Healing Through Architecture & Music
by Balwant Saini
Brisbane Australia Lecture May 2000
We all know that we are happier when we hear pleasant sounds. Yet what we hear most of the time is not pleasant. We are bombarded by noise from radio, television and from records, tapes, cassettes and discs played incessantly in shopping centres, hotel foyers and supermarkets. We also put up with noise from police sirens, ambulance vehicles, cars, buses, trucks and railway traffic all of which adds up to a significant source of environmental pollution.
The aim of this discussion is to examine how we can block harmful sounds from entering our buildings. We will then isolate those sounds known for their healing qualities and see how we can introduce them inside buildings to generate a healthier living environment
We delude ourselves when we think we can adjust to noise by ignoring it or we can get used to it. Research has clearly shown that unless we plug our ears, we continue to respond to sound even during sleep.
The noisy world of our cities is certainly a recent phenomenon. It is quite different from the past when sounds of nature permeated our living environment. Man-made noise of today is not in harmony with nature. In fact it is positively unhealthy and if we believe the latest biomedical and behavioural research on this subject, it can do permanent damage to our physical and mental health.
Noise is a health hazard
Although there is no direct link between noise and ill health, there is ample evidence that, apart from hearing loss, noise does cause physical and psychological stress that increases adrenalins and changes the heart rate resulting in disabilities and diseases including diabetes, high blood pressure, headaches and chronic fatigue.
This damage is not simply related to the quality but also by the intensity of the sound that is measured by a unit called a decibel (db). There is clear evidence that 80 decibels normally encountered in a busy office, is about the limit beyond which we start to feel uncomfortable. Sounds generated by heavy traffic, trains, power tools and general noises in shopping areas range between 80 to 100. But a matter of great concern are sounds above 100 decibels encountered in rock concerts, discotheques and personal stereos that can do permanent damage to hearing.1
Studies of sleeping patterns show that during the night, even low levels of noise for long periods can affect our health by causing high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, disturbed sleep and psychiatric disorders. World Health Organisation guidelines on safe average noise levels for undisturbed sleep is 30 decibels. Yet the average night time noise levels tend to be well above 60 decibels.2
Another bad news is that slow exposure to dangerous noise levels could also end up making us tone deaf. There is no research on human beings to confirm this but the birds certainly are affected, if we are to believe the findings of a recent study of British and Dutch bird populations conducted by Dr Piet Bergers, of the Dutch institute for forestry and nature research.3
"Traffic noise is turning birds' beautiful songs into harsh cackles", said Bergers. "The effect has been catastrophic for some species whose singing is crucial to finding and courting a mate". It has affected the numbers of breeding birds. Intensive research alongside a road carrying 10,000 cars daily found that noise reduced the populations of golden orioles by 85 per cent and hawfinches by 81 per cent.
The challenge is how to stop unhealthy noise from entering our buildings. Noise control specialists have suggested several techniques but judging from the buildings around us, we either ignore them, find that they are beyond our control or simply far too expensive to implement. There are planning procedures that can help reduce the harmful noise from its source or block it from entering the buildings by use of some form of insulation. Insulation also means keeping nature sounds out. Assuming we keep all sounds, healthy and unhealthy, out of buildings then how do we reconcile this situation with our need to bring nature into our living environment.
There has been little or no research to find out ways to generate agreeable natural or musical sounds within buildings. This may be so because researchers have not yet realised that such sounds can be very healing for both our body and our mind.
Sound is either airborne or transmitted structurally within buildings. It is simple enough to minimise noise transfer by designing structurally stable buildings that are able to resist movement within its components; but dealing with airborne noise is more difficult.
Trees and shrubs though excellent filter for polluted air, are not very effective for noise control. According to one authority, effective belts of trees for useful noise control must be at least 15 meters tall, be in a continuous strip 25-35 meters deep, have dense foliage down to the ground, and must be evergreen to supply protection year round. This type of stand takes about 20 years to grow, is extravagant in terms of space required, and is of limited use against elevated sources such as aircraft, or for protecting high-rise dwellings
But we can do other things. We can reduce noise levels by locating buildings well away from the noise source and by using walls, berms and other barriers. Doors and windows can be kept shut during noisy periods but by closing them we will also shut out fresh air thus causing extreme discomfort in warm humid climates.
