The Healing Power of Song

Michael Stillwaterby Michael Stillwater

Nearly two-and-a-half centuries ago, Plato wrote:

Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.

This timeless passage reminds us how few remain immune to the power of music and song. Even the coolest demeanor can be undone by the impact of a well-crafted melody or soulfuly-delivered tune.

Neuro-Physical Effects

While the power of music to touch the soul is both existential and subjective, its effects on our physical and mental activity have been well-researched. According to The Power of Sound, (Healing Arts Press), music triggers at least three neuro- physical processes:

1. Music moves through the brain’s auditory cortex directly to the center of the limbic system. It can help create new neuropathways in the brain as well.

2. Music activates the flow of stored memory and imagined material across the corpus collosum (the bridge between the left and right hemispheres of the brain) helping the two work in harmony.

3. Music excites peptides in the brain and stimulate the production of endorphins, which are natural opiates secreted by the hypothalamus, which elevates mood and emotion.

Brain Function is Enhanced

Paul Hoffman, creator of ‘Success Songs’, writes “The brain itself vibrates at four different frequencies. That’s why musical vibrations can enhance your brain functions. It has be proved that music music can:”

  • Spark your creativity
  • Increase your productivity
  • Lift your emotional state
  • Relax and calm you
  • Inspire and activate that desire to succeed within you
  • Create the mindsets needed to follow your passion

When enriched with music, learning is exponentially easier – a proven phenomenon witnessed when working with children. How did we learn our alphabet if not by singing it?

The infectious nature of music is evidenced in numerous ways- have you ever struggled unsuccessfully to unhook an advertising jingle, TV theme or pop song chorus that became looped inside your head?

Finding My Song – An Artist’s Perspective

In sharing examples from my musical life, I hope to illuminate some of these qualities.

I wrote my first song while strumming two chords on my mother’s Silvertone-Sears own musical instrument brand. Being left-handed, I reversed the strings within minutes of trying to play the ‘right’ way. This also temporarily abolished my mother’s guitar playing- until I bought my own guitar and returned her string arrangement to ‘normal’.

My first sing-along was in a high school hallway, during school hours- a song I had written about reincarnation and the journey of the soul- much to the consternation of the vice-principle. When I reported to his office to explain myself, our world-views couldn’t have been more disparate – as Bill would say, we had significantly different maps of reality.

Moving from D.C. to California in 1970 for my senior high school year, I remember singing Neil Young’s ‘Down By the River (I Shot My Baby)’ for the umpteenth time in a Saratoga coffeehouse. In the midst of the performance it dawned on me that I didn’t shoot my baby- and had no intention to!

I made a conscious decision that night, simultaneously shaping my music and life path- to tell my story in song, and sing words aligning with what I wanted for myself and others. (I share this with full appreciation of Neil for his superb songwriting gift!)

Thirsty for spiritual and artistic development, I studied composition with W.A. Mathieu, arranger for Stan Kenton and director of the Sufi Choir, with further studies at the University of Oregon. I still wanted to impress people by playing speedy lead guitar, elaborate chords and clever rhymes. My momentum in this direction, however, was thankfully curtailed when my heart washed ashore upon the sweet coast of devotional chanting.

My first experience of chanting in English was with the devotional songs of Paramahamsa Yogananda, author of ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’. Prior to this encounter, I was only familiar with Sanskrit bhajans and Gregorian chant. To realize chants could be created and sung in English was a revelation I quickly adopted and began to share in small groups. The current widespread appreciation of chant was a rarity then- 1972 was an adventurous time of innovation in the world of contemporary devotional singing.

Singing and Spiritual Awareness

In bringing together singing and spiritual practice, it is essential that the lyrics reflect the clearest awareness that a songwriter is capable of. I ultimately realized that for me there were two recurring themes:

a) the perspective of the individual soul in relationship with the Divine, with others, with the world;
b) the perspective of the One, the undivided Self at peace with Itself.

Contained in the first theme are songs of duality, relationship and journey, the yearning for returning, leaving and coming home, struggles and resolving struggles, human conditions of sorrow and joy. 10,000 joys and 10,000 tears. Songs expressing the second theme are non-dualistic, ‘advaita’, mantric, the acceptance in which there is no coming home because we’re already home, devotional yet impersonal.

While spiritual practice is predominantly an inward affair, shared practice fulfills the innate impulse for connection. A core motivator for my music has been to connect with others in a deeper way, leading to ecstatic immersion in choral harmony. Singing lyrics of affirmation and inner reflection became a practice for cultivating the remembrance of this connection.

