Hildegard, postikortti

Body, soul and sound workshop – A Meditative Approach to Hildegard of Bingen’s Chants


Hilkka-Liisa Vuori

DMus Hilkka-Liisa Vuori is a teacher of Gregorian chant, a singer in duo Vox Silentii and a researcher.


Body, soul and sound workshop invited participants to experience meditation with sound, the sound being human voice. The instrument for the meditation was one’s own body inside another resonating instrument ‒ an echoing church. The tools were simple vowel sounds and one chant of Hildegard of Bingen (1098‒1179). My point of departure is that chanting meditation is achieved through listening. My method in teaching the workshops follows a path of six steps. First, the focus is in listening to one’s own body resonance, secondly, in the resonance and the voice of the other participants. Thirdly, listening happens when the sound produced meets the walls of the church space in relation with the body resonance. Fourthly, the movement of the sound is approached with the movement of the body gestures in the church space. On the fifth step, the structure of the sound is opened, and finally, listening is an act of singing the actual chant in the space.

Body and resonance

An act of listening in the sound meditation is a concentrated perception of a body resonance through producing simple vowel sounds. The tenderer the intonation and quieter the sound, the easier it is to feel the vibration of the sound in the body, and the more all the senses are opened. In the Body, soul and sound workshop, we experienced the resonance of sound A [ɑ] on the speaking level ‒ the basic sound height (c1); U [u] the fifth interval up in relation with the former sound (g1 3/2); another U [an octave lower than the higher U (four intervals below the basic, g 4/3); and finally, E [e] with the distance of a strong second (d1 9/8) from the basic level. Choosing a vowel is related to the ease of singing it at a certain pitch, its resonance in the body and in the vocal tract as well as the frequency of the vowel compared to other vowels. For example, the second interval sung with E is slightly higher than A just because of its place of articulation in the vocal tract. (About the vowels, see Karlsson 2013: 26; Ojutkangas et al. 2013: 84‒89. About subtle hearing, see the ideas by Reznikoff in Vuori 1995.)

The sounds can be felt as a vibration from the body with the singer’s own hands. The resonance of a basic sound with A can be discovered in the chest and upper part of the back. The lowest sound with U is a welcoming attention to the hips, knees and the soles of feet. The highest sound U, if sung loudly, is irritating to the head. Human hearing is between 16–20 000 Herzes. The higher frequences, 3 000–8 000 Hz, resonate in the head area, sounds between 750–3 000 Hz stimulate the middle parts of the body, while the low frequences between 125–750 Hz have an effect in the lower parts of the body. (Whitwell 1993: 9; Vuori 2005: 29. About the body and vibration, see Lehikoinen 1997 & 1998.) However, a very soft high sound, a pure fifth interval, refreshes the head area, and it can receive a pure echo from the church. The second interval sung with E has a possibility to be sung as a very high interval. The resonation of a sound rests especially in the palatine and on the tongue. The intention of an interval prepares the singer for better listening of the other participants. If everyone sings in a listening way with an attitude that every sound one produces makes other singers’ voices more beautiful, the harmony is perfect even though the sounds are not. The intervals of 5th, 8th, 4th and 2nd can be claimed as constructive intervals since they form the frames for all the melodies. They also form the harmonic balance of our being as the tone heights resonate from head to toes. An interesting point of reference is Plato’s Timaeus (34a–36b), where these intervals are described as the tools for creation (see Reznikoff 2004; about the intervals see also Vuori 2011: 121‒130).

After feeling the resonance with hands from one’s own body, the movement is made larger. With a high sound (g1) the bodily movement is one of a total surrender: hands are up, palms upwards or as in reaching for the sky, the back bone stretching. With a low sound (g) the feet can feel the contact with the ground, the floor. When singing the low sound, one can also bend and reach to the feet and the ground with hands, as in a low bow. When in an utmost preference for an extreme experience, one can lay down on the floor face downwards letting the sound softly fill the whole body as it touches the floor. After the lightness of the high sound, the low sound on the floor fills the body with a relaxing heaviness. When singing the second interval (d1), the gesture is one with open hands to other people. But if the eyes are kept closed with this sound and the attention of the resonance is totally focused on the fingertips, the sensing of others does not become overwhelming. When moving from the highest sound to the lowest, the basic sound is sung in between as a reminder of one’s resonance in the middle parts of the body ‒ the heart area. As the sounds are sung and felt repeatedly a few times, the overall relaxation takes over if the common sound wave is very tender. The relaxation, and at the same time, attentive listening of oneself, among others, are the first two steps in the meditative sound.

