Category Archives: fear

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.

Songs of Derision

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Song is a forceful implanter of information. Whether we want it to or not, a properly proportioned and memorably melodious tune can mold our thoughts long after the music has ceased. Because music imbues words with emotional content and fastens them into memory, song is an invaluable and penetrating purveyor of opinion. There is no shortage of studies and anecdotes espousing the aptness of melody for communicating (and manipulating) viewpoints and ideas. Rhythm, repetition, tempo, pattern and other devices act as tools of indoctrination, reiterating convictions and influencing attitudes.

Melody is a neutral carrier of a singer’s intentions. The music is a means of transmitting content, but cannot by itself relate definite viewpoints. The same tune might be used to tell of lost love, impart a moral lesson or petition a deity. When the focus is a human being, the singer might paint that person in a positive or negative light. In the vast treasury of world music, there are probably as many songs extolling individuals as there are songs ridiculing them.

Songs of praise and songs of disparagement are equally capable of sculpting our judgment. Melody encodes the characterization into the brain, where it rests so comfortably and is recalled so effortlessly that there is seemingly no reason to question or refute it. Its message becomes our own.

Depending on the tone of the lyrics, people songs can be a source of uplift or a cause of pain. We can imagine the subject of a heroic ballad being puffed up by the glowing terms with which he is described (hyperbolic though they usually are). We can also picture the subject of a mocking song feeling deflated or fearful at the words he hears. Songs of the latter type are all the more devastating as they typically contain untruths and exaggerations aimed at inciting hostility and aggression.

Derisive songs are meant to break people down. Their success in doing so is proven by their historical prevalence; they are sung because they work. Jeering songs crowded the repertoires of the jesters of Aztec Mexico, skalds of Scandinavia and minstrels of Anglo-Saxon Europe. They remain popular among folk balladeers of West Africa and the Bahamas, and are heard on schoolyards everywhere. The psychological toll of such music is documented, among other places, in the Hebrew Bible.

Although the lyrics of mocking songs are not part of the biblical record, their consequence is described in several verses. The psalmist bemoans, “I am the taunt of drunkards” (Ps. 69:12). Job weeps, “Now I am the butt of their gibes; I have become a byword to them” (Job 30:9). The author of Lamentations cries out that he has “become a laughingstock to all people, the butt of their gibes all day long” (Lam. 3:14). In each instance, the ridicule is felt so deeply that the person turns to divine help. Heavenly reassurance seems the only possible antidote.

Presbyterian minister William Swan Plumer (1802-1880) called scornful songs “an old weapon of the adversary.” He cautioned that the blend of piercing melody and spiteful verse makes taunting music especially hard to bear: “Few have courage to endure it. Under its stroke thousands quail. The natural temper of most men quite unfits them for this kind of suffering. . . . They dread the finger of scorn more than they do the warrior’s steel.” If there is any truth to the tired aphorism, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” it most certainly does not apply when words are sung.

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

Terrifying Tones

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“Music is surely among the most baffling of the arts in its power to move people profoundly whether or not they have any technical expertise or intellectual understanding of it. [A] few combinations of pitches, durations, timbres, and dynamic values can unlock the most hidden contents of a man’s spiritual and emotional being.” This observation, eloquently made by British musicologist Nicholas Cook, encapsulates music’s effect on the human spirit and psyche. For a variety of personal, cultural, psychological and physiological reasons, certain music induces us to certain states, regardless of how we feel prior to hearing it. This altering effect is most commonly linked to positive emotions, like uplift, invigoration, relaxation, catharsis and carefreeness. But music is just as capable of driving us to darker moods.

For evidence of this one needs look no further than the horror film genre. Horror movies are designed to elicit negative emotional reactions. A slew of visual tricks are used to draw out these feelings, from eerie lighting to macabre costumes to sickening gore. But the attentive viewer who has witnessed a horror scene on mute invariably asks some version of the question: How scary would a scary movie be without a scary score?

The horror genre exploits music’s terrifying potential to good advantage. Frequently, this is achieved using tools of twentieth-century modernism, such as dissonance, atonality, tritones, timbral experimentation, “stinger” chords and various extended instrumental techniques. It can also result from the discomforting juxtaposition of benign or even sweet tonal music on a scene of haunting imagery or brutal violence. The scary movie experience involves more than just voyeuristic “eyes watching horror,” as film scholar Carol J. Clover once put it. It includes tensed ears hearing fear.

Terrifying tones are not limited to frightening films, nor are they a recent discovery. If a dramatic scene in the Book of Judges is any indication, shocking music was a known and finely honed device in the ancient world.

Gideon, a Hebrew judge and military leader, positions his soldiers to attack the rival Midianites (Jgs. 7:15-23). At God’s behest, the text tells us, Gideon selects three hundred soldiers from his army of thousands to conduct the assault. It is insinuated that these men are not particularly courageous, imposing or militarily skilled. Rather, the fact of their weakness and pre-ordained victory is meant to demonstrate the power of God working through them.

Setting aside this theological message and looking at the events that transpire, one could argue that it is the force of sound—not an interventionist deity—that assures Israel’s victory. Gideon equips each soldier with a shofar and a jar containing a lit torch. The horn is for the right hand and the jar is for the left, leaving no place for conventional weaponry. Sound and pyrotechnics are their instruments of war.

The soldiers station themselves on a hill overlooking the Midianite camp. They wait for the middle night watch, when the enemy is most groggy and prone to being startled. With no forewarning and with orchestrated precision, they blow their horns and smash their jars, releasing the flames within. The entire camp is sent scrambling, screaming and fleeing in panic.

Given the unpredictable pitch and uneven quality of a shofar blast, the onslaught of three hundred at once would have been incredibly discordant. Add to this the magnitude of sound, its relentless droning and the accompanying flames, we begin to appreciate the alarming and intimidating effect. It was incidental music of a most diabolical kind, and a stark illustration of the dark side of musical expression.

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