The Aural Tradition Alchemy and Sound in Psychotherapy
by Joel Bell

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wakes us, and we drown.

— T.S. Eliot

music alchemy soundThe practice of psychotherapy presents a rich context for exploring the experience of sound from the perspective of alchemy. My own interest in this topic stems from my first career as a record producer and musician. I chose psychotherapy as a mid-life path because it was the closest I could approximate of my experience as a musician where I got to be an inspired listener. As a counselor or a musician (or a maieutic philosopher), that’s what we do: show up and listen. Call it the midwifery of articulating what is either present or latent in the room, in others, or in the material at hand. This listening instinct is always to move toward connection and to host the invisibles and insensibles—the deeper aspects of living for which psychotherapy is designed.

It is simple enough to point out that the major sense to which the alchemical tradition appeals is sight. The ocular bias of alchemy can be attributed in part to the symbolic language of dreams and projections that are at the heart of the alchemical adventure. I haven’t come across the smell or taste of the roasting salamander (though I am sure it tastes like chicken.) As well, the written word, etchings, and prints like the muter librus are mute and emphasize sight as the psychological sense for gathering experience; we study the visual image. But what if we consider sound? Since alchemy starts with a symbolic attitude toward all experience, let us proceed from the perspective that sound is an aspect of image, as well.

The absence of sound in psychology is a curious thing. Viet Erlmann (2008) echoes this point in his anthropology of sound, stating that, “questioning Western monopolies over knowledge and representation appears to have generated only more texts and more images” (p. 4).) As psychotherapists, I believe there is an invitation to re-vision listening, this other, most necessary sense in our work. We listen to people talk, just as much as we watch their bodies, or as we feel the weight of the air in the room in a shared, silent reverie with a client. I have several clients, for instance, who prefer to have the windows of my office open slightly because they find the sound of the traffic noise to be a comfort. The thrum of the city street serves as a kind of comfort to them, a ballast, as they experience territory that seems unreal to them. The traffic noise is an umbilical to the familiar.

Barbara Holifield (2010) reflects on a similar instinct, to include the sound of the world in the work of psychotherapy. She writes:

As I have entered a life within the confines of a consulting room, I have grown keen on listening for the natural world waxing in my patients’ consciousness and mine. Jung’s emphasis on the objective psyche, what I see as not a thing, but as the natural process that moves through us, much like the rhythms and cycles of the living wild world, was a good fit for my sensibilities. I understand the remarkable sense of substance and soul affected in me by the natural world. (p. 21)

I wonder if the sound of city life outside the window is a soothing image that compensates for the client’s experience of The Real going on in my office? The Real is what Jacques Lacan (1991) names all of that which is not symbolized by our minds, much like the territory of dragons in ancient maps—what depth psychology would name the unconscious. Like a dream, the alchemical perspective has the uncanny ability to both open up and to suspend our sense of knowing exactly what is happening to us and our immediate world. For my clients on such an adventure, the white noise outside the windows of my office softens the blackness of massa confusa going on in the room. But also, I experience how the meaning of the noise changes as my clients move through different experiences in psychotherapy, quite similar to different alchemical operations. Some of the examples I provide here are from my practice; some are imaginal and gathered by inference.

James Hillman’s (2003) words are helpful here. Instead of a metaphysics, alchemy offers an appreciation and an approach to the minutiae of what is happening in the treatment room during therapy. He writes,

Alchemy’s maxims and curious images are useful, less because alchemy is a grand narrative composed by many hands depicting one theme — individuation’s stages in the conjunction of opposites — but rather because alchemy’s myriad, cryptic, arcane, paradoxical, and mainly conflicting texts reveal the psyche phenomenally; and so alchemy needs to be encountered with the least possible intrusion of metaphysics. (p. 103)

