Harmony, Resonance, Chant and Song

Singing with others is so cool. I can’t sing and am no musician, but when I am using my vocal chords with others in a group, I get a great feeling from it. I have often wondered why. Is there something mystical happening? Something physiological? The scientist in me wants to get to the bottom of this mystery.

I think about this now because I had two great experiences making musical noise with others this week. The first was walking through the forest with two friends and singing old campfire songs. We had fun trying to remember all the verses to “I know an old lady who swallowed a fly” and other old ditties. But the best part was when we were all 3 singing in harmony. I have noticed this before—how when singing in a group everyone’s tones merge into this resonating whole. It feels to me almost like there is a larger force that takes over and pulls my vocal chords in the right direction. It is very cool. There is this vibration you feel too; it is very physical, and makes me feel connected to those I am singing with.

The second experience was at yoga class. One of the instructors I like to go to, Govinddas, includes chanting at the beginning and end of class. Chanting in harmony with a room of 60 people is pretty cool. The vibrations created by than many voices is pretty intense. You seriously feel it in your gut. It’s an incredible feeling to be a small part of such a powerful noise. And it’s all in synch, perfectly harmonized and resonating.

So what is happening physically when people sing together? As I said, I am no musician, so I started with Google. I tried to search “harmonize” and just got a bunch of music instruction sites. Further searching of google and wikipedia led me to the word resonance. And that was all about physics! Jackpot. I am not sure I have this right, but it seems that when we achieve harmony with another voice, it is because we’ve achieved resonance, which means that the sound waves are oscillating at maximum frequency. I quote from Wikipedia,

“A resonant object, whether mechanical, acoustic, or electrical, will probably have more than one resonant frequency (especially harmonics of the strongest resonance). It will be easy to vibrate at those frequencies, and more difficult to vibrate at other frequencies. It will “pick out” its resonant frequency from a complex excitation, such as an impulse or a wideband noise excitation. In effect, it is filtering out all frequencies other than its resonance.”

So I think that what is happening is that we humans are picking out that resonant frequency at which it is easiest. (But what is vibrating? Vocal chords? Our whole bodies?) Now, how that may translate to the feelings I have when this resonance occurs is another question. This is just the beginning of a question. No answers here. But I did find this article:Quantum AUM, which seems to try and make some of the connections between the physical, physiological, and the spiritual that I am implying must exist. Anyone with any insight on this, please enlighten me!

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One response to “Harmony, Resonance, Chant and Song

  1. Follow up: There is an article in today’s NY Times about the guy whose job it is to play the oldest violins in Cremona, Italy in order to keep them fit. (“Fingers That Keep the Most Treasured Violins Fit” June 3, 2007, NYT)
    They don’t explain why in the article, but the idea is that violins need exercise just like we do: “A violin, it turns out, needs to be played, just as a car needs to be driven and a human body shooed off the couch.”
    I couldn’t help thinking that the vibrations created by the music keep the instrument in shape, feed it, keep it alive. A coworker of mine, who is an art conservator, once explained to me that wood is alive. It breathes and responds to its environment. Just like us, maybe the vibrations created by the resonance of the music revives the molecules in the wood…?

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