Better planning and layout of houses and apartments can also help where relatively sensitive living and bedrooms could be located away from the noise from streets and public areas and also by using garages, bathrooms and storage cupboards as buffers. Designers have also used one building to shield another and by placing the narrow end of building towards the noise source instead of the wide portion. But these are only a few of the many possibilities. Generalised answers are unhelpful since each building poses specific conditions that require specific treatment depending upon its location, type of use and budgetery limits. Our aim here is to state the problem rather than offer building solutions. Once the problems are clarified the solutions become easier.
How does sound affect our body and our mind? The scientific explanation is quite simple. Most bodily functions including temperature, thirst, hunger, blood sugar levels and growth are regulated by hypothalamus, the part of the brain that makes up the floor and part of the lateral walls of the third ventricle. Hypothalamus also regulates sleeping, walking, sexual arousal and emotions such as anger and happiness.
So, when we hear a sound, we send an immediate message to the hypothalamus and from there to the whole body. It also indicates how we feel since a parallel message goes to brain's limbic system that processes emotions, and to an area called the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory. This is the reason why certain sounds bring back past memories and have such powerful effect on us.
Depending on its intensity and quality, sound can generate harmony or disturbance. Our intentions also come into it because they can amplify and emphasise the quality of energy contained within a sound wave. When we combine the quality of the sound with our intention the music and words can either uplift the spirits or depress and drain the energy.
Healing power of sound
The healing power of nature sounds has also been known for centuries. In south India the farmers believe that natural music of humming and buzzing insects guarantees healthy sprouting of the sugar cane. Carefully conducted experiments have proved that plants grow faster when music is piped over fields or into greenhouses. Germination, growth, flowering, fruiting, and seed yield are affected by sound waves, especially musical sounds in the low frequency range, from 100 Hz to 600 Hz. Farm animals and pets have been known to respond to music; cows give more milk when music is relayed to the milking parlor. If plants and animals respond this way, it id quite possible humans may do the same. It would be useful to extend research in this area to find out whether this is the case.
Sound and the human body
Ancient seers certainly used sound as a medium to heal, support, center, empower and expand consciousness. The Mayas and Incas were aware of it; so were the Indians and the Chinese whose traditional teachings of Yoga and Ch'i Gong recommend that we should use specific sounds to tone up the energy centers or Chakras and major glands and organs associated with them.
Over the years many mystics have employed musical vibrations in healing and spiritual development. According to Hazrat Inayat Khan, a Sufi who lectured and taught classical music during the early 1920s, " The whole mechanism, the muscles, the blood circulation and the nerves are all moved by the power of vibration."4 Khan said. " As there is resonance for every sound, so the human body is a living resonance for sound. Sound has an effect on each cell of the body, for each cell resounds, on all glands, on the circulation of the blood and on pulsation, sound has an effect.
Ancient Indian teachings also encourage the repetitive use of the word -Mantra - meaning mind projection. It is a technical device used for regulating the mind by combining sound, resonance and rhythm thus setting a pattern for the flow of thoughts. It is known to purify the mind which, according to the Buddhists, is the root of all our actions and may have either a positive or negative effect on them. This the reason why mantras play such an important role in religious and sacred ceremonies
A number of therapists and psychologists have proved that human body does respond to sound in a variety of ways. We have all experienced the effect of music on our emotions and spirits. If we consider our physical body itself as a musical instrument, we find that even when a note is out of tune, the result is often discordant. Tune the instrument and the sound becomes consonant. Dr. Alfred A Tomatis, a French physician and psychologist, developed a method that identifies stressed frequencies by auditory screening based on the principle that voice contains only what the ear can hear.5 Tomatis worked out sound formulae which he then applied to establish continuity within the frequency system of the body.
In recent years several voice and machine-aided sound therapies have been used to restore the range of harmonious frequencies necessary for complete physical and emotional good health. They are essentially based on the concept that the body requires the presence of a full range of appropriate frequencies working cooperatively as they do in nature where of birds and animals and those generated by wind and rain all combine to provide a harmonious environment
Music therapist Olivea Dewhurst-Maddock has developed a range of exercises that can be used for healing various health problems in different parts of the body.6 These are based on the recent researches that have clearly demonstrated the effects of sound vibrations in living cells.
