Kiai: harmonizing mind and body

East Asian martial arts have been practiced for centuries as both a method of self defense and a meditative spiritual exercise. “Kiai,” an exclamation made during or after an attack, is an important part of the execution of martial arts techniques. The kiai is explained as an outburst of inner spiritual energy, harmonizing the practitioner’s body and mind to press the attack; the practitioner focuses all their energy solely into the strike, and their exclamation has the added effect of intimidating the opponent. Additionally, the physical act of creating the diaphragm-based yell tenses up the muscles and prevents the user from becoming winded or taken by surprise by a counterattack. In this way, the use of kiai in martial arts resonates with our group’s theme of sound connecting the mind and body.

The sample I have included is a video of practitioners of kendo, a practice developed from samurai sword exercises, training. Each individual strikes the dummy opponent and emits kiai in conjunction with the hit. In this case, the syllable on which they are basing the shout is the Japanese word for “head;” in kendo, the kiai’s importance is such that in order to win a match, one must execute kiai for each hit, calling out the part of the opponent which they are striking. In this example, kiai is both a coordinated shout that strengthens and focuses the attack and a required ritual within the cultural and official context of the martial art.

Battle Cries: sound as a link between mind and body in the martial arts

Research Proposal
For centuries, the martial arts have been practiced as both a method of self-defense and a meditative exercise to strengthen one’s harmony of mind and body. One noticeable aspect of martial arts that is often imitated and parodied ad nauseum in pop culture is the kiai. “Kiai” is a Japanese term referring to vocalizations made during or after the execution of an attack in martial arts; the “Hiyah!” often heard in cheesy fighting films. The word is comprised of the characters 気 (energy, spirit) and 合 (harmonize, blend); although it is a Japanese compound, the technique itself is used in martial arts from all over the world. “Ki” (気, also known as “chi” or “qi” elsewhere) is an important concept in Asian spirituality; it is considered a special life force that comes from within one’s soul, and reflects one’s inner spirit (Nagatomo 176). Kiai is commonly explained to the martial arts student as a projection of one’s warrior spirit onto the opponent as a tool of spiritual combat. It is understood by martial artists to be primarily a metaphysical concept integral to the practice of martial arts. In short, kiai is the harmony of one’s ki energy within the self and with the opponent, executed with the aim of perfecting the timing and strength of the attack.

The specific sound of these guttural syllables vary among schools and individuals, reflecting the practitioner’s own expression of their ki. Some schools distinguish between “kakegoe,” simple shouts from the throat made with an attack, and kiai, a projection of ki energy with diaphragmatic breathing. The frequency of use of kiai varies among disciplines; it is used sparingly every 5 or so strikes in Okinawan and Japanese martial arts, much more extensively in taekwondo and is required for every cut made in kendo, Japanese fencing. Martial artist Wendell Wilson warns students that “‘the yell’ is not a trivial, expendable, slightly silly bit of melodrama; rather, it is a core concept and an essential skill to be taken very seriously and to be practiced and refined at every opportunity.” (Wilson 1)

The proper execution of kiai also serves as a physical enhancement of the attack. By expelling the air in the lungs with the diaphragm, the practitioner tenses up their abdominal muscles to guard against a counterattack and prevent the wind being knocked out of them (Villari 56). Additionally, kiai serves to intimidate an opponent, allowing the attacker to follow up and press their advantage. This intimidation connects to the spiritual concept of the use of ki; by projecting strong ki at an opponent with weaker ki, the practitioner wins the spiritual component of the physical battle.

In additional to these physical and psychological effects, the use of kiai serves as a release of aggressive energy that accumulates during intense activities. A study by researchers in England confirmed that Kung Fu practitioners experience aggressive feelings before and during sparring matches. Some utilize martial arts as an explicit way of dealing with aggression in a healthy, controlled way (Fletcher & Milton). Famous kendo master Junzō Sasamori elaborates that kiai “expresses a natural need to exert the strength he [the user] has in his body.” (Sasamori 141)

My research will examine instructional literature and scientific and psychological studies of martial arts to examine the use of kiai as a method of harmonizing the mind and body, executing an attack with the whole of the practitioner’s being. Martial arts pedagogical works, such as Wilson’s essay and Villari’s book, often focus on the spiritual and philosophical purposes of kiai, while scientific studies examine the physical mechanisms and impacts of martial arts practice. A synthesis of both types of sources is necessary confirm the role of kiai in uniting the martial artist’s metaphysical and physical energy in the execution of a proper attack.

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New study: Love of musical harmony is not nature but nurture

I feel like this article is relevant to this class:

‘Our love of music and appreciation of musical harmony is learnt and not based on natural ability – a new study by University of Melbourne researchers has found.

Associate Professor Neil McLachlan from the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences said previous theories about how we appreciate music were based on the physical properties of sound, the ear itself and an innate ability to hear harmony.

“Our study shows that musical harmony can be learnt and it is a matter of training the brain to hear the sounds,” Associate Professor McLachlan said.
 “So if you thought that the music of some exotic culture (or Jazz) sounded like the wailing of cats, it’s simply because you haven’t learnt to listen by their rules.”

