meaningful chanting: drones

I think it’s important when we chant that it is somehow meaningful to us. There are many mantras that are beneficial to chant (aum, om mani padme, etc.) as they not only have a special recognized meaning but they also connect us with a larger community in both space and time. But if we are chanting alone we may want to experiment by adding a more personalized touch: a favorite song, word, text, or sound. Perhaps something that would only be meaningful at an individual, even temporary, level.

One technique used by medieval composers is to take an existing song and stretch out each syllable to a very long length. (In fact this is where the word tenor comes from: the Latin word tenere means to hold, and a tenor is one who is holding/stretching out the sound.) Usually these were used as a basis for a new composition as new musical parts of shorter length would be added over the long tones, which can be seen (admittedly not all that clearly) in this score of Perotin’s Viderunt omnes, written in 1198. This is the very beginning and there are four parts happening at once here: three upper parts and one long drone — it’s the lonely note at the bottom which is held until the next note is encountered in that part (which is not shown because it occurs much later in the piece):


We, however, can make use of this technique to take any song or melody that has some significance and turn it into a drone for chanting, and it’s a very simple process. As an example let’s take the song Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. You can remind yourself of the tune by singing just a little bit of it. Now to turn it into a drone take a deep breath and sing the first syllable (twin-) until you run out of breath. Then chant the second syllable (-kle) until you can no longer hold it. And so on and so forth.

It’s amazing how chanting in this fashion immediately causes things to sound “sacred” (which if it’s meaningful to you it is). It’s also amazing how focused we can become on this type of chanting: probably due in no small measure to the fact that as we’re running out of air we have no choice but to become focused on what we’re doing in the moment.

So of course Twinkle, Twinkle may not be that meaningful to you, but you can take any tune you like and subject it to the same process. And of course be creative: maybe you like a certain tune but would prefer different words: go ahead and add those words. Or perhaps you’d like no words at all and would care to focus instead on the actual sounds you’re producing (different vowels, syllables, mouth shapes): try that for sure. Try holding a tone for two or three breaths.

And needless to say please share with us here what you’ve come up with!

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