Sacred Space, Sacred Sound: The Acoustic Mysteries of Holy Places

Sacred Space, Sacred Sound: The Acoustic Mysteries of Holy Places

by Susan Elizabeth Hale

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Together we stood in awe in the Gallery of Bulls in the prehistoric cave of Lascaux. No more words. No more questions. Only five trembling humans, strangers from different countries, forever linked to this place…Sounds rose from within. The cave was telling me how to sing…I heard an echo, my voice reflected back by the bison, no longer just my voice, but


Together we stood in awe in the Gallery of Bulls in the prehistoric cave of Lascaux. No more words. No more questions. Only five trembling humans, strangers from different countries, forever linked to this place…Sounds rose from within. The cave was telling me how to sing…I heard an echo, my voice reflected back by the bison, no longer just my voice, but the bison’s voice, the voice of the cave itself.

There is a fundamental human need to create sacred spaces where sound reverberates to commune with the ancestors and give praise to the Divine. Ancient people recognized the importance of sound and sought out resonant caves to perform rituals. Modern-day temples and cathedrals were built to enhance sound and music. We build sacred places to house music, to hear ourselves and Spirit more clearly, and to create relationship between the seen and the unseen worlds within and around us.

"The voice itself is a cathedral," says Susan Hale, author of Sacred Space, Sacred Sound. "We are sound chambers resonating with the One Song." The first of its kind to approach sacred architecture from a perspective of sound and consciousness, this book explores the acoustics of sacred space as an avenue for understanding. It is about music powerful enough to transform us into a greater reality. Based on Susan’s life-long experience as a singer, 27 years as a music therapist, and 10 years of journeys across the globe researching sacred sites, this work discusses the desecration and disharmony of our current world while demonstrating how people are building new sacred sites with resonant qualities.

Starting with a vision to follow the Virgin Mary—also called the Lady of Roses—and her music, Susan takes us on a spiritual journey through France, the United Kingdom, and parts of the American Southwest—from the Chartres Cathedral and the prehistoric cave of Lascaux, to the Templar-built Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, the Chalice Well of Arthurian lore at Glastonbury, and back on domestic soil to the native kivas in New Mexico. Susan compares different styles of worship through the perspective of music and architecture, focusing on a range of religious traditions including Gregorian chant, overtone chanting, Hindu mantra, and English evensong. She also illustrates the importance of sound in achieving altered states of consciousness for transformation, healing, and prayer. Featuring interviews with leading authorities on the acoustic resonance of sacred space, a discography and suggested listening at the end of several chapters, this book gives us the tools to find our own sacred voice.

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Sacred Space, Sacred Sound

The Acoustic Mysteries of Holy Places

By Susan Elizabeth Hale

Theosophical Publishing House

Copyright © 2007 Susan Elizabeth Hale
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8356-3070-2



The strongest, deepest and oldest consciousness is sound consciousness. —Iegor Reznikoff

In the Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies, I stand before a Venus of Laussel. Les Eyzies is a small village in the Dordogne Region of France. Here, by the Vezere River, cliffs protect a green valley, fertile with prehistoric caves and carvings. It is a place of music. The nightingales sing the praises of the scalloped water lapping the river's shores. In April the earth is upturned and brown as cake awaiting the farmer's seeds. Outside the museum a statue of a caveman greets visitors. Inside, the main attraction, carved out of rosy rock, is the twenty-thousand-year-old Venus that holds a hand over her pregnant belly. Like the land of the Dordogne, she is a cornucopia of waiting life. Her vulva and legs form the shape of an "M." She holds an upturned bison's horn with thirteen marks on its moonlike crescent, symbolic of the moon's phases. She seems to say this is where to begin—here in a woman's pregnant body, in the mysteries and miracles of birth. This is where we become music.

Our mother's womb is the first space we know. Heartbeat, breath, mother's voice, father's voice—all filter through and echo the pulse of life and the sounds of the world inside a growing fetus. Cells divide and the blueprint unfolds, recapitulating evolution—fish, mammal, and human. Flesh and bones, spine and skull, a heart that starts to beat at four weeks, lungs, eyes, throat, tongue, and ears all grow within the matrix of our mother. Head, trunk, leg, foot, hand, and arm all follow the proportions of sacred geometry. As we grow we vibrate to the continuous pulsing of our mother's veins and arteries.