Using tuning forks as the sound source, the different frequencies of the musical scale caused blood cells to change colour and shape. For example, the note C made them longer, E made them spherical and A changed their colour from red to pink. The frequencies of the notes may be sufficiently close to the cells' own natural frequencies to set up sympathetic vibrations reinforcing resonances and breaking up disruptive patterns. Many alternative therapies rely on matching resonant frequencies.
Healing sounds in buildings
If these modalities offer such wonderful healing possibilities then here's an opportunity for architects to join hands with healers to create lifestyle design environments in which appropriate filters, music and healing sounds have an important role. We could use mechanical and electronic systems to bring nature sounds into buildings and incorporate them into buildings as an essential facility.
Many researchers now agree that music, especially the music of composers such as Mozart, Brahms and Bach have a remarkable ability to generate what is called an alpha state , a brain wave pattern (7 to 14 CPS) creating a slightly sleepy state of relaxed concentration or "lucid awareness.7
Indian classical music whether vocal or instrumental, does the same thing. In fact it goes even further as it is based on ragas (combination of notes) which at the appropriate time of day and night, have the ability to convey the right vibrations that are present in nature, thus assisting with maintaining a balance of energy in the body. The word 'Raga' originates from the Sanskrit word 'ranja' meaning dying in colour. Interpreted musically, it suggests the 'dying of sound' into vivid colours and vibrations of music.
Indian musical traditions clearly dictate that certain ragas are appropriate to specific seasons and 24 hour cycles harmonising with morning, noon, evening and night.
For instance, the winter season is linked to Raga Shri or spring is associated with Raga Vasant.
Then there are ragas related to different segments of time representing sunrise, noon, sunset and midnight - the times of shifts in nature's rhythms. The timing is varied slightly according to the specific season.
Since we live in a high-pressured world our body fluctuates throughout the day and reacts visibly if it is not synchronised with the natural cycles.
Music can help to bring it into balance, eliminating extreme swings in the body's rhythm, a phenomena that was recently demonstrated by Balaji Tambe - a researcher in Ayurveda. Tambe, who founded a 'holistic healing community' in Karla - a small hilly hamlet in Maharashtra India, claims that as many as seven classical Indian ragas have beneficial effects among patients suffering from insomnia, schizophrenia, epilepsy and both high and low blood pressure.8
After conducting research spread over 30 years, Tambe said. "It is now possible to correlate the beneficial aspects of these seven classical ragas -- Bhupali, Todi, Malkauns, Asavari, Bhairavi, Sarang and Shiv-ranjani on specific ailments". The afternoon raga Sarang was especially effective against epilepsy, while Shiva-ranjani is recommended for intellectual work and a churning of the mind. Bhairavi was unparalleled as a soother of hypertension and also in reducing violent forms of schizophrenia.
Deepak Chopra, a promoter of ayurvedic medicine in the US, has also used Indian classical music as therapy in his clinic, where it is played in three hourly segments throughout the day.9 Chopra recommends continuous playing even in an empty room or house as it changes the vibrations in the space in a subtle way. "you should try playing Gandhara (Indian classical music) tapes at home continuously for several days while you are at work and see if your house is more settled and harmonious when you walk back in the door" said Chopra.
There are very few studies to prove whether this kind of piped music really works. The exception is a 1994 study of the Center of Behavioral and Social Aspects of Health in Buffalo, New York on a group of 50 male surgeons who regularly listened to music during surgery.10 Doctors performed better when they listened to music of their choice (a range of classical, jazz and Irish folk) rather than music of the experimenters' choice. The same study showed that patients also managed better pain control during medical and dental procedures when they were able to listen to certain kinds of music.
Vasssiliadis and others doubt the effectiveness of mechanical and electronic systems used for bringing nature and musical sounds into buildings.11 These sounds are considered a poor substitute for the real sounds as they are no longer associated with the precise moment in time of their production. The original link is missing.
