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The Song, The Singer and The Listener.

For the last three months I have been deep in books and documentaries researching song and singing, alongside dabbling with my own folk, soul, punk song creations!

This began in 2015 at a residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, and resurfaced this year as a collaborative research project with academic Dr Una Mcllvenna supported by The Exchange collaborative research fund. My main questions during this time have been; what is the purpose of song? and how does singing transform the singer and the listener? This blog is an attempt to pull together some of the thoughts and findings I have come across along the way.

THE SONG: What is the purpose of song?

Chant, mantra, ballad, recital. There is a constellation between the voice, the word, and the belief. We turn over the words, they grow with our voice and are expelled into the air. The song allows the subject to be renewed. 

The song is the ritual maker; a condensed format to contain emotions, vac-packed and ready for release. The song is a particularly good ritual maker, crafting out a time and a focus, inciting or even requiring participation. The song is there to lead us through.

These are two introductory ideas on song, that particularly interest me.

Through research I have encountered several other thoughts on the purpose of song, which I have grouped here into; conjuring, carrying, comfort, and chronicle.


‘The voice conjurs what it speaks’

–  Brandon LaBelle, Lexicon of the mouth, poetics and politics of voice and the oral imaginary.

To conjure is to evoke through spell or magic. It is to call up, to summon and to command spirits. In the above quote LaBelle is reflecting on the very power of voicing. Throughout time the voice has brought ‘things to life, and named them’ (Brandon LaBalle, Lexicon of the mouth). It is by announcing what is that we create the world. We summon, we command. This can be understood conceptually, or physically. We lend great power to our vocal imagination.

If I sing the word sea, do I not conjure that sea, does it not thunder through the walls and swell about the feet. If I sing death, over and over and over, do I summon it here, do we all feel it’s claws our skin. – notebook

The practice of keening (traditional irish lamenting over the dead) is not sung anywhere but at a funeral, for fear of conjuring death. The special sounding of the voice through song is like a spell affecting our spirit. We often speak of the spirit and the soul in relation to song, the voice being an invisible part of ourselves, therefore capable of dwelling with those other invisible elements.

Spirit, is understood as the vital principle of conscious life, that which animates the body. What spirit actually is, is debatable; blood, energy, electricity. Either way, a song can lift or lower the spirit. The song possesses us, it takes up roots in our own body. It occupies us.

I have often been overcome with a distinct emotion of joy, grief or sadness, quite uncontrollably. It’s like the song has pierced me very cleanly, found what it wanted, and pulled it right out, so my self is on the surface rather than buried inside. – notebook

It could very well be empathy that leads to this experience. Often a song is written from the perspective of an individual, and through singing the song we inhabit this individual. We speak their words, a direct practice of embodiment.

‘To sing in the voice of the criminal was to embody the experience of one entirely subjugated before the will of the lord’

– Dr Una Mcllvenna, Ballads of death and disaster: the role of song in early modern europe news transmission.

Possibly due to this ability to bring up the emotional and be possessed by the experience of another, song is extensively used as a means of spiritual engagement. Spiritual leaders; such as the Jewish Chazzan, will lead prayer through song which sustains a journey for the congregation, a climbing up or sinking down. Outside of religious contexts, the motivation of the spirit as that which animates the body is present in work songs. The work song, having parallels with prayer songs; is led by the caller who sets and maintains the pace and intent of the song. The rhythm of a work song is made by the rhythm of the work needing to be done, to sustain that works rhythm in the body of the worker. To become physically better at the work, perhaps enjoy it, or to withstand the drudgery and hardship, to sustain the soul. 

To conjure can be to exorcise. But to throw out the devil you have to grapple with him first. Song is used to cathartically exorcise, share or process grief and hardship. A song makes public what can be cruelly felt in isolation. The creation of songs on the difficulties of life, share them as a public concern and through singing can expel them from being personally harboured.


‘Calls and other signals function best as a kind of singing (or shouting with modulated tone) because they carry over large spaces better than speech.’

– John Potter and Neil Sorrell, A History of Singing.

A song carries over space and time. The expanding of our voices through singing hurls the song across the room, across valleys. The catching, exchanging and selling of that song carries it across towns and countries. The survival of that song, through singing over years, carries it across time. The format of a song is the original mass media construction. It is a simple method of containing information within a memorable structure that can be passed about orally, originating in our preliterate world.