The inner ear is complete at four-and-a-half months in utero, 135 days after conception. The ear starts first at the surface of the skin as a small, gill-like slit. Gradually it burrows, spiraling inward deep down in the petrous portion of the temporal bone. According to Dr. Albert Soesman, this is the hardest bone in the body. Humans are the only mammals in which the inner ear is protected so carefully. This fetal ear is comparable to a fully functioning adult ear. We hear our mother's heartbeat as a steady song. It is our food. If being nourished by sound were not a fundamental need, why else would we hear so soon and so well?

In many of the world's mythologies, sound generates life. Perhaps we are encoded with a knowing of the primary importance of sound before birth. In utero, an aural field is created that keeps our growing body in place. Mother's heartbeat and breath entrain us with a steady pulse to lock in our own inherent patterns. Our senses develop out of the matrix of the ear. Touch, taste, smell, and sight all have their foundations in the ear, which, as Dr. Branford Weeks states, "precedes the nervous system." In evolutionary terms, hearing is at least three hundred million years old.

Sound is necessary to feed the brain, to help it create neural pathways. According to Alfred Tomatis, a French physician, psychologist, and educator, "a primary function of the ear is to charge the brain with electric potential." The brain is charged through the cells of Corti in the inner ear, where they transform sound waves into electrical input. It is this process that tones and tunes the nervous system.

Of all the sense organs, the ear comes first to nourish the brain. All the brain cells a person will ever have are in place by the fifth month in utero. After that, neurons grow larger and become insulated, and millions upon millions of connections are made. And all of them begin with the heartbeat, breath, mother's voice, father's voice, heard deep within that first sacred space of the womb.

During birth we receive the imprint of our entire body surface as we pass through the vagina. The skin, the body's largest organ, is an extension of the ear. In the birth canal we "hear" with our skin as well as our ears. Our sound- body is mapped. Our mother's birthing sounds help her cervix to open and vibrate her pelvic bones. We hear these sounds before coming into the world, before air enters our lungs for our first cry. As newborns, we orient to the sound of our parents' voices, which we had heard inside the womb as a steady presence. Now these voices are heard outside the body, through air, rather than inside through liquid. The shift between hearing in one medium and another is so intense that Tomatis calls it a "sonic labor."

At a friend's invitation, I attended the birth of her daughter. As the newborn Connie nursed for the first time, her mother cooed with delight, pouring sounds over her that flowed as easily as the milk did. I was reminded of Tomatis, who believes that the sound issuing from our mother's mouth spreads over our bodies like liquid. Syllables wash over us. He says the "entire body surface marks their progress through the skin's sensitivity, as if controlled by a keyboard that is receptive to acoustic touch." He thinks it is through hearing our mother's sounds, songs, and words that we acquire a body image.

And we move to the sound of her music. Studies by Boston University Professors W. S. Condon and W. Ogston show that as soon as twenty minutes after birth a baby's movements are determined by its mother's speech. One of a baby's first sounds is humming while nursing. This sound is universal to humans and animals alike.

A woman rancher who helps bring calves and sheep into the world gave a poetry reading I attended. She said that the bonding of cows and sheep with their babies is not always immediate. When the mother is ready to bond she bellows an "Mmm" just short of a "Moo." When the newborn calf is ready to bond with her it echoes her. This is true of sheep as well. Newborn lambs echo their mothers with a soft gurgling hum. For babies in Western culture, "Mmm" becomes Mama. For babies in Tibet, it becomes Mo, in China Ma, in India Amma, in Albania Nana, in Spanish Madre, in France Mere, in Germany Mutter, in Denmark Mor, in Arabia Omi, in Estonia Ema, in Navajo Shima. Mother is also matter. "Mother, mater, matter, matrix, meter and measure all have the same root."

Our mother defines our sense of place. After we are housed in her womb, we are held within the circle of her arms. As we begin to crawl, and later walk, we are held within the sound of her voice. Her voice measures the space we inhabit.

A woman in one of my classes invited me to sing at her child's birth. She wanted my vocal support during labor. Hearing how her sounds mirrored her body and how they created a space inside for her baby to pass through, I learned more about the voice in those seven hours than in any of my voice lessons. When she was resting I was silent or hummed. She sounded through each contraction and I added my own voice to give her strength. When the baby, Mikaela, was born she was handed to me and I sang a melody that emanated from this warm presence in my arms. Mikaela is five now. She says she remembers when I sang at her birth.

Birth and song belong to an ancient tradition. The Australian Aborigines, whose culture is 150,000 years old, believe that spirit children are deposited on the earth through the chanting of the Dreamtime Ancestors. An Aboriginal woman conceives by stepping on one of these songs. The spirit child on that spot enters into her womb. The woman remembers the exact location and informs the elders. This is the conception site and belongs to the person who will be born; it is where the child's essence resides.

