The Power of a Nigun (Wordless Melody)
By Dan Yolles
Sometimes when I am in a space or a moment of transition, I sing/play a niggun. I find it to be medicinal and an important practice in my life that has helped me in so many ways. While I have had numerous spiritual and even out of body experiences engaging with nigunim, I would like to share with you one particular time that nigunim was a powerful tool to pass through a time of waiting with ease- waiting for an at-home COVID test result.
A while back, I gathered with a few other Rabbinical students over the OHALAH Shabbaton weekend which is a gathering of Rabbis Cantors and students of Renewal Judaism, as well as the Smicha (Ordination) ceremony of the year’s new clergy. It was held virtually but a few of us gathered together to share prayer space and to witness our beloved Rabbi Kolby Morris-Dahary become a Rabbi. We had tested multiple times before coming together. We tested again together before attending Kolby’s smicha later that day. In that waiting time of 10-15 minutes, I felt compelled to bring out my guitar and share a nigun to pass the time in a peaceful way. We all sang the nigun you can hear in the video above.
What happened next was actually quite magical. I closed my eyes, started the nigun slowly, voices around me began to trickle in, and the anticipation, the nerves, the stressful feelings of praying that our results were negative began to wash away. Together as a group, as we built volume, speed and layers of energy on top of the nigun we were transported to a place of connecting with one another, connection within, and into a journey of bliss and song. We were swaying our bodies, our minds were focused on the melody, moments of musical harmonization created a field around us. It was as if I could see the colors of everyone’s voice and body movements, blending together making a pallet of rainbow colors, waves, and patterns. After the music peaked, I began to softly slow the pace, ease the volume, and settled into the pillow of light we created together. We faded out on the last note, held a moment of silence and reintegration, and the first timer went off, declaring it was time to check our results. Thankfully we were all negative! It was a relief, and instead of waiting for those results with our nerves taking control, we opened space for our souls to connect to the Divine energy that music seems to translate and make accessible to us.
So whether it is a nigun you’ve heard before, an improvised melody that comes to you in a moment, or a favorite song by a favorite artist, music can be an important source of easing worry or pain, getting through a dreadful waiting period, a way to refocus the mind on a task at hand, or a vessel to clear the mind into nothingness, or take you on a visualized journey. For some we can get these same experiences with the sounds of our environment and nature around us. I invite you to explore sound, explore music that brings you comfort, or excites you, whatever the feeling, but make it intentional, not just background music. Maybe create a playlist for when you are in a moment of transition, what would you have on that playlist?
A little bit more about the Nigunim:
The Nigun in the video is called Nigun Slili or the Spiral Melody. The name of it describes one of the main feelings we get from a nigun. It is not just a static repetition of a melody that only goes in a circular way, rather it takes the shape of an ascending spiral, that elevates the soul and is never quite the same with each pass through it. May this nigun inspire you to find that sound, that song, that melody that can bring you healing, connection, and wholeness.
Music is one of the most powerful tools for human expression with seemingly uncountable ways of connecting to it. It is all around us and serves infinite purposes. Music is in the restaurant aimed to set the mood for its patrons, it is in lobbies, elevators, and stores, creating a unifying atmospheric pulse. It is in your car as you drive, on your stereo as you work, play, or clean in your home, it is in your headphones or earbuds as you workout, commute, read or study, it is in your mind while you think, your limbs as you dance or create it, your heart as you reflect and connect with emotions. It is in the wind, the birds, the trees, the water, the voices of life. It is in the car motor, the distant highway, the train whistle, and human activity. It brings people together, forms a language of understanding and deep connection, creates a unified field of energy, brings us inward, brings us out, and triggers memories of amazing times and hard times. Music is even in the silence. In a sense, life is an ever unfolding compilation of music, curated playlists interacting with us at almost any given moment.
A nigun (nee-goon) is the Hebrew term for a wordless melody, often improvised and sung or played in moments of gathering. They are usually accompanied by singing ‘Yai lai lai’ or ‘bum bidi bum,’ or any variation of vocal sound that is universal in itself as usually no words are used. Anyone from anywhere could theoretically engage in a nigun, but this word and the tradition surrounding nigunim (plural) has Jewish roots and is a strong part of our tradition from being used for informal gatherings like Shabbat dinner or other meals, friends coming together, and before/for moments of prayer during services, weddings, Be Mitzvahs, you name it and there can be an opportunity to engage in a nigun! Sometimes they are only vocal, some are accompanied by instruments. The goals of nigunim are to awaken and excite the soul, prepare us for a certain moment, connect people coming from different walks of life so that they can increase the feeling of oneness, and personal/communal meditation. Nigunim have their roots in the Hasidic Jewish movement in the 1700’s and have been a part of Jewish culture ever since, evolving with the times, gaining influence from other styles of music and surrounding cultures.
Personally I have found learning, playing, singing, and writing nigunim has been a staple part of my connection to Judaism. I am inspired by artists such as Joey Weisenberg, Rabbi Yosef Goldman, Yoel Sykes and many more who have created niggunim that touch my soul and either elevates or comforts me.
Open Tent Be Mitzvah Educator and Rabbinic Intern