Healing Sound and Depression

Have you heard it, felt it? In the sound of a human voice there may come a wave of healing. Of course, it could also be a scarring knife edge or shriek of pain that can hurt or terrify, but here I want to talk about the power of voice to restore lost harmony. Let’s put it as a question: in your experience can the human voice help move a depressed, disordered being closer to wellness?

The voice, after all, comes from deep sources. It finely carries the emotions, reflects the slightest change of feeling, broadcasts the intention of a speaker and can load the simplest words with complicated meanings. It is a big part of all the nonverbal bonds we form with people that are the real basis of relationships

Once I heard a speaker of the Dine (Navajo) Nation give a prayer and blessing to a conference room packed with almost one thousand people. He sent his prayer out slowly at first, the English words and separate phrases clear, much as you would hear in any invocation, but then he picked up the pace, building to a chant in the rapid rhythm and intonation of a ceremonial singer.

The single words and phrases blended into a stream of stirring sound. It was mesmerizing, transforming something palpable inside me. I felt a kind of vibration in my bones that seemed to come through this speaker’s voice from a source far more ancient than anything his suit-and-tie appearance would suggest. The resonant voice flowed in waves, awakening hidden awareness in me that responded, unwilled, with its own silent reverberations and matched the harmonic of the incoming prayer. In a surprising conversion of experience, I felt this blessing and entered a timeless spiritual moment in the midst of the most ordinary of conference rooms within a vast and sterile convention center.

I had heard, before that moment, the prayers and songs of medicine men performing ceremonies in the high, arid plateaus of the Dine Nation in northern Arizona. But that was the Dine culture in its own setting with ceremonies performed for people in need of their curative powers. I had been a witness, not a participant, focused on the new experience, feeling self-conscious about my different culture. Here the sound and form of Dine chanting had been put into my own language and shifted to a setting I was used to but one completely unlike a place or time of spiritual insight. Caught off guard, I could finally get a sense of what such healing was all about – and this was only from a brief invocation, not the days-long ceremonies where, surrounded by family, friends and many reminders of the harmony of the Dine world, a deep restoration and curing can take place.

The scholars of Dine culture and ceremonies, like Witherspoon and McNeley, have tried to explain Dine beliefs in a metaphysical way, drawing a core set of beliefs from the specific practices they have observed. I can’t do justice to their ideas, but roughly in the beliefs of the Dine, wind is the great creating force of life that has instilled and structured the inner forms and souls of all things. Air is a bearer of knowledge, and the healing songs, in their repetitive patterns, physically order the air and through that medium touch and move the inner life of a troubled person. The songs and chants help reorder and restore the soul to a harmonious beauty that complements the order of the world and Dine society. There are many other dimensions to these ceremonies, but the role of the voice and songs is central to the healing process.

Years ago, I knew many Dine activists who would succumb to the stress of dealing with the Anglo world. They would disappear for a time, then come back, restored and able to work again. What had happened to them in the interval? While never going into detail, they had referred to ceremonies and traditional cures. Doubtless, they had spent time in ceremonies specifically designed to remove the influence of living and working in the alien culture of the Anglo world and restore them to their place in Dine life.

What news does your own voice convey about the state of your feelings and soul? Can we feel a greater inner harmony by using our voices more fully, letting them flow from greater depths? Can we find a way to learn and benefit from the healing uses of voice from other cultures?

I only ask these questions because I have felt the power of the human voice to move me, purely by its rhythms, patterns, intonations even more than by the meaning of the words it carried.

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15 Responses to “Healing Sound and Depression”

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  1. Stephany says:

    Thank you John.

  2. John D says:

    Stephany – Wow, it was worth writing this post just to hear your story. Your daughter singing when she could not talk – the unexpected beauty of the piano – what rich communication that goes way beyond what words alone can do. Music is so direct, so mysterious. I’m glad there can be that kind of connection in spite of the pain that institution has carried. All the best to you!

    merelyme – You’re right – the voice can carry the best and worst in us – calming or disturbing. It really hides nothing. And you’re right on about the comments I receive – like yours – they keep me going! Thank you!

    catatonickid – I never heard that idea about psychotherapy – it makes sense and helps explain the comfort and energy I can get from those sessions. And what you say about moving beyond ourselves through a reading aloud is so true of a voice bearing poetic speech. The words so carefully chosen and harmonized with the underlying thought and feeling come alive through the immediacy of the voice directed at you, surrounding you with that vibrancy of invisible contact. Thank you!


  3. Incredible post!

    I was talking to a friend about a similar idea recently. We were saying how poetry needs to be read aloud to be fully experienced, not just because otherwise it isn’t as it should be but because it can move us beyond ourselves. I think that is, perhaps, like your healing voices here. It is an important idea – this grounding in all we can utter. Psychotherapy, for instance, is partly based in the idea that we can come to know another’s voice so intimately that it can resonate in our own mind and become part of us such that it does indeed help us to heal.

  4. merely me says:


    I like the sound of this! Yes I do believe the human voice is capable of creating healing. How does a mother soothe her baby’s cries, through her gentle coos and songs. There are absolutely some voices which soothe and calm. Yet there are others which send me into a great state of anxiety. Anyhow…great post as usual. Your posts are thought provoking as well as the comments you receive.