To make this inquiry I start with the alchemical rule of The Emerald Tablet, (Jung, 1967): “What is below is like that which is above.” In this case, I listened from the perspective of that which is outside is like that which is inside. The quality of the city noise operates in a correspondence with the state or operation of the relationship in the room. To further borrow from Jung (1954), I imagine the Marriage Quaternio, the familiar diagram of the analytic encounter where the bottom line shows the unconscious of the client and the therapist connecting. In this iteration, however, I substitute the sound of the noise from the street for the unconscious and include the sound of our work as well as part of my listening:JoelBell-diagram-alchemy-quaterno2 (002)

B. on this warm day in Seattle, says he likes the windows open and hearing the city noise outside. He brings a dream into the room:

I am outside a large building, like a hotel, and I see a beautiful tree and I climb it only to realize it is not the tree I intended to climb. It is very windy. I am so high up and afraid that I am going to fall. There are EMT guys in the distance but I can’t get their attention.

B. strikes me as a dismayed mystic, trying to make sense of the culture around him as though he had emerged from an earlier and quieter century. He cannot find his place in the world. The abrasions of city life are experienced as personal impingements on his transcendental soul. I become conscious of the traffic noise as he tells me this dream, which poetically underscores how the wind sounds in this sublimatio dream. We are in the dream. What does the noise say about the dream? The sound of the wind might be an alarm, as though I were the last witness of this guy before he crashes from his great height—I do not want to consider what “accident” he might have, what sort of fate might show up as he attempts to navigate his way. I become aware how vested I am in his journey. In this moment I have to sort out if I am hearing a haunted wind from high in the trees or the sound of B. himself as he disappears into a dissociative haze.

Edward Edinger, (1994) frames the sublimatio structure well: “The ability of the psyche to dissociate is the both the source of ego-consciousness and the cause of mental illness” (p. 126). In this moment with B., out on the branch of this tree, I am relieved to see the EMTs as well. It means to me that he is not so celestial, so achingly high that his ego structure is just too porous to hold onto to both himself and the world around him. Rather, he is still in the world and its ways and can imagine people being able to assist him. As I listen, I think the EMTs are too far away—but that is my heart, my attachment, and not necessarily helpful to B. The dream suggests that though he is vulnerable, outside of the familiar structure of the life he has known, here he sits able to tolerate our connection. The sound of the traffic outside places us both in his dream high above the world as a sublimating wind but also as a glue in the confounding world where he is dismayed and buffeted about by city life.

In a portion of their published dialogue, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse (1992), James Hillman and Michael Ventura are in Michael’s apartment talking. Their conversation becomes a meditation on the ways in which culture and the individual have each failed the other. I think of this because I hear this as a part of B.’s dilemma. In their conversation, the same alchemical dynamic as my session with B. is emphasized. The sound of the world outside comes into focus:

A pall rises in the room. There’s total silence except for the noise outside. It’s extraordinary how all the traffic, brake squeals, honking, and sirens, fragments of human voices drift up eight stories through a closed window. (We) can’t make out the words, but (we) can still hear the voices. And the snug, orderly colorful apartment seems to hover above it all like a dirigible. (p. 168)

Is there a more sublimating image than a lighter-than-air dirigible above the sound of the distant din of city life? Imagine, then—from the image above—if one were to listen to the city sound outside the window of my office becoming more distinct and articulated. Would that be an image of a coagulatio at work? I hear it as a descent from the dissociative heights and into an embodied engagement in the world. The wash of the city noise becomes distinct, separated out, and one is in the world differently at that point. Such has been the case with B.. He recently requested that I listen to a certain Bach sonata because there was something he wanted to ask me about it. We haven’t had the opportunity yet, but apart from his gradual shift toward trust in our relationship, I hear in him a process of trying to hold on to the transpersonal self as he descends into the more mundane soup of regular life and its impingements. Asking me to listen to Bach—making any overt request at all—is a remarkable step for him. As he comes together, condenses, he is guarding against the spiritual losses he feels this world requires. And he is comforted by a sonata instead of by noise.

