One of Madame Blavatsky's first instructions to esoteric students past the beginner stage was to get into chanting OM.
One of Madame B's first instructions to esoteric students past the beginner stage was to get into chanting OM. The ancient sage, Patañjali, also highlighted this in the Yoga Sūtras and HPB was something of an advocate for the highly meditative Rāja Yoga. Madame B said mastery of it was a requirement for adepts and this has interesting implications for Theosophical theory, as she said herself.1
Patañjali2 (before 400 CE) remains the authority on Rāja Yoga and listed chanting (mantra) as one of the five ways of gaining spiritual attainments. Chanting is by far the safest and easiest of these techniques and the modern trend for chanting and sound meditation would probably have appealed to Madame B. She was musical and played piano well, as Colonel Olcott records in Old Diary Leaves; 'She would sit in the dusk sometimes, with nobody else in the room but myself, and strike from the sweet-toned instrument improvisations that might well
make one fancy he was listening to the Gandharvas, or heavenly choristers.'
Perhaps it was the musician in Madame Blavatsky which led her to teach that to chant OM properly you must find your own personal tone or key. This is confirmed by modern sound therapists and from my own experience you do have to do this if you chant OM alone. I mainly play rock and blues as a hobby but I went through a phase of creating songs and bluesy chants about spiritual concepts and entities. After that I applied the ideas in what I suppose were Nature rituals. More recently I studied monks chanting OM, and recorded my own voice chanting OM in multi-tracking software, creating various kinds of layers. Witnesses might have thought I was cracking up, but basically I was experimenting with different tones a la Madame B and had some interesting results in the key of B. But also I was trying to understand how external sound and chanting affects brainwave frequencies and consciousness. In key parts of our brains masses of neurons generate electro-chemical brainwaves. It is part of the consciousness process and scientists label the brainwave frequencies a bit like radio stations. Beta band, between 13 and 39 hz is the brain resonance of everyday life. (Hz, by the way, just mean 'waves or beats per second'). The fast and frenetic Gamma band, above 40hz, is usually associated with intense creativity and extreme states.
The lower non-Beta brain frequencies are Alpha at 8 to 12hz, Theta at 4 to 7hz and Delta at 0 to 4hz. In the same order (the boundaries are a bit blurry) these bands are associated with calmness, creative thought, trance, sleep and dreamless sleep.
If the desirable low brainwaves were sound, i.e. vibrations in air, they would be totally inaudible. Everything below 20hz is. Yet the claim made by meditation music practitioners is that vibrations in air can influence brainwaves. This is how it is done. Sounds are made which are audible but are made to carry an inner oscillation at the desired rate. This might manifest as a vibrato which you can hear oscillating at say 4hz. It can also just be a drum beating at 4hz. The brain responds sympathetically and alters its frequency from Beta to the desired state. This is really a bit of technical 'magic' and the process is often called 'sound entrainment' although I prefer 'meditative sound'. But it has an ancient foundation.
Imagine a wild Siberian women, dressed in skins and decked with bells and rattles, banging her drum at 4 beats a second. That's an initiated Shaman woman trying to self-induce a low Theta 4hz trance. She wouldn't describe it like that of course and for her brain to respond she would need to bang for quite a while. This is probably why shamans are loners. Half an hour of 4 beats a second on a drum can get a bit annoying.
So why not make a pure flute-like tone with a nice audible vibrato gently waving at 4hz? Theoretically it could have the same effect on the brain but that soon becomes uncomfortable for many people too. An innate human desire for variation is one of the reasons why composers of meditative music blend various sounds.
It is also why chanters, working more intuitively, use harmonies and 'rounds' (relay singing), exploit different toned voices and often add subtle percussion and instruments. All this variety can be heard even when monks just chant OM. You will hear round singing and different voices
being exploited and sometimes subtle percussion. You can often pick up an inner vibrato of the kind I mentioned above, between 4 and 8 hz, and in a temple or church the acoustic qualities of the building might add to the frequency. In the course of a long chant there might also be changes to the inner frequency, perhaps gradually lowering it.
Native American and some European pagan music attempt something similar, and seem to work in all the non-Beta wave bands I listed above. Powerful meditative music has also been created with a didgeridoo in the mix, it often makes an excellent drone carrying the right frequencies. All these traditions happen to also employ dance, as do the Sufis and Hindus who work extensively with sound in similar ways.
If you listen in a receptive state to monks chanting OM, or any spiritual chanting and meditative music, your brain responds. At least that is the theory but no-one is sure precisely how. We know conventional music changes mood and humanity has used it successfully for many thousands of years. For the more meditative sounds researchers can monitor the brain with scanners so sensitive they can tell the difference between hypnotic and meditative states. Scanning people listening to meditative music has confirmed the brain responds to the external sound, and changes frequency, but that more research is needed. Tracks of this kind can also be composed for disorders such as pain, sleep, anxiety and concentration problems and apparently help many people. This has led me to consider experiment making tracks of this kind myself and I suspect a personal composition might work best for each specific problem. So in a way I have come full circle to a kind of technological shamanism. We still don't know why and how this stuff works though, the placebo effect might play a role or perhaps there is a
quantum effect taking place.
If chanting and meditative music are to have a chance of working at deeper levels, right intent is important and a good place and time, just as in conventional music. It doesn't really matter if the sound itself comes from Tibetan singing bowls, shamanic drums, chanting, a guitar, a didgeridoo, or sine waves pumped out of an electronic tone generator.
Please don't imagine I am saying meditative music and chanting should replace silent meditation in a spiritual context. I see it here more as a complementary activity. If silent meditation follows chanting, as it often does in eastern traditions, you have a balanced progression.
Sound is used somewhat differently in the Christian tradition, hymns and sung masses for example having a more narrative purpose. Taizé meditation sometimes approaches techniques I have outlined above but not to the extent that practitioners have done in the east. Yet churches and cathedrals are often perfect environments for enriching the kinds of sounds I have been discussing. Some Christian monastic traditions have used deep chanting and meditative sound techniques, especially in the medieval period. I understand they still do in some of the
remaining monasteries and Buddhist monks have in recent years created profound performances of OM in ancient Christian buildings.
When HPB lectured TS students so long ago on chanting this syllable, she was probably pioneering its use inthe West. She was one of the many influences that eventually led, in the 1960s, to an explosion of Western chanting, meditative sound and (this shouldn't be forgotten) associated dancing of various kinds. YouTube is a great place to explore all this and I would love to hear from anyone at all interested in any way: