Due to vibrations and energy, if two pendulums, like those of a clock or metronome, are placed near each other, the more forceful of the two will exert influence over the other resulting in synchronicity. Thus entrainment is present. Entrainment has been noted between human heart cells, schools of fish, murmurations of birds, and between two or more people, among an unending list of examples found in our natural world.

Chanting requires long, sustained phrases sung on one breath. The deep and controlled breathing utilized in chant results in the singer's heart rate decreasing, creating a sense of relaxation and peace. When a singer's body system is at ease, those in close proximity can be entrained to the singer. Anyone who has ever been in the presence of another person and felt the person's calming influence over their own system knows this to be true: spending time with a relaxed loved one or being in the presence of a trusted therapist can entrain your body system to theirs.

But why exactly does deep breathing bring about feelings of relaxation and wellbeing? Here is where the nervous system comes in. The autonomic nervous system includes the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is best known for its fight, flight, or collapse reaction, pumping adrenaline throughout our bodies to help us react to perceived threats. The parasympathetic nervous system restores us to a pre-threat state, or one of rest and digest. Both the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system responses are involuntary functions. We have no conscious control over them, except for one part that can be controlled: our breath.

The breath is both an autonomic function, requiring no conscious effort on our part to perform, and one that we can assert control over. By breathing deeply we can stimulate the vagus nerve, which is part of the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest), whose role is regulating heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion, among other functions. Slow down our breath and we can slow down our heart rate. (In addition, the vibrations of our vocal cords can stimulate the vagus nerve, resulting in a reduced stress response. This will be discussed in a future post under the topic of Toning.)

The relationship between singer (or recording) and listener is intimate. It is no coincidence that the average resting adult heart rate is 60 beats per minute, (the measurement of a second coming from the length between average human heartbeats), and the same tempo or speed in which lullabies are sung. Listening to a lullaby, at a tempo of 60 beats per minute, will result in the listener's heartbeat entraining to the speed of the song. Likewise, for those who are seeking a heightened nervous system response, listening to loud and fast music or being in a highly-charged crowd at a rock concert will increase the heart rate through the tempo of the music and entrain to the building excitement of those sharing in the experience.

As opposed to other genres and styles of song, chant is particularly powerful and effective at soothing a hyper-vigilant nervous system. The chanter performs deep, sustained breathing, reducing their own heart rate, thus becoming a force from which the listener can entrain. The listener's breathing pattern entrains with that of the chanter's, in turn stimulating the listener's vagus nerve and activating the parasympathetic nervous system's rest response. The chanter breathes deeply; the listener responds in kind. A hyper-vigilant nervous system creates stress and tension which in turn depletes the body of vital energy while flooding the system with harmful levels of cortisol; therefore, the calming of the nervous system is expressly linked to good health, feelings of well-being, normalized sleep patterns, and allows the body to react to situations as needed instead of being constantly on high alert.

Today we can study and research the effects of chanting and understand its benefits on an intellectual level. Before the advent of peer reviewed journals and laboratory settings, our ancestors knew in their bones how chant, sacred song, and ritual music brought them together as a community, voicing an outlet for expressing their interconnectedness both through physical sound and through the entrainment of their beings with one another.


Please feel free to comment on this post, and add or correct information. For those interested in more information on entrainment I recommend reading Mitchell L. Gaynor's book, The Healing Power of Sound: Recovery from Life-Threatening Illness Using Sound, Voice, and Music. For those interested in the vagus nerve and its role in the nervous system, I recommend Deb Dana's book Polyvagal Theory in Therapy.

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