The energy of sound and its perception is an ancient force mostly overwhelmed and replaced by visual energy in modern times. Today, people cannot often surrender themselves entirely to listening, to soaking up pure sound for its own sake, without meaning or pictures or associations, to listening to each other wholeheartedly without judging. It is intellectually accepted that the energy of sound is composed of vibrations, but how many people regard sound in this way? Opening oneself so that the vibrational patterns of incoming sound can merge with one’s personal vibrational receptors, and then allowing the physiology to react without blocking, is rare.
This allowing oneself to be touched and moved by vibrational patterns is an important dimension of healing, or apprehending the invisible world, of being fully alive. In this way, we can maintain contact with the universe and the magical forces of Nature. Receiving sound and merging with it is our true energic nature. It balances, it moves with our energies, never remaining still. This is the expression of pure life. Buddhists call it the Dharma, Chinese chi, Christians spirit, the ancients, Harmonices Mundi – the Music of the Spheres.
The ancients, our ancestors, were closely in touch with sound. They knew that if they could produce it in certain skillful ways, they would be able to balance not only the immediate environment and sensing beings in it, but also contribute to the massive banks of sound or indestructible energy stored in the universe. Today, sound tends to be a fashion statement, mass-produced, elitist, wallpaper, an accompaniment to images, an escape from reality and natural life.
Urban environments are populated by people pursuing status and wealth who spend their leisure time plugged in to devices which receive sound, but are they truly listening and not just using ‘their’ sound to shield them from reality and assert their individuality and separateness? Some might say that plugging in and becoming therefore impervious to others or the natural universe is a violent act of arrogance or deliberate isolation from others, a refusal to be aware. Sound has nowadays become a commodity listed in a ‘purchases’ category, or downloaded to ‘my playlist,’ or even stolen from its producer without rightful payment. We are the consumer, pinning down what we have paid for, appropriating it and turning it into our knowledge and materials to build our profile with. This is a travesty of sound. It is not a commodity.
Ancient Chinese philosophy and medical systems viewed all life in terms of Yin and Yang, the opposites of energy or matter, which are never static but in a constantly changing balance. The four seasons are a notable example of this. Others are darkness and light, sun and moon, feminine and masculine. The five elements of the universe, Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water, are essential to balance also. Fully cognizant of this, ancient people strived to make musical instruments, which would fulfill this need.
In Korea, the zither was created according to these principles. There were two types: one which is known as the female and the other the male. The I Ching, an ancient Chinese text used for divination, refers to them as instruments reflecting the ‘resilience of woman’ and ‘the braveness of man.’ Modern discontented people may object to this seeming gender discrimination or segregation, but it is a fact that the universe operates on such contrasts. It is only in the mundane visible world that we make such differences, such separations. In the ‘invisible’ world of sound and spirit, there is no real separation into genders, no attachment to differences: we can and must transcend such separations.
The female Gayageum has silk strings, plucked and struck with the bare hands to give a range of sensitive sounds. The male Geomungo also has silk strings, thicker to produce a lower tone, 16 frets, and is struck with a bamboo stick to produce a percussive sound. Two different qualities can harmonize together to create a whole.
The shapes of both instruments are strongly influenced by Yin and Yang. Both the Gayageum and Geomungo have a prominent rounded front representing the vault of the heavens, while the back is flat representing the Earth; the front is constructed from softwood of the Paulownia tree, while the back from hardwood of the chestnut tree. The hollow interior of the Gayageum represents the 6 directions, 4 cardinal compass points and up and down, and its 12 strings the calendar. Flat versus rounded, soft versus hard, plucked versus strummed: all of these are aspects of Yin and Yang, and all necessary for balance.
The Geomungo has only 6 strings each with a name: the two outer strings are bungen, the civilian, and bugen, the soldier, characters or types which appear in the I Ching. If their conflicts can be harmonized, then the glories of music have triumphed over the lower minds of humans. The Geomungo gradually was withdrawn from use as a concert instrument to entertain an audience to be employed solely as an aid to spiritual elevation.
Sound is sacred. If we live our daily lives with this awareness, it will help us to live naturally, without friction in our interactions with others or in our general performance in the visible world. Kind words, sincerity and unconditional love need to be the main constituent of our vocal utterances. This combined with the gift of truly listening to each other, to genuinely receiving the sound utterances of others, will once again create balance in the wider perspective.