Modal Improvisation in Therapeutic Music Part 2

See Modal Improvisation in Therapeutic Music Part 1

Here I have recorded a short improvisation on the harp in each of the Seven Healing Modes to give you a brief introduction to how they sound. I have chosen not to list examples of the feelings, modes and emotions commonly associated with each mode. This is because I would like you to have the space for your own, uninfluenced, responses to them. This is, after all, how a recipient of Therapeutic Music would experience them.

The following improvisations are thematically linked, with several figures appearing throughout the sequence. I did this so that you would get to experience the extent to which each mode changes the character of a musical phrase. On the other hand, it would also be true to say that the mood that each mode evokes in me influenced how and what I played.

Aeolian mode

Dorian mode

phrygian mode

mixolydian mode

lydian mode

Ionian mode

locrian mode

Modal Improvisation in Therapeutic Music Part 1

Unfamilar music

In Therapeutic Music – that is, music intended to effect positive change – the most beneficial music for the recipient is often unfamiliar to them. There are several reasons for this: unfamiliar music presents a “clean sheet” so the recipient can go on their own inner journey in response, free from previously held associations with a piece of music. In addition, the musician avoids unwittingly choosing music that holds negative associations for the client, which could easily negate any potential therapeutic benefits of the music. 

In addition, an important aspect of Therapeutic Music is that the musician takes their cue from the recipient as to what to play. The musician intuits the needs of the recipient at the start of the session and begins with music that they believe best answers these needs. They then watch for signs as to how the music is being received – changes in breath rate, facial expression, bodily tension, signs of agitation or relaxation, for example – and will alter the music accordingly. This could mean making changes to the tempo, volume, texture, rhythm, pitch, harmony or other variables. There is much more scope to make these changes to unfamiliar music in a musically satisfying manner than there would be for a familiar piece of music.

The unfamiliar music can be anything the client does not know: obscure Medieval, folk or classical melodies are all used. But the ultimate freedom to respond to the recipient is to be found in improvised music. I would estimate that 70-80% of the music I play in a therapeutic setting is completely improvised. It is possible to use any mode, but therapeutic musicians, myself included, have found that the Ancient Greek modes provide a really effective framework. So much so that these modes have begun to be referred to as the Seven Healing Modes. Each of the modes has its own emotional signature and, generally, at least one will stand out as the right mode for the recipient at any given time. Mostly, I take the recipient on a journey through several modes, transforming the emotional landscape as we go.

The Seven Healing modes

The modes under consideration here originated in ancient Greece, each mode being rooted on a different string of the diatonically tuned Greek lyre. To ancient Greek ears, each mode suggested the characteristics or group temperament of a certain tribe – Phrygians, Lydians, Dorians, for example – and this is how each mode got its name. 

These modes passed into the Medieval European church, but due to a scribal error, their names were assigned to a different mode than had been used by the Greeks. It is the Medieval naming system that is use today. The modes themselves, remain the same.

The modes and their root pitch are:

C Ionian
D Dorian
E Phrygian
F Lydian
G Mixolydian
A Aeolian
B Locrian

For Videos of the Modes Go to Modal Improvisation in Therapeutic Music Part 2

HS2 Destroys Jones' Hill Wood

Jones’ Hill Wood, Wendover, Bucks

Yesterday I stood and watched as an ancient, irreplaceable wood was destroyed. I hadn’t gone to listen, but to bear witness and yes, to hope that by doing so, I may be able to come to terms with my own sorrow. Sorrow for the trees, the bats, the foxes, the badgers, the plants, the insects and the newly nested eggs that will now never get the chance to hatch into birds. Sorrow also for us: that we, as people, don’t realise or care what we are doing, what we are losing. Actually, that’s unfair: many do realise and have spent countless, heart-breaking hours fighting against the destruction of Jones’ Hill Wood and too many other natural habitats that have or are about to share its fate. But we have “leaders” who can re-route HS2 to save a golf course, but not to save ancient woodland and the creatures within it. 

As I stood there, I could hear power generators, voices of the HS2 contractors and most of all, I could hear the saws. Other than that, it was eerily quiet. Its sounds crazy, I know, but I wanted the wood to hear something other than the sounds of its own destruction. So I sang.

Standforthetrees.org

St Andrew's Well

St Andrew’s Well, Corton Denham, Somerset

What is left that can be said to hear?

I was tired and the error was mine, but I didn’t really check much about this site in advance. So, I was perturbed when I arrived to find that Saint Andrew’s well (refurbished by the Women’s Institute in 1988) consisted of a tap and a trough. There was no sign of the spring itself. Worse, it was on the main road through the village. Still, I was tired, it had a seat and so I sat on it.