To reach within is to reach out

When everybody produces a sound with an exact unison in timing, it is possible to hear the echo of the space. All the concentration is in the moment when everyone stops singing. The third step in meditative sound is listening to this echo. It is easier to learn this kind of hearing through moving in a church space. However, not moving from one’s place but singing while slowly turning 360 degrees, every new sound facing a different wall or a pillar of the space. In the first two exercises the focus was turned towards one’s own body and inside, and from there to other people. The eyes were possibly closed when feeling the resonance from the chest on a speaking level as well as with the other sounds. In this third exercise eyes are open, and at the same time as the sound is made, the hands make a gesture as if reaching to the walls. Singers are reaching out with their hands – as they should be touching the wall, the pillar, the ceiling with their voice and the gesture. This is done in an exactly precise pace. What happens with the sound and perception? The sound comes a little bit firmer as the movement of the body helps to perform the intention of mind and will. The gestures with hands reaching forward open the sides of our back, which deepens the breathing. A tender but firm sound touches the walls. The difficulty with this exercise is to let go of a sound. It is a different technique than in bel canto singing. The end of the sound is not carved softly or diminished slowly. When twenty people make this sound-touching at the same pace, the feeling is magical: the echo of human voices is clear and pure. It is a feeling which takes the singer over time and place. It can feel like the sound and the gestures were bending the walls, making them soft. Finally, the sound meditation has opened our hearing: to feel the body in relation with a room and with other people.

The gestures as means for feeling the resonance of the sound can be compared with the gestures of prayer. The gestures in Medieval Western liturgy have been studied especially by the Dominicans (Schmitt 1984: 127–162; see also Vuori et al. 2019: 106‒107).

The sound of a monochord

When the senses have been clarified with the hearing of the echo, it is possible to practice hearing the construction of one single sound. The overtones are audible in the medieval chants in medieval churches when sung with a listening, meditative attitude, and an intention for natural tunings. That is, the scales based on the overtone series. It is easiest to hear a pure fifth interval when a high sound is turned from the vowel U to the vowel A. This exercise should be sung really tenderly and quietly since the higher sounds need less energy to be audible in the space than lower sounds.

The chant sung in the workshop was from Hildegard of Bingen (O frondens virga/O leafy branch. Bingen. Dendermonde Facsimile 1991; Lieder 1992). Her understanding is a clear example of a medieval sense of sound. According to Hildegard, “singer’s resonant voice is like the sound of a monochord”. (Adam quoque ante praevaricationem angelicum carnem et omne genus musicorum sciebat et vocem habebat sonantem, ut vox monochordi sonat. Hildegardis Causae et Curae. See also Newman 1998: 31.) Monochord is an instrument with one string. If one plays one string, little by little one learns to hear overtones from it. This takes time and listening: an attentive, meditative state of mind. The sound of a monochord is like a sound of overtones among the chant melody. In singing practice, the tender intonation of a sound is a better enhancement for the echo and the overtones than the overwhelmingly loud way of singing.

The practice of listening in the monastery life is a practice of meditation and contemplation. In medieval chants this is formed as in the psalm 44:11: “Audi, filia, et vide, et inclina aurem tuam” (Vulgata. “Hear, O daughter, and consider, and incline your ear.” Ps. 45:10, The Holy Bible 2001). St Benedict’s rule, the very first rule of the Western monastic system, begins with the variation of these same words: “Obsculta, o fili, praecepta magistri, et inclina aurem cordis tui.” (”Listen, son, to the master’s instructions, and incline the ear of your heart.” Regula Benedicti). In the short introduction of the rules the words “listen to” are repeated six times when referring to Benedictine monks. The first one exhorts to obedience. Two times the listening is referred to in connection to listening to God’s voice. Once the suggestion is to listen to the Spirit, once His word and once to Him. In addition to these, one time hearing refers to God’s hearing of the prayers. The main stage for hearing the Word in a monastic life was the celebration of liturgy in the forms of the official hours and mass in the churches.

Plate 1. Meditative Sound

The meditative sound can be pictured as a triangle (Plate 1) with one edge connecting the text and the melody, the text being either a vowel or, as in this case, also the medieval chant text. Both, the melody and the text are heard in an echoing space, which is pictured as the third vertex. Inside the triangle is the singer producing the sound. The singer’s body is the sounding instrument, the first space to be acknowledged. Listening – Audi filia – is an elementary state of mind for the meditation. The intention of listening is towards three directions: oneself, others and the echoing space. The actual singing, the resonation in the body, is called here soul’s dance, which includes all the aspects of sounding meditation. One of the edges in the plate is piercing the text Audi filia as to remind of the movement of mind between the audible and inaudible world in the meditation.

The acoustics of medieval churches are perfect for listening to the echo, the overtones and the sung word. Human voice is a tool for information about the acoustics of a medieval church. The echo of the basic sound and its overtones tell the singers how long they should keep the singing voice firm and sounding before letting go of it. The resonance of the walls tells how much one can enhance the overtones among the melody, so that they are not yet stronger than the actual melody and disturbing the clarity of the text. When singing and listening to this kind of information, we can speculate that there is a possibility that we can receive acoustical archeological information through the resonance, especially if one sings in the churches which have a history with special melodies, i.e. the chants of Cantus sororum, the Bridgettine sisters’ chants in Vadstena, Sweden and in Naantali, Finland. The acoustical matters are known to have been interesting for the medieval builders, for example, in the form of the amplifying resonance pots in the church walls and floors (Reznikoff 2006; Valiére et al. 2013). But even singing the chants in any echoing church, the listening to the echo and the overtones have a relaxing, concentrating, meditative and refreshing effect on the singers and the listeners ‒ which in the best case are the same persons.


Regula Benedicti, The rule of St Benedictus

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Cover picture: a photo taken of a postcard by the author.