How Sound Affects You: Tibetan Bowls

Continuing our series of sound as a healing tool, Lynda Arnold turns her attention to an ancient instrument used for well-being and meditation: Tibetan bowls.  

In my continuing study and practice of the sound healing arts, I have come across a myriad of instruments used in therapy and music meditation sessions. Many instruments date back thousands of years and offer insight into how music was used to heal and inspire before the dawn of the Western (European) Classical Music. Studying sound healing instruments is a direct link to understanding different cultures around the world and how we are all connected by sound. Tibetan Bowls are one of my favorite ancient instrument discoveries. In this article, I will explain how the bowls are used as an ancient sound healing tool and also some insight into the making and music frequency theory behind them. 

Large Tibetan Bowl.

Large Tibetan Bowl.

What Are Tibetan Bowls?

The making of Tibetan bowls has been handed down over generations starting at the dawn of Buddhism in India, Nepal and Tibet through verbal teaching within the family clans and monks who made them. There are modern, factory bowls made today that look and sound pretty and are great for personal use in playing, meditation, yoga sessions or decoration. The bowls that I've been studying and own are handmade, healing grade bowls that are a little harder and more expensive to come by. According to my teacher and Tibetan bowl healer, Suren Shrestha, there are only a few clans left who make them and it is quite a process.

Tibetan Bowls vary in size from as small of 3 inches in diameter up to a foot or more and are made of a special seven metal alloy combination of gold, silver, iron, mercury, tin, copper, and lead. The metals are not in equal amounts. There is very little gold for example, but plenty of iron and copper. The combinations vary from bowl to bowl in the hand-made variety. The metals are melted and combined then two people hold the metal while a third person hammers the shape of the bowl all the while chanting and infusing prayers into the metal as it is being formed. The bowl makers are also trained to hear the frequency of the bowl and know when it is finished. Every bowl has a 'note'. Keep in mind that the notes are not exact in terms of our equal tempered tuning, A=440 Hz. In my set of 7 bowls, only a couple of them are in tune in reference to our western system, but what is more fascinating is the frequencies of the bowls are similar from set to set. I compared my set to the set of a colleague with a tuner, and we determined that even though her 'F' Bowl was a different size, the frequencies of them were the same. The trained bowl maker is able to create pitched bowls based on the seven frequencies, roughly C through B, just by listening, no tuner needed! The most important aspects of the bowls powerful sound are the harmonics and overtones created when they are struck. 

Playing the Tibetan Bowl

I created a short video to show you how to play a Tibetan Bowl. The first way is to rub the edge of the bowl very slowly with the wooden mallet, which is covered with leather, all the way around or back and forth to create a continuous pulsing drone. I demonstrate how to do this with my B Bowl (which is actually closer to a B flat). Notice when I stop rubbing, you hear pleasant ringing filled with wonderful overtones that gradually fades away. The other way to play the bowl is to strike it with a more padded mallet in a slightly upwards motion near the top edge of the bowl. This is also a wonderful and more direct way to play the bowl, especially during healing sessions.

Surround Sound Healing with Tibetan Bowls

Healing Tibetan Bowl Set-up.

Healing Tibetan Bowl Set-up.

In the picture above, you can see how I learned to set up the large bowls for a surround sound music meditation/healing session. The bowls surround the body with the B bowl at the crown of the head and the F Bowl at the root between the legs. Each bowl represents one of our energy centers, or chakras, and is placed accordingly. The bowls are arranged diagonally based on the circle of fifths. This is the preferred Tibetan way of arranging the bowls, although other healers will often arrange them in order from C (root) to the B (crown). There are different systems and all are valid. The fifth interval is very important in sound healing and is used to balance the nervous system. When the bowls are played in combinations of fifths going up and down the body, you not only receive all the benefits of balancing the nervous system but also all the rich harmonics and overtones the bowls make as well. It is truly a cosmic sound that quiets and focuses the mind, allowing clutter to wash away and a feeling of deep peace to enter. The bowls can also be placed and played on the body, often up and down the back. The preferred way to introduce the sound, though, is by playing them as you see pictured and allow the sound to travel back and forth along the body. This is just as powerful because the sound is permeating the subtle bodies, or energy field layers outside our body as well as positively affecting the cells and organs of our physical body. 

More of My Projects with Tibetan Bowls

I've started to use the bowls more and more in my music production work, especially on meditation tracks. Last year, I went into the studio with my friend and talented artist, Artemis, and recorded a 40-minute meditative performance with our 14 large bowls and 7 small bowls. You can hear an excerpt of this performance on my SoundCloud page and download it if you like. You'll get a sense of the variety of pitches our bowls make and you'll also hear the Tingsha, which are small metal cymbals, used in meditation and the Tibetan Bowl healing sessions.

My other collaboration is a yoga class with Shauna DeGuire that combines movement and sound into one session. I use the Tibetan bowls and a variety of other sound healing instruments like chimes, tingsha, bansuri, shruti box, frame drum and tuning forks during the class. 

In this demo video below, you'll see how we combine the sounds and movements together. The pitches of different bowls correspond to the 7 energy centers of the body. An appropriate posture is paired to compliment the pitch of the bowl, for example, F for Root Chakra poses and D for Heart Chakra poses.

Next time you are in a Tibetan shop or stumbled across an exotic instrument store and spot a bowl, pick it up and give it a try.  You can also Google 'Tibetan Bowls' and find a variety of sites that sell them and also offer sound samples of the bowls.

Lynda Arnold is a singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist (voice, flute, piano, and guitar), and electronic musician/sound artist who has been producing, performing, and developing her own sound for over 12 years as ‘Divasonic;’ an ethereal, song driven electronic music project with multiple album and single releases on labels EMI... Read More


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