Words Like Knives

When we consider how dream images convey the life of the autonomous psyche, I believe we have to include sound. I often hear things in my dreams—sometimes music I could never intentionally create (nor remember upon awakening). But most often the sound is a human voice and my attention, both my dream-ego and then later in my own amplification of the images, I always move to the meaning of the words. The sound of the voice gets lost to my ears. Dealing with sound from an alchemical perspective, especially the sound of the human voice, underscores alchemy itself: The difference between material sound (the matter of acoustics), and meaning (the psychological life of symbolic representation). To which aspect do we pay attention? How do we make distinctions without losing the mysterious whole? Ibn Umail (2006) writes, “By cooking the elements in the retort they begin to speak out [emphasis added] what they really are, namely the manifestations of God’s creative power” (p. 109).). So if the frame of psychotherapy is likened to the alchemical vas, then what is happening in the treatment, in the amplification of a dream, for example, is a loosening of the literal and automatic moves of regular consciousness that prefers words-as-symbols and hosts instead the less-common aspects of sound and image. The alchemical perspective recognizes that while there is a human voice in my dream, how quickly I am already on to what it is saying—the meaning—before I can even hold my attention to the quality and music of the speaker’s utterance. How quickly ego-consciousness shuns The Real.

This distinction between the sound of a voice and the meaning of the words is embodied in a different client, V., where her borderline condition responds to my presence with acute somatic pain. A small silence is met with panic and it seems my speech is like a dagger to the joints of her shoulder or knee. The angst she experiences in a moment of quiet is just as intolerable to her as when I reflect (I was just about to write “surgically.” Maybe my words are knives!) any shared reality with her. At the sound of my voice she winces with pain and grabs her arm and the effect of this reaction is to destroy any meaning of the words—the symbolic—contained in my response. On one level it is the sound of my voice that is experienced as annihilation. On another level it is also the symbol of my voice, the fear of what I may be saying, that is being destroyed. V. experiences concretely in her body what for most us is usually symbolic and contained in the mind. Meanings are made somatic, symptoms expressed as an attack that she feels at the level of her skin. V.’s unquiet mind cannot soothe her, nor can she tolerate relatedness with me—so the only tool is her body. Her body is doing the work of her mind.

Consider how much the sound of a human voice, or even the indistinct voices heard from the dirigible earlier, must be one of the most archetypal experiences we can have (and this is not even to take up the matter of language.) If I were lost in a psychological wasteland such as that of my client, the sound of a voice would draw me helplessly toward it, no matter what. And like a primitive animal, I would likely shy away in alarm at the sound of someone talking. My client does both. She shows up for sessions only to kill off connection as best she can.
When she can manage to bear the sound of my voice she grows slightly more tolerant of her experience, but it is a kind of hell because in the same moment she also experiences the constraints of her unsoothing mind.

There are two different sounds of an alchemical operation at play here. One, there is the alchemical operation of a coagulatio at work where V. experiences a kind of bondage which “Confines individuals to their actual reality, the portion they were given by destiny” (Edinger, 1994, p. 101). I would emphasize that it is just the sound to which I refer. I am unclear if the meaning of the words has any relevance at all. I am conscious that sometimes, there is a concordant transference (Jacoby, 1984) present where my own voice sounds different to my ears, as though the room has shrunk and the sound reflections are small and dry—like sound under a microscope. I sound like what I imagine her harsh father-imago to be. As we enact this coagulatio operation and the relationship moves forward, her archetypal contents are slowly being organized differently. So too, I recognize my own voice in the room again separated out as myself. Because the fact of me addresses the fact of her, the sound of my voice functions as a mortificatio—literally a death where the effect is to alter her isolated and suffering position. As her imago-father changes, the imago-therapist (and the sound of his voice) changes as well. All changes are a terrifying loss for her.