“Diagnostic” Causal Listening

Michel Chion defines causal listening as “listening to a sound in order to gather information about its cause (or source).” [1] By listening to the timbres and other aspects of noises, one can learn about the source of the sound. An example I have included is some of the noise in a dining hall; one can ascertain that there are people nearby, and the sounds of plates and utensils indicate that they are eating. The sounds of the U-Heights North stairwell indicate that there are other people on the stairs, and that I was ascending rather quickly.

Many of the sounds of my daily life can be listened to with a different form of causal listening; the person responsible for the sound listens to it to learn about the source. A simple example is me walking through deep snow. The distinct noise made by my boots helps me figure out the best path to take, and whether I am walking through slush or more packed snow. In another vein, earlier in the week I was sick. By listening to the timbre and pitch of my cough, I can figure out information about the amount and location of phlegm in my system.

A huge part of my life at UVM is my involvement in the pep band. I play the baritone saxophone in the band several times a week at basketball and hockey games. I have included a clip of some of the band members (including me) tuning before the game. In tuning, musicians listen to the comparative pitch of their instruments to learn what adjustments need to be made to be in sync with one another and ready to perform for an audience.

One cheer for which the pep band is famous (perhaps even infamous) is the “Cowbell Cheer,” in which all band members except the drummer take up cowbells and play and dance to an infectious rhythm. This past saturday, the children from Edmunds Elementary School came to a women’s hockey game, and we gave them cowbells and let them play the cowbell cheer with us. The children did their best to listen to the beat of the drums and stay rhythmically accurate, comparing the sounds their cowbells were making to the rhythm of the drums.

As a music student, I spend countless hours of my week in a practice room. For my lessons, I am currently working on several etudes, pieces written to sound pleasing and also improve musicianship of the player. Practicing is an excellent example of sounds to which a sort of “diagnostic causal listening” can be applied.

In the relatively short time I have between classes, I always make tea to both calm me down and provide some extra caffeine stimulation to get me through the day. Boiling water is, of course, essential to making tea, and the sound of the water coming to a boil is calming in its own right. Additionally, I can tell by the sound the water is making whether it has come to a rolling boil and is ready to use for tea.

I play the clarinet in the Vermont Wind Ensemble, a group composed of adult community members and some advanced UVM music students. We rehearse on thursday nights, and the fifteen or so minutes before rehearsal actually starts, one can hear dozens of talented musicians warming up on everything from scales to famous solo pieces. Like tuning, warming up is an exercise musicians use to prepare to practice and perform, and a way for them to gauge the response of their instrument under the current circumstances.

My roommate is a singer-songwriter, and his guitar playing and singing can be heard in the background of many of the things I do while in my room. The clip I have included is of him experimenting with a new song he is writing and figuring out which chords to include in what order and what is the most pleasing combination of sounds. While it is nice that I am in the room and get to hear him play, in this case he is not playing for me or any audience.

I approach all of these sounds causally to determine attributes of the source; for many of them, I am the source, and listen to the sounds for my own practical benefit. This type of causal listening is an integral part of my daily life as a musician and a student.

[1] Michel Chion, “The Three Listening Modes.” The Sound Studies Reader. Comp. Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012


A sonic pallet of slavery and freedom

“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” is a poignant memoir that uses potent auditory imagery in its sensory depiction of the former slave’s life in bondage.
Throughout a film adaptation, the soundtrack would be sparse, mostly made up of ambient noise and dialogue. Douglass’s childhood on the plantation is marked by the sounds of field labor, the swearing of the overseers and the crack of the whip as it strikes. There is not much in the way of conversation, as there is very little leisure time to be had. In contrast, the Baltimore soundscape is lush and urban, with voices ringing out from every direction. It is here that we will hear how Douglass learns to read, and the singing of the hypocritical hymns of the slaveholders. This music will dominate this chapter of Douglass’s life.

A scene of the woods on the way to the Old House Farm is emphasized. A chorus of slave voices singing different raucous tunes would burst onto the soundscape. Although the songs are lively, they have mournful undertones, and the voices singing them are hoarse and strained. Douglass writes “I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do . . . Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.” (Douglass 8)
Douglass’s last confrontation with Mr. Covey, the furious brawl, is backed by no music; only the grunts and noises of the struggles of both men are audible. The intense, matter-of-fact way the scene is portrayed in the book would best be preserved with this treatment.

Another poignant scene is one depicting the fate of Douglass’s grandmother. Following the deaths of her masters and the sale of her family, she is sent to live utterly alone in the woods. Of this Douglass writes “Instead of the voices of her children, she hears by day the moans of the dove, and by night the screams of the hideous owl.” (Douglass 29) The soundtrack to this descriptive scene would consist of these mournful bird cries and the grandmother’s quiet prayers, both fading in volume as she is left to die in isolation.

In the “quiet” New Bedford shipyards where Douglass works upon achieving freedom, there is a voiceless hubbub of activity; tools on wood, gulls and the wind. Despite this din, it is not as loud (nor the same kind of “loud”) as the slave-manned shipyard, and in an internal monologue Douglass would note the uncomfortable difference. During Douglass’s time working under Mr. Gardner, there are constant calls for his assistance interspersed with the clamor of work, the songs of laborers and the whipcrack; in New Bedford, the workers seem almost noiseless in comparison.

As Frederick Douglass’s narrative progresses towards the end of his memoir, the soundtrack reflects his freedom and change of environment, perhaps including voice-over speech recounting the closing lines.