Tuneful Bones

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Singing is a whole body activity. It involves resonating chambers in the belly, mouth, chest, head and throat, various articulators—teeth, tongue, lips—and the structural support of the spine, shoulders, knees, neck and so on. The more practiced and seasoned the voice, the more fully engaged and holistic the system. King David is known in biblical folklore as a masterful, accomplished and mellifluous singer. It is therefore fitting to find this lyric placed in his mouth: “All my bones will say, ‘Lord, who is like You?’” (Ps. 35:10).

Located in a psalm petitioning the deity for deliverance from foes, this phrase is meant to stress the severity of the situation and the intensity of the plea. “All my bones” is a poetic euphemism for the whole body, and to “say” really means to sing. Thus, we have a psalmist, identified as David, using his entire body—his complete instrument—to sing an entreaty for victory (in this case against foreign armies on the field of battle).

Less musically sensitive commentaries focus on the thematic context of the verse, understanding it to signify that the author’s bones thrill at the idea of justice being served and fearful circumstances being attenuated. But a reader aware of the physical effects of singing sees the words quite differently. The singer’s body, down to the bones, is vibrating with melody.

The religious intent of the verse opens the door to further exploration. Enter Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), famed Austrian philosopher and esotericist. Much of Steiner’s work strove to find a synthesis between science and mysticism and, more specifically, between the cognitive approach of Western philosophy and the spiritual needs of the human being. This venture led to some imaginative theories, including his concept of “universal tone.”

Steiner believed singing to be more than a physical process. It begins with physiology and technique, but “must be freed from a mechanistic approach and the singer awakened to an understanding of true tone as a spiritual reality.” In Steiner’s vocabulary, “true tone” refers to an oscillating spiritual energy present throughout the universe, which is carried into our ears and penetrates our inner being. So, when the singer emits a melody, she is actually reflecting back the sound of the universe. Steiner put it thus: “the singer [has] the all-engrossing experience of the whole being as a ‘resounding column of sound.’ The entire etheric organization of the human being—all of his life forces—then becomes involved in the singing process.”

The parallel between Steiner’s elucidation and the verse from Psalms is obvious. In both, the entirety of the person is said to sing. For the psalmist, this was an intuitive feeling—a feeling intensified by the gravity of circumstances and the urgency of the song. Steiner saw it as a metaphysical resonance with the cosmos: the singer is filled with the universal tone, takes hold of it and produces a song.

Not insignificantly, Steiner maintained that great singers are prone to this experience; they are trained and expert in the art of full-body singing. Someone like David, the vocal legend of the biblical world, would have attained this feeling regularly—especially when the song really mattered. But Steiner was optimistic that anyone could, with proper orientation and preparation, sing from the bones. “Now the path to it must become conscious for all,” he wrote. “Not that we can all become professional singers, but we can all learn how to sing well. This is one way to help us find our humanity.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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