Mechanically recorded bird sounds in the subterranean city of Osaka in Japan for instance, are far removed from the real bird sounds. They no longer exist in conjunction with other elements of nature, the atmosphere, the weather, the morphology of the landscape and all the specific conditions within which the original sounds were born. "Substitutes of this kind are as persuasive as a hallucinatory drug is for man's own happiness", says Vassiliadis.
One has to question Vassiliadis's extreme position implying that the only valid musical experience would be to go to live concerts. If this was the case then we should stop listening to radio, CDs and tapes in our homes and in our cars. Surely, we have come a long way from times when this was the only choice available.
We live in an electronic environment and are moving from industrial era and are fast heading towards an age of information technology. Our building are already wired for this which of course has generated new and somewhat horrifying problems of Electro-magnetic pollution that forms the subject of the next chapter.
Buildings and musical scales
Apart from technological fixes, there are a number of alternative and less expensive design possibilities. Look at the matter of proportion, for instance. Olivea Dewhurst-Maddock tells us that the mathematical ratios and relationships between musical sounds, scales, octaves and harmonies appear in many forms throughout nature. 12 The music relationship called the major sixth in which the frequencies of the notes are in the ratio of 8:5, is widely considered to have powerful healing qualities.
The visual equivalent of this, according to Dewhurst-Maddock, is called the golden mean or divine proportion, often represented by a rectangle whose width compared to length is in the same proportion as the length to the sum total of the width and length expressed algebraically as a:b: :b:c, which means in effect: "the smaller is to the larger, as the larger is to the whole".
This major sixth ratio also appears in a fascinating range of numbers known as the Fibonacci sequence. Each number in the sequence is the sum total of the two preceding numbers: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55... The sequence is of great significance in apparently unrelated spheres from geometry and genetics, to the natural growth patterns in plant forms, snail shells and of course in art and architecture.
Music and architecture express absolutes; they are both products of properties in numerical expression. Both relate to common ratio such as the major sixth, the golden sections seen in nature and in our human created world. Music was an essential ingredient to designers of classical Renaissance architecture, based on arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. In fact it provided sound philosophical foundations for a variety of visual arts.
Philosophical foundations equally applied to ancient Indian architecture which was based on the concept of scale based on two kinds of spaces, namely sound space and light or visual space. This concept was lucidly explained by V. Ganapati Sthapati at a congress on Ancient Sciences and Technologies in Madras.13
According to Ganapaty Sthapaty, both the sound and the visual spaces, are measured by a linear scale that is closely related to the time or rhythm of the universe. The vibrations of this rhythm, like the vibrations of a stringed musical instrument, are quantified into numbers that generate sound and visual spaces. Sound spaces emerge into syllabic tones when a stringed instrument is played. They then develop into rhythmic spaces generating a sweet musical pattern. Just as traditional music is pleasing to the ear, traditionally architects used a similar form that was pleasing to the eye.
The basic measure of this scale is based on 8 units. It is called Tall a word derived from the foot beat of a dancer. Vedic texts maintain that time and space are equal, since it is time that changes into space. Tal time-measure is used in poetry, music, and dance, and Talam as space - measure, is applied in architecture and sculpture. Deriving from universal time and universal space, this measure provides an excellent tool for generating rhythms of sound and space and is often called the 'universal order'.
Beautiful well-proportioned buildings follow rhythmic patterns called Chandas (meaning beauty) similar to those found in the Indian classical music. They have six primary and thirty-six secondary chandas similar to the six ragas and thirty-six raginis of the Indian music. These chandas apply to each and every aspect of a building, be it its plan, section or its elevation. They are combined in a variety of forms to achieve contours of buildings appropriate to their specific function and place in a settlement.
In case of a temple, according to Ganapaty Sthapaty, these rhythms provide a kind of consistency and wholeness that enables devotees to adjust themselves to its structure; their subtle bodies responding to the proportions of the temple by an inner rhythmical movement. "By this aesthetic emotion the devotees become one with the temple and realise the presence of God" says Ganapaty Sthapaty.
Some people may be happy with the above proposition at a subjective level, but may find it difficult to accept without scientific scrutiny. The beneficial effect of music on our health and well being has been well researched and documented in several papers. But there is little or no experimental evidence of the effect a building designed on the basis of a musical or mathematical scale, geometry or astronomy has on our bodily functions normally measured through temperature, thirst, hunger, or blood sugar levels. This is another research area that is worth further exploration.
