The Many Uses of the Drone in Sound Healing and Spiritual Development
(This essay, in slightly different form, was initially written for, and submitted for my Gong Practitioner diploma from the College of Sound Healing.)
In this essay, I will explore the role of the drone in sound healing and in spiritual development, by looking at how the drone manifests in three contrasting musical instruments.
When played with circular breathing, the didgeridoo produces a continuous drone. Ashley Tait calls the didgeridoo his “healing tool¹” and indeed, there are practitioners such Gregg Chapman² who specialise in didgeridoo sound therapy. So, what is it about the didgeridoo that makes its drone so useful to sound healers?
If the didgeridoo is a good one, it will be highly resonant. Dick de Ruiter likens listening to the didgeridoo to “bathing in sound vibrations.³” These sound vibrations can bring parts of the body back into harmony through the principle of forced resonance, whereby the weaker vibration of out of balance cells and organs will entrain to the stronger vibrations of the didgeridoo. When I play my didgeridoo, I can feel my chest, upper thighs and feet vibrating in response. I like to think that the didgeridoo is giving me a heart massage, while, at the same time, gently reminding me to remain grounded.
Another feature of the didgeridoo’s drone that is important to sound healers is that it is rich in harmonics. These high frequency sounds are needed for optimal health. They resonate the upper parts of the body, head, ears and brain. Radiology specialist, Dr Jarrah Ali Al- Tubaikh goes even further, stating that it is the high frequency sounds which produce healing on a cellular level4.
Harmonics also affect consciousness. A good didgeridoo player, like an overtone singer, will continuously modify the shape of their oral cavity, resulting in an ever-changing array of harmonics. This, along with the constant rhythm and monotony of the drone itself, has the tendency to put listeners into a trance state. There will be more on altered states of consciousness later. Here it is enough to mention that the trance state, known to the Australian Aborigines as The Dreamtime, can produce insights and visions, as well as being a precursor to healing.
So, the didgeridoo can be beneficial in sound healing for its ability to re-harmonise and charge the body’s organs and cells and for bringing people into a trance state where spiritual insights and healing may occur.
The setar is a long-necked lute from Iran, prevalent in Sufi music. It features two melody strings and two drone strings: the drone strings are tuned in octaves and provide a fixed tonic through the piece. I have weekly Skype lessons with Master Shahab Azinmehr in Tehran and often I find myself close to tears as he plays. I believe that I am so moved by the setar because its drone, which – along with the nature of Persian classical music itself – intensifies the effect of musical intervals on the listener.
It is believed by many sound healers that intervals have a predictable effect on the listener. I have read lists of these effects in numerous books and been given similar lists on courses. I am not certain that I agree with such a prescriptive approach, but I do believe that intervals have an effect and that a practitioner or musician can intuitively know which interval is needed for their client or audience and play accordingly.
So, given that we accept that intervals can affect the listener’s feelings, what is it about the setar that produces this effect so deeply in me?
The setar provides both its own melody and accompanying drone, so these share the same tonal quality: I believe the similarity of the two tones enhances the effect of the interval they produce. In addition, Persian classical music is modal. Therefore, unlike Western music, the tonic does not alter and so the interval is always charged with the same meaning. The continuous drone and the reiteration of this charge has a cumulative effect. Equally, unlike Western music, there is no third note (or more) to dissipate the effect of the intervals. This all goes to produce intervals in their most fundamental and potent state and would explain why I am so moved by this particular instrument.
I also believe that modal music based on a drone affects the way one hears intervals. Since I began studying the setar, my relationship to intervals has changed. Recently at a tuning fork workshop we were asked to determine whether intervals were consonant or dissonant. Eyebrows were raised when I stated that each interval sounded consonant to me, including the 2nds and 7ths. I am sure it appeared that I did not understand the concept of consonance and dissonance, but after months of hearing these intervals in relation to a fixed drone, they all sounded equally acceptable to my ears. It would have helped that we were using Pythagorean tuning forks tuned to natural intervals, as the setar is, and not to equal tempered tuning. How could intervals that appear in the natural harmonic series not be beautiful and perfect as they are?
Now that I have experienced how it is possible for one’s relationship with intervals to change, I can better begin to understand why Rudolf Steiner links the evolution of human consciousness to humankind’s changing perception of intervals. Steiner holds that music, in essence, is spiritual. He says that “the spiritual element in music is found between the tones [and] lies in the intervals as an inaudible quality.5” I would now like to look at what it is that lies between the tones and its possible effect.
The application of binaural beats is well known in sound healing. This is a phenomenon that occurs when one frequency (i.e. 500Hz) is sent to the left ear and another, slightly higher (or lower) (i.e. 505Hz), is sent to the right ear. The brain “hears” the difference between them – which in this case is a binaural beat of 5Hz – and becomes entrained to that frequency. This causes an altered state of consciousness that depends on the binaural beat frequency: here, at 5Hz, we would expect dominantly Theta brainwaves.