I became entranced by the aquatic life forms in the trough in their spiralling dance with themselves. I must have stopped listening altogether because the next thing I knew I was immersed within a strange sound: something like a dog drinking. Hold on, it WAS a dog drinking. But in the moment between the hearing and the identification, the sound took hold of me as if there was no distance between it and me. It was a very odd and unexpected experience.

I looked up to see a black and white pointer and its owner. “Do you want any more to drink, Sasha?” the owner enquired. Sasha obliged with a few more gulps, during which I debated whether to mention the aquatic life forms to her owner. Then Sasha and owner trotted off.

But what had happened to me? Had I been actively listening at that point, instead of gazing mesmerised at the creatures in the trough, would Sasha’s drinking have had the same effect on me? I don’t think so. The nearest I can come to explain it comes from a book of Zen stories that I read once which talked about how an unexpected sound can trigger a breakthrough moment of kensho, or enlightenment. The sound could be a rooster, the creak of a floorboard, someone’s sneeze in the meditation hall, or even a dog drinking. Indeed, “any sound that finds little or nothing of you in the way and fills you completely can let you in directly to the shocking open secret: ‘what is left that can be said to hear?’”1

Accidentally enlightened by a Christianised well in a small village in Somerset? Let’s keep that one an open secret too.

1The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women, Edited by Florence Carlow and Susan Moon

Wistman's Wood

Wistman’s Wood, Dartmoor, Devon

Listening with wonder, reverence and joy

Wistman’s Wood is a special place. It is one of the highest oak woods in Britain, but its not like any other oak wood I’ve ever visited. The oaks grow through crevices between large granite boulders called clatters; as a result their growth is stunted and their trunks and branches are contorted. Both the clatters and the oaks are covered in lichen and moss, which lend a particularly vivid greenness to the wood. It’s a weird mix of the fecund – Hildegard Von Bingen may have called it viriditas, the green creative life force – and the misshapen and stunted.

But I confess, despite the interesting natural features of the wood, I was even more drawn to its folklore. ‘Wisht’ means weird, uncanny or eerie and the wood is associated with the mythic Wild Hunt. I’ve heard of people having strange sensations of malevolence directed towards them; of feeling watched, or even being driven out of the wood. What would such a place sound like?

I arrived about 8pm on a suitably windy and damp summer evening. Out of respect – and self-preservation – I asked, as usual, if it was ok for me to enter. I received a positive response and did so. I had the wood to myself. 

It took me a while to set up my tripod for a photo and I became annoyed with myself for messing about and wasting time when I had come to be still and listen. So I put my camera away and sat on a clatter. At this point, I was unaware of the presence of a large adder population in the wood, so take care if you do the same. 

The more I have listened, the more I have become attuned not just to sound, but to all vibrations. This includes feeling, sensations and “knowing.” That’s how I can confidently say that I was invited into the wood. There wasn’t much to hear here that was audible – the wind, the odd raven call – but there was a lot going on on the non-audible level. I was truly surprised how benign the wood felt. I felt not only that I was welcome, but that the wood was happy that I was there. Yes, I did feel a presence behind me, but it was not threatening.

I heard voices: a young couple appeared. The woman was complaining about the speed they were hopping across the clatters and that it would be his fault if she broke an ankle. They disappeared. Then a family with an unhappy child arrived. The child was also upset about the terrain and was crying until his father picked him up. It took them longer to pass me and I could hear the child still whining for a while, but eventually they too were gone. What did they think of me sitting there? Did they wonder what could there be to do sat in the one place? Maybe they knew about the adders? What did I think of them? Well, truthfully, I felt sad for them, rushing through such a magical place, without stopping to simply be there, with wonder, reverence and more than a little joy.

Venford Falls

Venford Falls, Dartmoor, Devon

a choir of water spirits


I was in the mood for a waterfall. But, as I’m sure anyone who’s read any of my posts so far will already have anticipated, I wasn’t in the mood for a crowded one. Venford Falls, sometimes known as Dartmoor’s secret waterfall, seemed to fit the bill nicely. When I told my landlady I was off to find it she gave me that look that says “good luck cos you’ll need it.” Turns out, with good reason. 

I realise now that the instructions I was following were the wrong way round. Written by someone else who wanted to keep the falls a secret? Not knowing this at the time, though, I began to get disheartened as the landmark I was looking for failed to materialise. I noticed a trail through the undergrowth that veered off to the right and decided to follow it. I was convinced that it was a wild goose chase and was also becoming increasingly alarmed at the steepness of the path down. But then, almost without realising it, I began to hear something that sounded like a waterfall. Was this the first time in all my years of listening that I heard my intended location before seeing it? 

