For ah! we know not what each other says,
These things and I; in sound I speak—
Their sound is but their stir, they speak by silences.
Any vibrating object—a wooden reed, a string, a cymbal, a bell—produces sound waves. These waves are capable of causing a second object in close proximity to sound as well, even though the second object is not set in motion directly by physical means. This phenomenon is called sympathetic resonance.
Sympathetic resonance can be demonstrated in the laboratory with a set of tuning forks placed next to one another. It can also be observed in a musical instrument such as the piano, where one pulsating string will induce another string to sound, usually an octave apart. The second string is said to resonate sympathetically with the first. The simultaneous sounds of these two strings blend together, filling the air with a harmonic chord. That, in part, is how music is made.
Vibrating objects with musical tonality are not the only things that resonate. Words are capable of doing the same thing, albeit in a different way. A particular piece of writing might resonate with the deepest recesses of our inner being. In reading the written text, we connect with the author’s thoughts in a way that we understand intuitively and experience emotionally.
Sometimes this experiential sharing takes place in conversation. In the 1960s the common vernacular described such harmonious connections as “good vibes.” The Beach Boys popularized this concept in their hit song “Good Vibrations.” Contrariwise, if someone repulsed you, you said that they sent out “bad vibes.”
Researchers have found that music can be therapeutic. Through a piece of well tempered music, an empathetic musician can connect with a terminally ill patient and help to quiet inherent fears in those final days and hours. In these instances, you might say that the soul of the patient resonates sympathetically with that of the music. Perhaps one day we might be able to ameliorate certain illnesses through sympathetic resonance.
Recently, I experienced sympathetic resonance while listening to the performance of a violin soloist.
Members of the audience shifted in their seats as a young girl rose and walked to her station next to the piano. She was dressed in a pink turtleneck top, light brown corduroy trousers and insignia orange tennis shoes. The sleeves of her sweater stretched to the middle of her palms, exposing only lithe delicate fingers, the hands of a child.
She tucked her instrument under her chin and drew the bow across a single string. The pianist struck a single note, and the girl adjusted the thumb screw slightly until the two notes blended into one.
I watched the pianist’s face: a slight shift of the eyes, a barely perceptible nod of the head. As the girl began to play, the first notes swelled in the stillness: rich tonal sounds reverberating through the belly of the wooden instrument.
The melody was a familiar one: Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. The girl played it through twice, pouring all of the emotion into the notes, blending both with the accompanying chords of the piano.
Throughout the performance the girl kept her eyes focused on the music stand before her as she deftly drew the bow across the strings, her delicate fingers dancing on the narrow neck of the violin.
Suddenly the end came: the final measure drew to a close; the last note lingered in the still air, then faded into oblivion.
The girl’s mother nodded; I could see that she was pleased. Quietly, the girl took her seat.
All rose in silence, listening to the lingering grace.