Non-literate culture is essential to the creation and sustaining of songs. In early modern Europe a song would be written to inform the non-literate masses of the news; crimes, deaths, natural disasters. These songs would be pasted on the pub walls and sold by ballad vendors on the streets. And once one person was singing it, the song could spread throughout the public, and straight into people’s homes. Imagine life today, hearing a song about the Sports Direct 1m pound back pay through a song in the street that you then sang at dinner to your family. Songs in this way are tools of memory, using melody and repeated phrases to remember a story. Allowing information and belief systems to pollinate. But they can also be warped, within their oral public life words can be changed and misplaced at will. Such as newspapers today, a new song would publish information – when to publish meant to make public by crying aloud rather than putting in print.

A song compresses a statement of intent into a transferable form. A form that requires no written document, can be easily smuggled or transmitted in secret. Songs are mobilisers for revolution. The singer and activist Vuyisile Mini managed to sustain the revolution against South African Apartheid from within his prison cell, through the creation of new freedom songs to be sung on marches. Revolutionary songs are essential to the holding together of a committed group. The song embeds the intent of that revolution into each individual voice, they speak and therefore become that intent. The song figures the body as a carrier of that revolution, as an active part.

‘To be within speech, is to stand up within language’

– Judith Butler, within Lexicon of the mouth by Brandon LaBelle.

The voice is provoked to engage through song, to draw yourself forward as participant. This is the same for the establishment of religion through recital and Gospel, allowing an ideology to pollinate outside of literate communities.

A song is a commodity, many folk through history have built a living on song and verse. A new song can be a very attractive purchase, a 16th century street seller would only sing part 1 to incite interest from a buyer to pay for the whole item. A ballad vendor with a fresh copy of the lament of the criminal just about to be hung, might stand beside the fatal hanging platform, and on the drop sell their last words in solemn verse. But the true value of a song is created by the culture. The belief that the unwritten word is sacred, or that verse resides in the person rather than the score. An account of female keeners in Ireland tells of the possible nomadic life of those who carry verse;

‘A description of a keener, describes her wondering life, meeting a welcome everywhere with numerous invitations, based on the vast store of Irish verse she had collected and could repeat.’

– The Irish Funeral Cry, The Dublin Penny Journal, Volume 1, 1833.

Here verse is sufficient exchange for a bed, food and drink, because it is withheld by the culture as a necessary service and valued resource.


‘Learn this song and learn it well because you never know what tomorrow brings’

– A.L.Lloyd lecture on tape at Charlie Harper Archive, Birmingham Library.

A shepherd may sing, hum or whistle alone on the hill, as a source of comfort. A comfort created through a familiar tune or the creation of their own acoustic environment, to not lose themselves. The private (alone or within close relations) function of singing is often one of comfort. A woman croons to her cow when milking, to ease the cow, she believes the cow knows the song, and settles her. The use of singing to settle children, enfolds them in an sonic space;

‘Psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu suggested that this ‘envelope of sounds’ contains the emerging ego of the infant like a skin, becoming a replacement for the womb’

– Case 4, This is a voice exhibition at The Wellcome Collection – quoting The Skin Ego by Didier Anzieu

The creation of this familiar acoustic chamber can be applied to romance or other tender relations. The song is a tool to acquaint us with a particular voice, to recognise the prosody of their voice, and know that it is safe.


http://sounds.bl.uk/World-and-traditional-music/Music-from-India/025M-RKDATX0078XX-0100V0 – Indian Lullaby, Olli Geet, featured in This is a voice exhibition at The Wellcome Collection.


‘Singing leaves no fossils’

– John Potter and Neil Sorrell, A History of Singing.

Songs chronicle history, detailing the events and feelings of human life, often specific to time and place – containing its language and attitudes. These chronicles then live on, as personally held by those who know the songs. Thus, creating a network of living history, that does not exist in fossils or the study of the dead, but as a practice of the living.

Songs are history makers, capturing the story around an event and crafting it into a song, like inserting it into a time capsule. The accuracy of this may be skewed by rhyme or reason, but it will travel the distance. Current song making is chronicling the time we live in presently. A reportage in song of 2016.

The use of song in relation to history, is a kind of archeology. Calling up the past to see how it looks in the present. This process dramatises our approach to history; to dig up and chart change. Songs as pieces of history often stimulate the need for collection and preservation, folk archivist Alan Lomax collected ‘out of fear that humans creation will be wiped of the face of the earth’ (- Saga of a folksong hunter). Song as a creative act in itself, but also containing the spirit and information of creation in all trades or lifestyles. To sing an old song is an event of re-enactment, like a reconstructed battle or a restaged play. Song inherently binds history, story and memory.