In East Africa there is a tribe that literally sings a child into being. When a woman decides she wants to bear a child with a particular man, she goes out alone in nature and listens for the song of the child she wishes to birth. After receiving the song she goes back to the village and teaches this song to the father. They sing it together as they make love. After conception, the mother sings to her child in the womb. As birth draws near, she teaches the song to the midwives and old women who have come to assist. They welcome the child into the world with its special song. The song is later sung at all the important ceremonies that mark its life—naming, puberty, and marriage. At death the song is sung one last time. Just as the body returns to spirit, the song returns to the air. I believe song creates the template for the soul to enter at birth and to leave at death.


In some cultures the infant is presented to the earth to receive her imprint before being handed to its mother. In Australia the Aboriginal midwife shapes out a hollow depression in the earth. Here the mother squats to give birth. Like the conception site, the place of a child's birth "will shape his identity and his ritual obligation for the rest of his life."

In the Rio Grande Pueblos of New Mexico, a song is sung by the person who first takes the child from its mother, placing the newborn on the earth. The song is a blessing so that the child may have good thoughts of the Earth Mother, "the food giver."

The texture and smell of the earth's touch become part of the child's imprint, part of its knowing. The word human comes from humus, the earth. Even if our own birth was not welcomed in this way, these rituals are part of our collective memory. Even though we live in a culture that does not honor the earth as Mother, we know it to be true in the deepest strata of our being.

Womb. Mother. Earth. Body. These are sacred places, long denied in modern culture but essential to the roots of our existence. Every millisecond of every day, miracles happen within and around us. We are alive. Our hearts beat. We breathe. The stapedius muscle that moves one of the tiny bones in the middle ear never rests. Our ears never sleep. Outside, birds sing and we are tuned by their particular songs each spring. Here, at my home in Arroyo Seco, the meadow lark wakes me up. Each April frogs return and start singing.

The ear is primary; it registers ten octaves. The eye registers only one, the vibrational wavelengths of the color spectrum. "Almost all cranial nerves lead to the ear.... The ear also has a fascinating tie in to the tenth cranial nerve or the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is literally responsible for our gut reactions, since it is the link between the automatic functions of the internal organs and the brain."

What we hear stirs us. We are moved to sing. This human impulse starts at the place of listening. When we feel pain, we groan and sing the blues. When we are heartsore, we wail with grief. When we are in awe, we give praise. Sometimes life is so beautiful and mysterious we have no words; only sound and song will express what we feel.

As babies we come into this world with sound. We cry and coo immediately. First we make only vowel sounds. At six months we begin to babble, adding consonants to our repertoire. At one year we begin to speak and sing spontaneously. Around two the larynx drops down into the throat and our vocabulary jumps to over fifty words. Between two and two-and-a-half years of age, we can sing fragments of songs, not always accurately. By three we can converse using more than a thousand words and sing many song fragments with accuracy. Remember some of your earliest songs? Or the songs you now sing to your children or grandchildren? Many, like the nursery rhyme "Rain, Rain, Go Away," start with the descending minor third, which is heard when the first two words are sung. It is the first interval that is learned regardless of culture and so seems encoded into us.

By four we sing song phrases in different keys, but can sing accurate pitches within each phrase. By five-and-a- half we can sing whole songs accurately.

A friend emailed me a story about his four-and-a-half-year-old daughter. As she sat on his lap while he was working at the computer, she began to sing spontaneously. He was so amazed by the song he stopped what he was doing and wrote down the words:

Everyday goes by and by for eternity.
Everyday you go past a lazy boy or a lazy girl.
Love to be sound and love to be not.
Who wants to be everyday?
Everyday I will help your love to be true.
Everyday you go dumpity dump, dumpity dump, dumpity dump.
Everyday you go past a merry fellow.
Would you take up your truth?
Everyday you go past a loving soul.

It is thought that, as early humans, we chanted for perhaps half a million years before we talked. "Researchers have found that about two-thirds of the cilia—the thousands of minute hairs in the inner ear that lie on a flat plane like piano keys and respond to different frequencies of sound—resonate only at the higher 'musical' frequencies (3,000 to 20,000 hertz), indicating that, at one time, human beings probably communicated primarily through song or tone."