And there it was. The falls themselves are small, but very beautiful. There was just me and a mouthy green woodpecker. Having convinced myself that I was about to go home empty eared, I was beside myself with happiness. Best of all, for the first time in a very, very long time, I was in a place entirely free from human made noise.

Venford Falls

Waterfalls are wonderful for listening to. As I listened I began to hear voices as if I was hearing a choir of water spirits: bass, tenor, alto and treble. Then each section began to break into separate parts until there were several multipart fugues going on at the same time. I teased myself by trying to follow an individual part, but there always came a point where my ear became delightedly confused about which voice it was trying to follow. That may have been why the woodpecker was laughing at me.

Eventually, however, despite the insect repellant, the midges got the better of me. Venford Falls would only tolerate human visitors for so long.

Finding Venford falls

From the north of Venford Reservoir, follow Venford Brook on your right towards the Dart River. There is a stand of trees to your right: when they stop, look for a path that curves off to your right and follow down to the brook. Be warned: the path is very steep and slippery and mobile coverage is patchy, so please tell someone where you are going.

Kantele

The Kantele

The kantele is a plucked psaltery from Finland. The kantele and its cousins – the Latvian kokle, Lithuanian kanklės, Estonian kannel and Russian gusli – are known as Baltic psalteries.

Artic Circle, Finland

I play the diatonic folk kantele. Most folk kanteles range from 5-11 strings, but mine is a large 19 string kantele. The additional bass strings are meant to function as drone strings, but I re-tuned them for extra harmonic possibilities.

I have loved Finland since I spent time in Helsinki and Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle. The first time I heard the kantele, I was moved to tears. The soft, metallic sound with its incredible sustain is, to me, what snow falling on birch trees would sound like if I could hear it. This characteristic sound occurs because (unusually for a stringed instrument) the kantele lacks bridges. Instead, the metal strings are simply wound around metal pins at each end, resulting in some complex acoustics.

I have since come to appreciate more about the origins of this ancient instrument.

THE MYTHIC ORIGINS OF THE KANTELE

The story of the kantele’s creation is told in Finland’s national epic, The Kalevala – a huge collection of Finnish folklore and mythology that originated between 500 B.C. and A.D. 1000. Its many thousands of verses were compiled in its current form by Elias Lönnrot in the 19th century, from the singing of Finnish and Karelian peasants.

The Kalevala tells us that the wizard Väinämöinen makes the first kantele from the jawbone of a giant pike and a few hairs from a magic stallion. Many people try to play it and fail until Väinämöinen himself begins to play music of such beauty that it draws all the forest creatures near to listen and wonder. However, Väinämöinen loses his fish-bone kantele when it returns to the sea. After grieving over it for many months, he is persuaded to make another. This time, he crafts it from the wood of a birch tree and strings it with the hair of a willing maiden: the magic of this second kantele proves equally powerful.

In the final section of The Kalevala, immediately before Väinämöinen sets off in a copper boat to go between the earth and the sky, he leaves his birch-wood kantele behind to become the grandmother of all kanteles, including mine.

In his last words, he vows to come back some day, saying:

Let the time pass, let days go
and needed will I be again,
needed will I be, longed for, looked for
To make the New Kantele
to move the new moon, to change a new day.

VÄINÄMÖINEN – RUNE SINGING SHAMAN

In Finland, the verses of The Kalevala are known as runes. Rune means song or poem. It could also be translated as a secret thing – something that contains hidden and powerful sacred knowledge. Rune singing has its roots in antiquity and is believed to be connected to the practice of shamanism. During the singing of runes, the shaman is able to enter a trance state whereupon their soul can journey to other worlds.

Rune singing was accompanied by the kantele. In The Kantele Traditions of Finland, Carl Rahkonen writes:

The kantele may have served a function similar to that of the Lapp shaman’s drum, as a source of sound upon which the shaman could focus to help achieve a trance state. Undoubtedly, the kantele held special symbolic significance to the shaman, as the magical object mentioned in the runes, which also existed in tangible reality. 1

The Kalevala portrays Väinämöinen as a rune singer himself, with the kantele the source of his magic power. Elias Lönnrot and other contemporaries even believed that Väinämöinen was a real-life shaman-poet who had lived sometime in the ninth century. There are fascinating parallels here with British and Irish shaman-poets, such as Taliesin and Amairgin, whom I will write about another time.