  5. Stephany says:

    A very healing power for me has been my 3 children singing in choir concerts, and with instruments, such as violin, cello, piano. When feeling really low, my entire spirit is lifted when I hear them sing or play an instrument. Though they are not at home now, one of my 3 20something daughters resides at a residential care facility with other people who have high needs and mental illness.
    The most amazing musicians reside there with her (including her, a pianist).

    This is about non-verbal communication. When people have words, to express, but cannot say them.

    My daughter has been so ill many times that she could not communicate at all. I would sing songs to her that were familiar and often leave part of it for her to “end the phrase” and she would. We would sing for long periods of time, where she could not speak, but she could sing to me.

    The same goes for some of the clients where she lives. There are days when I am blessed to have one client play the most amazing piano for me.

    I could be feeling like my life is at the end of the rope of hope and this person plays exquisite piano, and the world just becomes clear, and grounded for me. I leave there often with a smile on my face after those piano recitals, rather than tears.

    It’s a magical moment, that I would never have imagined me having in my lifetime of school recitals. To find it at a residential care facility that was never expected to be in my life: that is why it is healing for me.

    • Avwerosuo says:

      what really helps me is forcing myself to get up, get out and get myself surrounded by friends it’s really hard at first, you don’t want to do it, but you have to make yourself and by the end of the day/night/whatever you feel a hundred times better

  6. Anon for now says:

    Didn’t mean to score through “young grandma age.” Apparently I’m misusing double dashes. :-{

  7. Anon for now says:

    Wow, I learn so much from all of you!

    John, I wish I could remember what was behind my auntie’s adoption. She was an adult — young grandma age — and was living near (or on?) the reservation for a year or two. I know her Dine family had a healing ceremony done for her for a serious physical ailment; I don’t recall how long the ceremony lasted. Sorry, no story.

    Brenda, I also love your memory. My dad used to sing each of us kids our own lullaby on weekend nights when I was little. I can’t hear his voice any longer (he died 20 years ago), but the tune and lyrics are still in my head.

    John, that phrase — the inner violence that stirs so many of us. That sounds like a blog post in itself.

  8. John D says:

    Anon for Now – Your comment is so interesting – yes, I started to work with the voice when I did some acting in my late teens and twenties. As you say of the singing voice, you have to be grounded, centered to project from a deep place that can carry emotion with modulation. Thanks for the tip about the book. And your aunt is certainly right – the ceremonies go on for days at a time in some cases. Sometime, I hope you’ll share the story of how she came to be adopted by a Dine family.

    Brenda – How wonderful that memory is – your description conveys that feeling of peace and contentment the voice can bring about when it comes from a spiritual place. It takes an amazing soul to be clear and whole enough to have such a voice free of the inner violence that stirs so many of us. Thank you so much!

  9. John D says:

    isabella – Thank you for your comment – and thank you for this award. It will certainly take me a while to narrow down the blog list to seven, but I’m working at it.

  10. John D says:

    Alex – Thank you! I’ve never read anything relating to the Baha’i faith, so thank you for this quotation. It’s quite beautiful and gets so well at the spiritual power not just of speech but also of the Name.

  11. beautiful, as always. just reading it gave me a feeling of depth and groundedness.

    john, i sent an award your way – here: http://www.moritherapy.org/article/just-brilliant/

  12. Brenda says:

    I find this interesting because as a child I derived comfort and something more from my father’s nightime recitation of a benediction. My dad was, as the time, studying to be a minister. He had a wonderful speaking voice which always grew deeper as evening turning into nighttime. It was a combination of that voice, the pace and pattern of the prayer, perhaps my father’s own unquestioning belief in the prayer, as well as the imagery of the words themselves that made this a welcome ritual of serenity for me. As a toddler I would beg for this benediction, calling it the “Pon-you” after two words I heard from this line: may his [God’s] face shine upon you … and give you his peace.

    My father’s words were music, poetry and prayer. And I feel a sense of serenity just thinking of it again!

  13. Anon for now says:

    Even as a child, singing was my way of expressing that everything was all right in my (inner) world.

    Singing requires the flow of breath. Healthy singing requires the singer to be relaxed, centered, grounded. It requires a certain trust in one’s Self.

    Here’s a book that might be of interest: The Healing Voice: Traditional & Contemporary Toning, Chanting & Singing, by Joy Gardner-Gordon; Crossing Press.

    My (Anglo) auntie was adopted as an adult by a Dine family. She said the Dine ceremonies you refer to include hours/days of chanting/singing.

    I wish I could have heard/experienced that invocation. What a blessing.

  14. Wonderful post! I shared it on FriendFeed and Twitter…

    It also made me find a quote I’d remembered about your topic:

    “O My Name! Utterance must needs possess penetrating power. For if bereft of this quality it would fail to exert.  199  influence. And this penetrating influence dependeth on the spirit being pure and the heart stainless. Likewise it needeth moderation, without which the hearer would be unable to bear it, rather he would manifest opposition from the very outset. And moderation will be obtained by blending utterance with the tokens of divine wisdom which are recorded in the sacred Books and Tablets. Thus when the essence of one’s utterance is endowed with these two requisites it will prove highly effective and will be the prime factor in transforming the souls of men. This is the station of supreme victory and celestial dominion. Whoso attaineth thereto is invested with the power to teach the Cause of God and to prevail over the hearts and minds of men.”

    (Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 198)

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