An aspect of sound, often ignored, is silence whose health benefits may even exceed those of healing sounds since it allows us to look inwards. Silence is an important element of health retreats and spiritual centres throughout the world. There is no reason why silent spaces can not be created within our day to day living and working environment.
In this discussion of sounds, it is obvious there are many gaps in our knowledge of what constitutes a healthy environment and how can we use sound to achieve it. We have highlighted a number of areas that require further research.
We may not be able to control the entry of external noise into our buildings without going through enormous expense. Continuos piped music, no matter how healing, could also give some of us a minor nervous breakdown. Bearing in mind all the possible negatives, we could aim to isolate or provide at least some space or a well insulated and wired room where a person or persons could retreat for total silence or contemplation or enjoy and relax with appropriate music of their choice. Many airport terminal buildings are now equipped with such spaces where stressed-out transit passengers are able to escape for prayer or meditation. There is no reason why such an idea could not be extended to offices, factories, homes and apartments.
1. T. Patel (1996) New Scientist, See Issues 27 Jan, 23 March & 29 June
2. M. Bond (1996) 'Plagued by noise' New Scientist, 16 Nov. pp.14-15.
3. Trushar Barot (1999) 'Songbirds forget their tunes in cacophony of road noise', in Times of India Newspaper 21 Jan.1999 Bombay reproduced from The Sunday Times.
4. Hazrat Inayat Khan (1988) The Mysticism of Music, Sound and Word. Motilal Banarsidas Delhi.p.273. (Sufi teachings related to sound and music- their metaphysical formation and their significance in the understanding of both cosmical manifestation and of the rhythm of everyday life.)
5. Alfred A. Tomatis (1996) The ear and Language, Moulin Publishing, Norval, Ontario, Canada. Also see: Tomatis, Alfred A.(1991)The Conscious Ear, Station Hill Press, Barrytown, NY,USA. Alfred Tomatis discovered that the first organ that develops in the foetus is the ear and its cochlea (spiral cavity of the ear). Also that the formation of cochlea is fundamental in helping a balanced growth of the foetus in its capacity as sensor for absorbing all radiations and vibrations through the amniotic fluid in the mother's womb. He has discovered that various sound frequencies relate to specific parts of the body, the lower the frequencies towards the legs, the higher the frequencies towards the head. If there is a health problem anywhere in the body, it would affect a certain wavelength of sound in our hearing, this relates to a deeper understanding of the body proportions, dimensions, wavelengths and sound frequencies.
6. Olivea Dewhust-Maddock,. (1993) The Book of Sound Therapy - Heal Yourself with music and voice Gaia Books Ltd, London.
7.Around 1938, German doctor Hans Berger isolated this brain wave which later led to considerable scientific interest in trance technonology. During the 1970s, the first light and sound machines were built in California and interest grew in trying to teach people to generate an alpha wave by biofeedback.
8. Editorial Comment (1999)."Healing Ragas", in Times of India, Newspaper 13 October 1999. 9. Deepak Chopra, (1994). " Music as Medicine" in Perfect Health - The Complete Mind/Body Guide. Bamtam Books. New York. pp.155-158.
10. K.Allen and J. Blascovich, (1994)"Effects of music on cardiovascular reactivity among surgeons" Journal of the American Medical Association, vol.272, pp.882-4.
11. Stephanos T. Vassiliadis (1988) Ekistics 333, Nov/Dec. pp.303-306.
12. Olivea Dewhust-Maddock,. Ibid
13. V. Ganapati Sathapti, (1993) The Scale: Theme address on classical Indian architecture presented at the Congress of Ancient Sciences and Technologies, Madras, held 28 Nov. - 3 Dec.1993 Vastu Vedic Research Foundation, Mamallapuram, Madras, p.19.- also see: Robert Lawlor (1992) "Mediation: Geometry Becomes Music" Sacred Geometry, Thames and Hudson, London,pp 80-82 Lawler gives the exact ratio and proportion between certain geometry and scale of music (octave).