1 http://www.people.iup.edu/rahkonen/kantele/diss/Sym.htm

Ichigenkin

The Ichigenkin

The ichigenkin is a single-stringed zither from Japan. Its silk string is plucked by a tubular plectrum on the right hand index finger, while a slide on the left hand middle finger depresses the string at the desired pitch. The slide and plectrum are collectively known as rokan.

The ichigenkin was popular during the 17th and 18th centuries, but by the 20th century, it was in decline, with much of its tradition lost and forgotten. It is now very rare, even in Japan.

Like the better known shakuhachi, the ichigenkin comes from the Zen Buddhist tradition and is intended not to be played as a performance instrument but as a tool to teach the student about Ultimate Reality.


The ichigenkin should be played with the consciousness anchored in the hara. The hara is considered the physical and spiritual centre of one’s being. Many Japanese arts are executed from the hara, including the martial arts, archery, ikebana, the tea ceremony and Usui Reiki. With the ichigenkin, this anchoring is particularly important because of the inherently weak sound of the instrument. The player needs to use the energy of the hara to send forth the sound of the ichigenkin, lending it power and volume from the core of their own being. As I began haltingly to develop my hara, I stumbled across a paradox: not only was the hara the source of the ichigenkin’s sound, but it was also a source of stillness and silence. Peter Wilburg’s words began to make sense:

The hara is not only a still point of inner silence. It is also the gateway for a descent into silence which leads us into a world of inner sounds or “sounds of silence.”¹

As I learned to play from the hara, I became aware of these sounds of silence that Wilburg refers to. Moreover, I began to experience the inner sensation that I am playing the ichigenkin above what I can only call a continuous drone of silence. My perception of the silence is that it is in continuous flow, dynamically moving forward with the melody line, supporting it, as if it were both a musical and a metaphysical ground. I believe that this “drone of silence” is similar to what Hazrat Inayat Khan calls the “undertone of existence²” that goes on continuously and with which, eventually, all will merge.

Once the ichigenkin player has reached a certain level of spiritual attainment, they are able to transfer this to their audience. My teacher, Randy Raine-Reusch, calls ichigenkin concerts “a meditation in action and non-action, sound and silence and one note and many notes. Audiences gently slip into another world, another reality.³” The other reality of which he speaks is, of course, Ultimate Reality, where the audience members experience action/non-action and sound/silence as the two aspects of vibration from which all things emerge and re-merge.

For more on the ichigenkin see Randy Raine-Reusch’s website Zen of One String.

¹Wilburg, Peter The Little Book of Hara, 2011, ebook location 374
²Khan, Hazrat, Inayat The Music of Life, 1988, page 57
³Raine-Reusch, Randy The Zen of One String, http://www.asza.com/zenone.shtml

Knowlton Henge Yew Tree

Knowlton Henge, Wimborne, Dorset

Listening to remember

A Neolithic earthwork, a ruined Norman church, a line of ancient yew trees and a reputation for supernatural occurrences: what might this place sound like? Well, turns out the only thing you could hear on the day when I went was a didgeridoo.

I don’t set myself up as an expert in listening to the land, but I’ve learned a few things in my time and if I were to share a tip or two, today’s would be: don’t go listening on a solstice. There’s something about solstices, equinoxes and the Celtic festivals that brings out a desire to mark the occasion with musical instruments that are meaningful for the player and annoying for everyone else. Its usually drumming circles, so at least today was bit different. I normally avoid listening excursions on these days, but I was here to speak at a festival just down the road at Gaunts House and today was all I had.

I hung around for a while to see if the didge guy would give the rest of us a break, but no, he was in it for the long haul. So I wandered a bit listlessly into the ruined church and then over to the yew trees. Despite my mood, I was soon captivated by them: people had transformed them into a shrine with offerings of clooties, prayers, images and tokens. Some of the messages touched me deeply, especially the many left in honour of deceased pets. I thought of my own beloved dogs and my eyes filled up for them all over again. There was an aura of peace and I felt grateful for having my dogs in my life and grateful for the space to feel grateful. Perhaps today was about listening to the heartfelt feelings of those who had left offerings in the trees and a teaching about how the voice of prayers can also become part of the spirit of a place. 

I was glad that I had come, after all.

Absolute Pitch

Absolute Pitch (often referred to as Perfect Pitch) is the ability to recognise and name a musical note without a reference tone. It is possessed by about one in ten thousand people.

I have just finished re-reading This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin. Levitin is a leading neuroscientist who specialises in music and he tells us that he has read every single research paper on Absolute Pitch (AP). He admits that scientists do not know why some people have it and some don’t. But, he also demonstrates a poor understanding of the nature of AP. For instance he gives the example of a colleague who “discovered a patient who has absolute pitch but is tone deaf! He can name notes perfectly, but he cannot sing to save his life¹.”