Dameon Michael Keller has written at length on brain entrainment and he has some surprising information about musical intervals, for he alleges that they have the same effect as binaural beats:
If you play any two notes together, you hear the pulsed, beating, third note. The brain of the listener perceives the frequencies whether they are consciously aware or not… This is exactly how binaural beats are produced for brainwave entrainment, but what most people do not realise yet is that those same frequencies are present in every piece of music we listen to6.
So why do we not experience altered states of consciousness whenever we turn on the radio? I think it is partly because Western harmony and instrumental arrangements diminish the effect of the intervals, as discussed above. I also think it is connected to the shorter length of modern pop songs, as it takes approximately ten minutes for brainwave entrainment to take effect. This probably explains why Persian classical pieces are so long. I believe that the altered state of consciousness that results from musical intervals is very much present in Persian classical music. Indeed, Iranians have a word for the state of ecstasy that is the desired result of listening to Persian music: hal. During hal, both the musician and audience are expected to be in an altered state of consciousness: this is an integral part of the musical experience.
There is a further advantage of the drone for the musician and audience. When playing or improvising over a fixed tonic, there are no strictures of harmony, or shifting tonics to watch out for and so, ultimately, as I found with my new appreciation of intervals, no “wrong notes”. Without the necessity of keeping one ear open for the rules of Western harmony, it is easier for the musician to be in a state where they can surrender and allow things to happen. This is an important concept in Persian music where the musician is expected to become an empty vessel and, ideally, will not even be fully aware of what they are playing. According to Master Morteza Varzi “Persian music is one of the most powerful means of spiritual transformation7.” It is precisely because the musician is free to be a channel that this becomes possible.
We have seen, then, in this discussion of the setar and Persian music, that intervals can affect feelings and consciousness and that the drone of the setar can support and intensify this effect. This is beneficial in both sound healing and in raising spiritual consciousness.
The third instrument that I want to explore is the ichigenkin. This is a rare, single-stringed zither from 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, which my teacher, Randy Raine-Reusch, calls the “the ground of silence.” Peter Wilburg goes even further saying:
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.8″
It took me about two years to experience playing “from the hara”, but, once that happened, 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 existence9” that goes on continuously and with which, eventually, all will merge.
Whether the ichigenkin has further lessons in store for me remains to be seen. But it has already taught me to experience the reality of inner silence. No wonder that the ichigenkin is considered a tool for spiritual development. Furthermore, once the ichigenkin player has reached a certain level of spiritual attainment, they are able to transfer this to their audience. 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.10” 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.
Bringing it All Together: The Gong
I hope that I have shown how the drones of these three instruments can be of use in sound healing and spiritual development in a wide range of ways. If these effects could be combined into one instrument, it would be an extremely powerful tool for healing and spiritual development. Luckily, we have such an instrument in the gong.
As the didgeridoo is used by sound healers for its resonant qualities and rich harmonics, the gong is known as an instrument of total resonance: its sound encompasses all tones and harmonics, meaning that it is able to entrain any part of the body through forced resonance, as needed. The gong is also a powerful brainwave entrainer, slowing listeners’ brainwaves to Alpha, Theta or even Delta frequencies, bringing them into a meditative, trance or blissful state. Gongs have a fundamental tone, which functions in a similar way to a fixed tonic. The difference tones that cause the effect of binaural beats are also present when two gongs are entrained together. When this happens, these difference tones manifest as extremely low frequencies (ELFs). These are powerful healing agents that can be felt in the physical body and sensed in the subtle bodies. Finally, as the ichigenkin introduces its player to inner silence, so too there is said to be silence at the heart of the gong tone, ready to bring those who can hear it back in tune with their true nature.
1 Tait, Ashley, An Interview with Ashley Tait in Drury, Ed Sticks and Drones, 2011, ebook location 4378
3 De Ruiter, Dick The Healing Sounds of Didgeridoo: An Invitation to a Personal Spiritual Journey, 2001, page 29
4 Keller, Dameon, Michael Sounds Great! The Spiritual Science of Sound and Vibration Volume II, 2015
5 Steiner, Rudolf Music: Mystery, Art and the Human Being, 2016
6 Keller, Dameon, Michael, ibid
7 Caton, Margaret, L. Hafez: Erfan and Music as Interpreted by Ostad Morteza Varzi, 2008, page 8
8 Wilburg, Peter The Little Book of Hara, 2011, ebook location 374
9 Khan, Hazrat, Inayat The Music of Life, 1988, page 57
10 Raine-Reusch, Randy, The Zen of One String, http://www.asza.com/zenone.shtml