When practicing in an acoustically ‘live’ environment, a space designed for singing in which all voices are naturally amplified with a slight echo (high ceilings, wood and glass surfaces) – the experience of chant, of singing into and from the heart, bestows a benign intoxication innately known to all cultures throughout the ages- transforming the mind from mundane to mystery, from linear thinking to spherical awareness of joyful wonder.

Integrating Singing Into Your Practice

If you are on a path of inner growth (and if you’ve read this far, it is likely the answer is a ‘yes’), I encourage you to integrate singing into your practice. When people gather to sing, join in. Don’t let anything, whether fear of other’s judgment or your own self-criticism, keep you from cultivating your voice as an instrument for your own healing, joy and freedom.

Be inspired. Whatever can help you open to the song inside of you, do it. Hear my video message, The Song of Home
Let your spiritual awareness and your singing voice unite. Listen to ChantWave, O Great Spirit, and a hundred more of my recorded chants and healing songs at www.innerharmony.com
Listen to songs of healing, empowerment, reconciliation and awakening at The Honoring. (these are all spontaneous, created in response to a request)

In summary, singing has been a major part of my life and spiritual path; I encourage you to consciously use your voice to open your heart. It is inspirational, healing, fun, and a great way of connecting to yourself and others.

With so many great singers in the world, why bother to add your voice? Why not just listen and keep quiet? Why risk being criticized for a voice that isn’t like those you hear on the radio, CD or stage?

Of course, it’s up to you. But remember one thing before you decide to withhold your voice from life.

Each person’s voice is unique, like a fingerprint. This is why a person’s voice can digitally identify them.

Each voice is special. Without your voice added to the mix, life is less colorful. Like a species endangered to extinction, if you choose to withhold your voice, the world has virtually lost the singular species of your unique sound.

Indigenous cultures believe a day without singing is unnatural as a day without breathing.

In a recent study conducted by brain researcher Prof. Manfred Spitzer of Ulm, Germany, new nerve cells were discovered to form by engaging actively in music. The study concluded that it doesn’t matter if you sing in the shower or play concert piano – music de-activates those places in the brain designed for fear and stress. The climate of making music is the ideal place for these nerve cells to develop.

What’s important here is that it’s not enough to simply listen to music – it’s by actively participating that the new growth occurs!

Have you ever heard kids playing with their voice, inventing songs by themselves or with each other? Or remember yourself doing it? Or perhaps you have made up songs for your own kids, when you thought no one else is listening. If you belong to this special band of voice rebels, those who didn’t pay attention when the announcement was passed to stop singing and keep quiet, you are already ahead of the game.

Many years ago I discovered the joy of spontaneous song creation. Over time, I developed SongCare, composing and recording new songs on guitar and voice in the presence of the recipient.

I discovered that in times of major transition, when we are most vulnerable, we are also often most open to hearing something new, something different- we are more open for change, and for knowing deeply who we are.

This method of spontaneous songwriting has led to a hospice ministry, singing songs of comfort, healing and reflection in preparation for a person’s homeward journey. The recording ‘Graceful Passages: A Companion for Living and Dying’ was produced together with Emmy-award winning composer Gary Malkin as a further expression of this intention- to reduce anxiety around dying, and support the meaningful conversations that want to occur.

I have also offered this spontaneous musical service for:

  • pregnant couples and the birthing process
  • people with chronic illness, creating medicine songs to help move through their condition with courage, faith and trust in the process.
  • couples entering the initiation of marriage, celebrating an anniversary, or traversing difficult relational waters. seeking
  • one’s soulmate
  • seeking one’s vocation.
  • Healthcare practitioners

In the last few years I began offering these song-portraits in groups, called SongCircles. If you would like to experience this unique artform, I will create and record a song on CD for you. Or if you are ready to release your voice, come to ChantWave, a universal practice for opening the heart. Whatever you do, keep singing!

Michael Stillwater is an award-winning musical artist, inspirational educator and co-creator of Graceful Passages: A Companion for Living and Dying and Care for the Journey: Music and Messages for Sustaining the Heart of Healthcare. He has been the featured musical artist at Centerpointe retreats since 1994. He lives in Zurich, Switerland with his wife, contemplative psychotherapist (also presenting at Centerpointe Retreats), Doris Laesser Stillwater. He tours the USA twice a year, Spring and Fall. On his website you can listen to his music, download MP3s, order CDs, register for an OnSite or TeleSong session, learn about his tour schedule or contact him – go to www.innerharmony.com

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