We began in the Pleistocene Age, some two hundred thousand years ago. But, in fact, "our genome—the sum of an individual's genetic material ... is the product of millions of years of evolution." These are the biological facts of who we are, each the product of a hundred million mysteries.



The ways of making are indeed wondrous—the child born of its mother, the sun rolling into the sky, the song rising from the lips, the world springing from the word of god. —Normandi Ellis

We are filled with daily miracles. The temple of the ear, containing the labyrinth of the semicircular canal, orients us in time and space by measuring angular velocity and charting mathematical ratios. We are set in motion by a world that sounds through us, vibrating our atoms, like Aeolian harps singing with the currents of the wind.

We sing through open spaces in our bodies. These resonate with the bones and cavities in our chest and heads, creating a complex web of frequencies that issue from our mouths and into the air around us. If we could see sound in the air, we would see moving patterns that are constantly changing. Each time we sing or speak, a "sonic bubble" leaves our mouths and expands outward at seven hundred miles per hour. British acoustics engineer John Reid says that the "surface of this bubble is a beautifully delicate, kaleidoscopic tracery ... which repeats itself in its harmonic structure. The precise structure of this pattern is unique to each human being."

In theory, Reid says, "the sonic bubble expands forever, like ripples of light which travel through space." However, in reality, it is absorbed by the materials of a building, including the people inside, or by the very fabric of the air. Each material has a different absorption rate. Air, wood, adobe, stone, and concrete all absorb and reflect sound differently. Hard stone surfaces often produce an echoing effect where we hear our voice reflected back to us, often taking us by surprise.


John Reid and I met after John Anthony West suggested I contact him about his sonic research at the Great Pyramid of Giza. I found Reid to be no ordinary scientist. His search for scientific evidence implies a cosmology that resonates with mine, and we share a quest for how sound creates form and shapes consciousness. He makes the science of acoustics come alive.

We were both presenters at a Mensa Conference in Malvern, England. There John gave his world debut demonstrating his Cyma-Scope, a twenty-first century electro-acoustic invention which looks a bit like a six-foot rocket ship. His work is, of course, inspired by that of other scientists: The study of sound creating form began when Hans Jenny, a Swiss scientist, pioneered a study of wave phenomena in the 1950s and called it "Cymatics." Jenny studied and articulated his findings over a fourteen-year period until his death in 1972. He followed in the footsteps of Margaret Watts-Hughes, a Welsh woman, who had begun this work fifty years earlier with her "Eidscope," a device she sang into, thus forming patterns on a sand-strewn India rubber membrane. Both Jenny and Watts-Hughes were inspired by Ernst Chladni, a German scientist who, in 1785, created mandala-like patterns in sand on a steel plate that he vibrated with a violin bow. Jenny's techniques were more sophisticated than those of Chladni or Watts-Hughes because he used a sine wave generator, crystal oscillators, stroboscopes, and other twentieth-century technologies. He investigated liquids, pastes, and powders that, under the influence of vibration, created harmonic shapes. These forms are not static; they exist as long as the vibration exists and change when the vibration changes.

John Reid's research takes the work of these earlier scientists to a new level. His CymaScope has a "super-sensitive thermo plastic membrane, stretched to a precise tension." This membrane can be excited by the human voice, bird song, natural sounds, music, and sacred language, "each sound bearing a unique 'acoustic signature,' or CymaGlyph." At the heart of John's work is an interest in how sound is influenced by sacred space. During his presentation at the Mensa Conference, he invited the audience to make vowel sounds and then watch them magically appear on a screen. When I saw my voice for the first time, I was mesmerized by its changing shapes. At one point there was a petal shape around several concentric circles. With each changing vowel and tone, a new shape appeared. The quartz sand that had been formless and chaotic now took on a beautiful order. John told us that many of the constants of the universe are embedded in these patterns. He showed a slide of a CymaGlyph that he called the "Primordial Egg" generated by a very low frequency sine wave. John believes that life began in the primordial oceans when white noise, from wave action, was filtered by the water, creating an almost pure low-frequency sound at depth. This sound harmonized with low-frequency sounds from hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, thus creating the "sonic spark" that sang life into being on the surface of microscopic bubbles. The patterns of energy that formed on the bubbles had embedded within them the proportions of the golden mean that created a sonic scaffolding in which life could form. After eons of time, the first organisms increased in complexity, eventually "learning" how to replicate themselves in this "nurturing sonic environment."


Excerpted from Sacred Space, Sacred Sound by Susan Elizabeth Hale. Copyright © 2007 Susan Elizabeth Hale. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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