Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Virtual Book Tour - Excerpt from Chapter 7, The Sage Age

Science Excerpt - Chapter 7 - Sound, Light and Time Sound

In this section, we’ll explore how the natural harmonic series is created and how sound is treated differently in the East and West. By examining the common roots of ancient musical scales we can see how each culture’s belief system affected what they considered to be sonically acceptable. Initially, the production of sound, especially by means of the voice or an instrument, was considered to have cosmic or even divine connections. The purpose here is to show how the split in the belief systems between East and West is documented through sound as it relates to music.

Since ancient times, sound has been regarded as a source of creation. According to Hebrew texts, God created the heavens and the Earth and everything therein by simply speaking them into existence. The ancient Chinese believed that the cosmos reverberated with a sound called Kung from which the physical world was created and sustained. Hinduism asserts a similar belief of an inaudible sound called the Divine Vibration that is reflected by the utterance of the sound OM during meditation. The ancient Egyptians believed the god Ra spoke the name of a thing and it came to be.

Like the Hindu, they uttered a sacred word that aligned them with the divine and it was AMN, which became the modern day Amen. The Australian Aborigines believe that we “sing” the world into being and that we are creating as we name things.1 The Aborigines also believe that they are guided on their walkabouts by an invisible map they call “songlines.”2

All ancient cultures on Earth eventually developed some type of orthodox musical system consisting of standardized pitches and intervals. Archeological records of instruments found either intact or in carvings or paintings affirm that every culture was aware of some form of pentatonic scale. As its name suggests, the pentatonic scale consists of five notes. While there might be a supernatural or metaphysical connection to account for how each culture came to this same conclusion, there is a very simple and down to earth explanation for it as well.

Let’s take a mythical journey back to a time when humans lived in caves and imagine how sound might have become sacred music in the first place. Caves are reverberant spaces. The hard, smooth rock walls would reflect or echo any sound produced inside the cave. Never having heard an echo, Bruno, our first-time cave dweller, was disconcerted by this phenomenon every time he made a sound and thought perhaps other people or creatures in the cave had created the returning sounds.

But after some time he figured out that it was the sound of his own voice being reflected by the cave walls. As part of a ritual blessing of his new surroundings, he made sounds and gestures to ward off any harmful spirits and made the cave his own. Then, to encourage beneficial spirits to come protect him in his new home he made one long sustained sound. Suddenly the faint echo of women’s voices began to emerge from the cave. This startled Bruno, but he accepted it as the voices of the spirits who had answered him. What our mythical Bruno experienced might well have been the beginnings of musical harmony.

All tones can produce harmonics. When one vibrant note is sustained in close, reflective surroundings such as a cave, a standing wave is created. This intensifies the volume of the sound. The delayed echoes begin to interfere with the standing wave and a new sound is created, namely the second harmonic. The reason it might have sounded like a woman’s voice to Bruno was because it was an octave higher than his own voice. In musical terms, Bruno’s original note is called the root, the first or the tonic of the scale. The sound he heard being produced by the reflective properties of the cave is called the octave. If Bruno sounded the tonic and his female companion sounded the octave, it is very likely that they would produce enough sonic energy for the third harmonic to emerge, which would be the dominant or the fifth of the scale. Again, it would sound to them like an ethereal woman’s voice, very high and very faint. It is not difficult to imagine why prehistoric folks might have considered this phenomenon and these sounds sacred. They may have even considered the cave sacred for a time because although the phenomenon is easily reproduced, the size of the cave determines which note will generate a standing wave in it. So, if Bruno sounded the same note in a different cave, he would have heard an echo, but may not have been able to conjure a standing wave that produced the type of audible overtones mentioned above. If he were adventuresome and curious, he might have by trial and error discovered the proper note to sound which would produce a standing wave in the new cave. Historically, we know that humans did figure out this relationship and the mathematical record of this discovery can be found in the design of the interior structure in the great European cathedrals. Even before the advent of mathematics this geometric relationship was sonically discovered by every culture on Earth. It is also why modern folks still get a kick out of singing in the shower stall or empty subway station too. Even if standing waves are not produced, the multiple echoes deliver a rich harmonic environment. It just feels good to be surrounded by those sounds.

It’s not likely that cave singing was the method that led to the discovery of the entire series of harmonics which served as the source for the pentatonic scale. An incredible amount of sonic energy would have to be produced to summon harmonics in caves or other reverberant spaces and the harmonics would be so much fainter than the original sounds it’s likely that they would have been lost in all the echoes. Not to mention the fact that it takes a well-trained ear to hear above the sixth harmonic; something Bruno probably had not yet developed. It wasn’t until the advent of stringed instruments that a more scientific and mathematical approach to sound was taken.

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Malcolm R. Campbell said...

Enjoyable introduction to the role of sound.


MaAnna Stephenson said...

Thanks, Malcolm. There is a full article on the Harmonics of Sound on the Articles page of The Sage Age site at, if you are interested in reading more.

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