Each person has an a unique voice print, as individual as a fingerprint. Nobody sounds like you do, and nobody can sing like you do. Our voice is constructed through mimicry and environment. Accent, volume, pattern, rhythm are acquired like scars, affected by where and with whom you have been. To sing in your voice, alerts to this uniqueness, it is pronounced (as long as you sing in your own voice).

But what else happens to us when we sing?

The action of singing is an aerobic exercise that uses the whole body as a sound chamber. It also animates several areas of the brain, including our motor neurons and emotional centres. Singing engages the whole body and mind in synthesis with our voice, rhythm and melody (and language if the song include words). In this way, singing is embodiment of a song. Singing physically shifts the energy of the body through distinct breathing patterns and vibrations. This synthesis of song and performer, leads to the common phrase the song sings the singer. An idea similar to possession, a kind of taking over. Chanting is a good example of how singing transforms, repeating phrases to achieve deep concentration or calm.

‘Singing monks huddled together as if for support, hardly opening their mouths’

– A History of Singing

Singing isn’t a means of projection, but an event of rendering the chant or song, becoming it, personifying it. In Indian traditional singing, such as folk singers of Rajasthan, the singers hands and arms will be very active. The shape of notes are physically drawn with the arms, and the end of a phrase is cut by the flick of a wrist. Within this tradition there is little separation between singing and moving, the song is supposed to be seen as well as heard. Singing is understood as a physical manifestation. The song transforms the body into a particular physical rhythm or melody.

In oral societies, where songs are kept in memory, the song resides in the person. Such as, traditional Finnish rune singing, the songs are up held by members of the community that commit to learning and maintaining them. The songs need to be passed on before the person dies, at risk of the song dying as well. The song and the person share life. The person is the carrier of that song, transforming them into a body as vessel, as something made for storing, a safe.

This person also becomes a particular figure within a community; the one who knows the songs. Often this leads to, or is essential to, becoming a chief of ceremony. Such as the Irish Keener, who leads the funeral party through a lament, they become emotional guide, and in this particular case a conduit between the living and the dead. This kind of role acquires status and power within a community, which can be disagreeable. For example, keening became a female practice, but the church didn’t agree that women should be conduit between this world and the next, they should not be spiritual leaders, and so banned the practice of keening leading to its extinction.

‘the mouth expands to widen its social horizon; broadening its reach’

– Brandon LaBelle, Lexicon of the mouth.

Singing makes us larger, expanding our scale. To make known and heard, puts the individual into a state of presentness and agency. A singer is transformed into an individual of social affect, as they use their voice to spread a message that can carry beyond themselves. This message may be critical, creative or inflammatory. This voice may be in chorus with others, transforming the singing into a participant who puts themselves in alliance or agreement through the act of singing.


https://vimeo.com/ondemand/32053/137835083 – Beautiful documentary on finnish rune singing in which artist, Hanneriina Moisseinen, becomes a student of an old rune singer.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2CSHeWsFyLo – example of Rajasthani folk song with hand gestures.


To listen to singing, is to sing along internally. The neurological process of listening to a song is very similar to that of actually singing. The same areas of the brain are stimulated and connected; emotional centres, motor and memory areas. Also, a series of dopamine shots are released affecting our pleasure centres. Both singing and listening, are some of the most neurologically active and stimulating activities we can do.

The listener is a loiterer in the song.

The listener tags the with emotional meaning, based on melodic and vocal cues. In the womb the first information we receive is acoustic and hormonal. We hear sounds through the womb wall, and our mothers’ hormones (effectors of human emotion) seep into our bloodstream. In this way, the listener’s ability to connect voice and emotion is instinctive, and done without conscious thought. We are our mothers music?

Listening to a song, and feeling its affects, recognises the body as porous. There is an invasive quality to song. The song finds its way into the body. Music reveals our bodies into permeable and absorbent, opposed to sealed.


Some of the ideas in this section are based on lecture ‘benefits of singing in a choir’ by professor Graham Welch > http://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/the-benefits-of-singing-in-a-choir


With thanks to Dr Una Mcllvenna for discussing with me and sharing her knowledge and expertise.

During this research time I have been running ‘Sing for your Supper’, a participatory dinner where each guests sings one song in exchange for a hot meal. See event here > http://www.hannahsullivan.co.uk/Sing-For-Your-Supper

Now, I aim to use this research as stimulus for new performance work, currently titled ‘I’ll sing from where I’m sitting’. For this piece I intend to adhere to the opinion of Sean Nos singer Joe Heaney, that ‘the real audience is around the fireplace’.