No One Knows What to Do with Love

I have not had an exchange with B. about the music of Bach because he has taken a break from our work. I stand at the window of my office listening to the city noise and imagine that there is enough of him gathered to try on his adventure on his own — as it should be. The sound of the city is now a separatio and it is an alchemical operation at play in me: one of the sounds outside my window is B. getting on with it. J. H. Van de berg (1972) writes,

As soon as I ask myself, by introspection, how I feel, Instead of a more refined, I get a less distinct realization of my loneliness. Worse: if I try, by introspection, that is, by leaving out everything that is outside myself to investigate my feelings, I don’t know what to do…Every effort, purely by myself, to summon my loneliness results in the realization of what is there: my room, the fire, the bottle and, within all this, my absent friend. (p. 35)

The noise is holding my projection, is giving back to me my alienation and relative position. If I were concerned that B.’s absence were due to some ineffective psychotherapy, then I might well be hearing the sound of a calcinatio of my own, where my vanity—and my identity with it—is sizzling away: the traffic noise is a burning shame. It would be easier, in fact, if I could point to an error on my part, some statement I made that caused a rupture that we could not metabolize. But as it is, I believe I am listening to the sound of love in all its complexity.

The counselor at the window, listening to the city noise, evokes one of the few stories of sound I have come across in our work. Late his life, Jung took a meeting with Margaret Tilly (1900-1969), a music therapist with whom he was impressed. She played the piano for Jung to demonstrate her technique and he was greatly moved. He declared,

I feel that from now on music should be a part of every analysis. This reaches the deep archetypal material that we can only sometimes reach in our analytic work with patients. This is most remarkable” (Jung, 1977, p. 275)

In Marie-Louise Von Franz’s commentary on the Corpus Alchemicum Arabicum (2006), she takes up the thread of Eros in alchemy and relates the dream of a woman who hears “The mighty sound of a bronze clock … a sound from the beyond, of exceptional beauty, irresistible!” (p. 47). In this dream, the holy sound draws her into a church where “Everything changed.” She comes to realize she is standing in her own heart: “And I realized that this magnificent sound which I still heard was the beating of my own heart.”

I am not sure which operation applies here, but it is a fine example of sound as an image reflecting transformation. The sound of a church bell transforming into a heartbeat is an evocative image. “In some ways love always leads to a crucifixion,” writes Von Franz (2006). “(It is) the death of the natural human being, i.e. the unconscious man” (p. 47). The therapist at his window is drawn into his loneliness, for example, through love for his client, aware that something wants to be made conscious. In one position, when we’re in session, the city noise is a container; we’re together and the work is being done. But now the same sound is barrier, a wall, and some new corner of love and loss is being experienced. The therapist’s condition, stirred up by the erotic activity of living, has followed his own heart into this church.




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Hillman, J. (2003). A note to Stanton Marlon. The Journal of Jungian Theory and Practice, 5(2), 1010-1014.

Holifield, B. (2010). Who sees the lake? Narcissism and our relationship to the naturalworld. Jung Journal: Culture & Psyche, 4(1), 19-31. Retrieved from

Ibn Umail, M. (2006). Corpus alchemicum arabicum [Book of the explanation of symbols]. Zurich, Switzerland: Living Human Heritage Publications.

Jung C. G. (1954). The psychology of transference. In R. F. C . Hull (trans.), The Practice of Psychotherapy, The Collected Works of C. G. Jung (Vol. 16). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1946

Jung, C. G. (1967). VII sermones ad mortuos: The seven sermons to the dead written by Basilides in Alexandria, the city where East toucheth the West (New ed.). London: Stuart & Watkins.

Jung, C. G. (1977). C. G. Jung speaking. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Jacoby, M. (1984). The analytic encounter. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books.
Lacan, J. (1991). Freud’s papers on technique, 1953-1954. New York: W.W. Norton.

Mogenson, G. (1992). Greeting the angels. Amityville, NY: Baywood
Van Den Berg, J. H. (1972). A different existence. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University



Joel Bell, Ph.D, LMHC, currently practices depth psychotherapy in Seattle and teaches at Antioch University. Once he’s done with his spy novel he will get back to work on his research concerning sound in psychotherapy, the seeds of which are explored in his dissertation, “Lashed to the mast: the search for the aural tradition in Analytic Psychology”(2012).



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