Why the exclamation mark, Daniel? As someone with AP, my response to this is “like, d-uh!” As long as the patient were not visually impaired or colour blind, no one would bat an eyelid at his recognition of the colour green or blue, yet in no way would this lead to an assumption that he would be able to paint anything recognisable with them.

So, I thought I’d write about my experiences of AP in an attempt to help further understanding of this ability in those who may be interested. Of course, these are only my experiences and those of others may be very different.

Each Note has a Unique Quality

I can recognise an A or D# as easily as I can recognise my husband’s voice, or which one of my dogs is barking. An F just has a quality of “F-ness”. It is not something I have to pay attention to and it requires no effort – though, as we’ll come to, there are exceptions to this.

I Have No Idea How I Came to Have AP

I can’t have been born with AP because at birth I was unfamiliar with the concept of musical pitch. But I don’t recall acquiring it and it feels like I’ve always had it. In fact, I used to think everyone had it. It was only when I misunderstood an aural test and I wrote down the melody of a piece played on the piano, along with the (required) rhythm, that my music teacher told in a mix of awe and accusation “you’ve got perfect pitch!”

The Pitches of Some Instruments are Harder to Identify than Others

I find the piano the easiest of all to determine pitch, even though I’m not a trained pianist. Instruments with prominent dissonant overtones are the most difficult. There are some singing voices that I cannot identify.

AP Does Not Go On Indefinitely

I cannot identify notes at pitch extremes: either high or low.

AP is a Function of Response, Not Initiation

If you asked me to sing a certain pitch, I could do it correctly 90% of the time. But I have to sing the pitch in my head first. Once I’ve heard it internally and experienced the quality of the required pitch, I will know if my internal starting pitch is correct or if it needs adjusting. I can then reproduce it vocally.

If I just sang without hearing it first, I could be off. This correlates with the research finding that muscle memory is not involved in AP.

AP is a Blessing and a Curse

Yes, I’m pretty good at playing by ear! But sometimes I don’t want to know that the key of a piece is Gm: it doesn’t further my enjoyment or connection with the music and sometimes, I think it even gets in that way of that. Also, transposing can be a challenge. However…

I Run in ‘Parallel Pitch’

When you consider that my first main instrument was the Bb clarinet, a transposing instrument, it is even more peculiar that I should have AP. But it seems that I have the ability to compartmentalise. In fact, when I listen to the clarinet, I can tell you the pitch of the note either from an AP viewpoint, or from the viewpoint of the clarinettist. The note has a certain quality which I recognise because I recognise the pitch, and because I recognise the note as its played on the clarinet. I’m effectively hearing two pitch schemes in tandem and choosing to focus on one or the other.

Another example is the Persian setar, which I am studying. The tradition here is to tune in standard pitch when playing with others, but to tune down a tone when playing solo because the strings have more resonance at the lower pitch and the setar sounds better. So, with a tuned down setar, I recognise that my teacher is playing a G but I have to go to the fret which I know as A in order to play the same note. I’m not quite sure what is going on here, but I don’t believe I’m carrying out an instantaneous transposition, rather that I’m running a double pitch scheme in my head, where the quality of G can be an A if I let it.

I Lose it When I Am Ill

Isn’t this interesting? I can lose it overnight if I’m coming down with something. In fact, there are degrees of AP loss: I may just lose it with some instruments and my AP compass might decrease. Or I may lose it completely. I can even use it as a barometer of how poorly I am. When I’m better, it re-appears.

I Have a Relationship with Pitch that Cannot Be Appreciated by Non-AP Musicians

I once wrote an article on harp tuning and claimed in passing that singers find it easier to sing in flat keys. I was taken to task on this by someone who, virtually apoplectic with rage, insisted that this could not possibly be the case. It was something that a singing teacher (without AP) once told me and it matched my own experience. So, when I was challenged I sat down and paid attention to what was happening. It was true: when I was singing a flattened note (ie, an on-pitch Bb, not an under-pitch, out of tune note), I felt a sense of ‘settling or easing down’ into the pitch; when singing a sharpened note, such as F# or C#, I had to ‘reach up’ for it. Enharmonically, I even found it much more comfortable to think in terms of Db major than C# major. I could well imagine that my critical reader would not readily understand if I were to tell him that, for me, going from note C to D# is more of ‘stretch’ than going from C to Eb, because, ultimately, he does not have the same intimate relationship with pitch that I do. We were, therefore, both right from our respective experiences.

¹Levitin, Daniel J. This Is Your Brain on Music: Understanding a Human Obsession, May 2008, page 184