“Hello, darkness, my old friend.” It may seem like an odd way to start an article about sound but these words were the opening to one of the most iconic songs of the latter half of the twentieth century. It may seem like it would have been better suited as the opening for yesterday’s article about meditation but the silence before the song can be very powerful. It prepares us. It calms us. It provides just enough disorientation that when the sound begins, we are instantly grounded.
Often, in our search to find some calm or peace, we encounter chaos. Instead of heavenly sounds we have nerve-racking noise. While most would agree that a general definition of the word “noise” would be something unpleasant, it is interesting that the word comes from two words that had nothing at all to do with sound in general or music in specific. The word comes from a French word which meant seasickness and from a Middle English word meaning to quarrel.
Sound can be defined in a number of ways and there is one meaning that has nothing to do with music or noise and everything to do with strength. Basically, sound is the audible vibrations of air. Based upon the number of vibrations, those sounds are organized into tones. For instance, the note on the piano that is two white keys down from the middle key or Middle “C” has four hundred and forty vibrations per minute. It is called A-440, among other things. A great many factors can influence the exact number of vibrations and the acoustical properties of the room, the number of people within, and a myriad of other factors also affect the sound of a tone. Nonetheless, sound which comes from a word meaning health is the resulting vibration caused by the movement of energy as air moves and encounters objects.
Our beliefs are a great deal like sound waves. Sound waves vibrate in a longitudinal fashion and generally, so do most people’s beliefs. The noise enters when we try to bend the wave or our beliefs. Society has been tempting the faith of mankind for as long as there has been mankind. Daily occurrences are much like the objects the air vibrations encounter and they can and will change us and our implementing of our beliefs. A wave occurs when it is introduced into a medium by a moving or vibration object. Water creates a wave in the ocean when energy moves it. Musical instruments or human vocal cords create sound waves. The frequency or Hertz of a pitch is created by the medium through which the sound travels. Similarly, our faith is affected by our knowledge and living of it.
Our ears are able to detect variations in pitch and our lives illustrate variations in our beliefs. For some, clothing is a sign of being devout. For others, the amount of time spent in prayer demonstrates one’s faithfulness. In some cultures, men are not allowed to shave their beards and in others, moustaches are not allowed. Some religions discourage women from cutting their hair while others believe a woman’s head should be securely and completely covered. These customs are an effort to silence the noise of life so that the sound of the doctrine believed can be heard and followed.
Amid the hustle and bustle of Times Square in New York City, the Harlem Gospel Choir sings every Sunday. From the despair of a prison internment camp in Russia in 1921, the Don Cossack Choir was born and they continue to sing and perform today, being based in Germany. The Taiko Drummers of Japan use their talents to ward off evil spirits at Shinto shrines and temples. The Spanish monks of Santo Domingo de Silos became recording artists with their Gregorian chants. The Vienna Boys Choir and the Kings College Choir are both wonderful ensembles of young boys who provide a joyful noise for the believing and the uncertain.
What is of particular use is that all of these groups represent different lifestyles, ethnicities, and ages and yet, they all provide a sacred sound in spite of the daily noise of life. Perhaps it is the song of a robin or the gentle slumber of a newborn baby that gives you a sense of wonder. Maybe it is the water gently flowing over a rock wall that reminds you of your connection with your beliefs. For some it is the gentle swaying of a tree bough and for others it is the laughter of children.
The sounds of our world afford us reminders that life is indeed sacred and to be prized as a valued possession. However, our beliefs must be more than mere sound waves. Our beliefs must be sound themselves. Plato described music as the “movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue.” One man’s sound is another man’s noise, as the parent of any teenager will attest! We do not all like the same type or genre of music and we should not expect otherwise. We are all unique individuals and our tastes vary greatly. However, through sound we can also realize our commonalities and from there, create our own waves of productive and peaceful energy.
William Penn, a Quaker, believed “True silence is the rest of the mind; it is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.” We need the quiet, the calm, in order to create the sounds of all that is sacred. American author James Thurber believed most men lived lives of “noisy desperation”, an apt metaphor for many of us. We become so caught up in what we think is necessary for living that we completely overlook the sacred. We allow the world to drown out the sacred sounds of our beliefs and, in doing so, make a discordant mockery of our convictions.
William Shakespeare stated: “Music can minister to minds diseased, pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, raze out the written troubles of the brain, and with its sweet oblivious antidote, cleanse the full bosom of all perilous stuff that weighs upon the heart.” The proclaiming of our beliefs in our living and by our living gives a concert of joyful noise to the world. Just as the ear can detect variations of pitch, people can detect when our living does not correspond with our professed spirituality. Our lives are a concert of what we believe. What we say and how we say it is a reflection, an echo of our faith and spirituality.